TRAVEL writer Bill Bryson has walked into a controversy by accusing the National Trust of fleecing visitors to the stone circle at Avebury.

In his new book, The Road To Little Dribbling, Mr Bryson claimed he spent £32 on parking, a guide book and a visit to the manor house.

But the National Trust has been quick to point out that for those who arrive by bike or on foot a visit to Europe's biggest Neolithic stone circle is free 24 hours a day and people can wander at will and touch the stones.

It also compares very favourably with prices at Stonehenge where it costs up to £41.60 for a family of two adults and three children. The adult fee with gift aid is £16. For these prices visitors must book in advance and are kept to a walkway a number of yards away from the stones and the site is only open from 9.30am to 5pm.

But Mr Bryson, 63, moaned Avebury lacked interpretation signs and to find his way around he had to buy a guide.

He was also not impressed with the Grade I listed manor house which he wrote was more like a film set for BBC documentary series called To The Manor Reborn which featured the restoration of the house which was once owned by archaeologist Alexander Keiller.

Mr Bryson wrote: "I was particularly keen to see the manor house as I assumed it would be filled with Keiller's personal curios and archaeological treasures.

"But no. In what must be the cheesiest thing the National Trust has ever done, it had allowed the house to be made into a set for a now-forgotten BBC television series."

The author, who is also a commissioner for English Heritage, wrote: "The size and complexity of Avebury and the fact that a village stands in its midst make it awfully hard to get your bearings, and the National Trust does precious little to help."

The National Trust has hit back, saying he was wrong about visitors being fleeced and that free maps were available.

Jan Tomlin, general manager of Avebury, said she was justifiably proud of the manor.

She said: 'It's a million miles from a film set. The interiors celebrate the best of traditional craftsmanship, with cabinet-making, weaving and painting all done by hand, including the unique and fabulous hand-painted wallpaper in the dining room.

"People tell us that they have an overwhelming positive experience in the manor.

"Bill Bryson also says he felt the stone circle was awesome and entrancing and we've made sure that the stones at this ancient site are allowed to speak for themselves, without signage or interpretation coming between the person and the place.

"Visitors can walk up to touch each stone, and this is at the heart of any visit to Avebury.

"Indeed, people often tell us how special this is to them."

Parish councillor David Brotheridge said he thought the parking charge levied by the National Trust was high but felt free parking would cause a problem of attracting too many vehicles.

Parking costs £7 per day during the summer and £3 from November to March but is free to NT members.