Having been much inspired by my walk along the South Dorset Ridgeway the other week, I decide to try a trek the other side of Hardy’s Monument. It’s a seven miles hike which, in truth, comprises two more miles than I’d like – it’s the old persons’ keep-fit class tomorrow and I’d prefer to be in with a chance. The new walk is an AA route march which includes the Valley of the Stones.
I’ve prepared really well. For a start, I deferred the walk from yesterday to a time when the sun is supposed to shine. I’ve pored over my OS map with a view to finding how I might lose a couple of miles without losing any of the stones and I think I’ve cracked it. I only have a single glass of the red stuff on Friday and none yesterday so I can be super-fit. What’s taken the most time is folding up the OS map in the opposite way to which the creases naturally sit: it takes ages and the result is an unpleasant bulky mess and, frankly, the ruination of what was, half an hour ago, a pristine representation of half the county. Not to worry. I have a brand spanking new rucksack purchased in the sales and all the usual paraphernalia. Lovely.
It’s minus 3C when I leave home but the day has gained four degrees by the time I reach my starting point. The lane that wanders somewhat torturously away from the randomly placed McDonalds above Martinstown and up to Hardy’s Monument is still icy in patches. It has yet to benefit from the sun which, in truth, is struggling to make headway in the morning mist. Still, it means the ground will be hard rather than muddy. Coat on, rucksack on and where’s the map? Both of them, stuffed into their plastic folder are where I left them. On the settee indoors. Now that my son has pushed me screaming into the 21st century with a smart phone, I consider looking on it for a substitute. But I’m in the ancient past and there is, of course, no signal.
I know I’ll never remember the original route, let alone the shortening adjustment I was going to take – it was simply too complex. All those lost stones: the Hellstone, the Grey Mare and her Colts, Hampton stone circle, Kingston Russell stone circle, all gone in careless haste to get outside and ‘in the open air’. Disconsolately, I tramp up a slope so steep that the sharpness of the incline, combined with the bloody freezing ‘open air’, finds me gasping for breath less than ten minutes into the walk. I consider giving it all up as a bad idea and going home to redecorate the conservatory (another already out-of-hand idea born of the simple plan to invest in new blinds. Bloody, bloody plans). Still, the morning is too lovely to waste on washing plastic and pretending I know how to fill cracks in walls.
Further, on reaching and passing the strikingly unattractive monument, I find three of those pictorial boards that tell you what you’re looking at. The one that draws me in is the one about the Valley of the Stones and names all my missing ports of call plus a few more. The area is, I am usefully informed, home to one of the largest number of circles, dolmens and long barrows in the UK and thus comprises a most significant archaeological centre. I’m advised to look all around for any amount of important stones that have been lying around for eons. There’s even a sort of footpath marked in blue spots. It’s not the best rendition of a footpath but, nonetheless, the Valley of the Stones being where it’s all happening (or where it all happened), I head off downhill. Quite a long way downhill actually. My head’s spinning like a remake of The Exorcist: I don’t want to miss a single one of these stones that have waited so long for my arrival, especially the Hellstone which will be along shortly. I can’t actually see any stones. All I can see is Hardy’s horrid monument becoming a dot on the top of a hill I presume I’ll have to climb up at some point if I ever want to see my car again.
Once, I think I’ve spotted a couple of rows of stones reminiscent of Carnac on a faraway hill but then I realise that their uniform shape means they’re actually those huge rolls of straw or corn or wheat or whatever those things are that farmers make and wrap in plastic. I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your stones down. Some time after, and in another direction, I become excited after spotting a promising looking field. The possible stones within are the right colour but then I notice that a couple of them are moving and I realise they’re sheep. Sick of struggling across scrubland, all alone in this world, I make a right turn and follow a proper path. And here’s Dennis and Irene and their dog, George, who has a stone stuck in his paw. Not a dolmen or a cairn though. ‘Good morning’, I chirp (far more brightly than how I feel). ‘Have you seen any stones?’ I’m not even wearing the green hat today but I might as well be dressed as a pixie judging by the expression on their faces. ‘It’s the Valley of the Stones’, I continue. ‘Dolmens and suchlike’. They’re pleasant enough, in the way people are when they’re nervous, but they’ve been walking these paths for years and have never yet seen any stones.
A group of riders appear. Their horses are like gypsies’ ponies. I don’t mean that in a discriminatory way. Folk in the know will immediately understand that these equines are of the heavy footed, long-haired variety. I completely forget the fact that I’m uncomfortable in close proximity to horses and, standing in their path, demand to know the whereabouts of the stones. The lead rider claims to have been trotting around these parts for five years and has never seen a dolmen or stone circle: ‘do you mean stones with writing on’, she asks? I find this an exceedingly curious question. As I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for, I’m not sure of the answer. I doubt whether the stones I have in mind are inscribed with ‘Lludd was here’ or ‘Mynogan loves Belinus’.
I’ve already walked miles and can no longer see the monument which, devoid of a map, is my marker. I decide to turn right again and begin the ascent up a muddy, tree-lined path whereupon I meet Rachel and Gerry. Wearily, I commence my Valley of the Stones mantra. ‘This isn’t the Valley of the Stones’, Gerry says pleasantly; ‘it’s a couple of miles west of here’. And just as I’m retrieving my Swiss Army knife, in order to slash my wrists, Rachel says, ‘but while you’re here, you should see the Hellstone’. Hoorah! And they walk me back down the path and give me explicit directions on how to locate the Hellstone which, they claim, is well worth the visit.
So I’m back on the South Dorset Ridgeway and life is grand. I’m off to see a stone except that when I get to the next field, it contains three ginormous cows and not an udder between them. Fortuitously, Simon and Linda are close at hand with their children, Oscar and Liam aged four and six. Reader, I’m going to let you into a secret: sometimes, I make up the names of folk I meet along the way. I attached myself to this family to the extent that not only do I know their names, I become a temporary extended member of their tribe. It’s a case of safety in numbers in the face of udderless cows who, as it transpires, have no interest in us whatsoever.
That farmer has done everything possible to thwart us reaching the Hellstone – Simon et al also having this as their goal, plus a map: we tramp though knee-high mud and poo, shimmy past electric fences, climb the most unfriendly stiles and still can’t find the thing. The brave children ask for sweets and are told they can have one when they get there. ‘How will we know when we’ve got there’, asks Liam?
Good point son, none of has a clue what we’re looking for. Simon decides we’ve passed it and we all turn tail back into the mud. Then we spot it, high on a hill and I trudge upwards with my new acquaintances. I have to say, I’m impressed. I’d made my mind up to be impressed whatever, but I love it. Overlooking the sea, it’s Neolithic and is the oldest man-made structure still standing in Dorset. Oscar isn’t keen. ‘You’re so lucky that your mum and dad have brought you here’, I say. And I mean it and hope it doesn’t sound too patronising. ‘What would you rather be doing’, I ask. ‘Going to McDonalds and watching television’, he promptly replies.
Once back down and through the cow-infested mud, I leave them and trudge uphill to be a welcome toy for many and varied joyously stupid spaniels. By the time I reach the summit, I am a muddy, exhausted mess. I sit on a stone and eat my lunch. When I get up and look behind, I notice the writing. Stones with writing. So that’s what she meant.