Great Stones Way: the end of it all

Friday: Old Sarum

  Considering its relatively close proximity to my home, I’ve never been to Old Sarum before. And having made that confession, here’s another: we don’t walk The Great Stones Way to Old Sarum. With a collective age of 179 years, thirty plus miles, several evenings of relaxing red wine behind us and collective exhaustion we drive to the joint. We are so familiar with these smoke-ridden hills and the ubiquitous Alton Barnes white horse that they seem part of our make-up as we head towards the end of this exhilarating trip. Actually, regarding those last two, one dominates the other this morning. Apparently, it’s possible to still see the white horse from Old Sarum but the war games are obviously reaching a climax today as the smoke seems thicker than ever before. In other directions, however, the views are perfect.

 We look down onto the cathedral of nearby Salisbury with some detectable wistfulness on the parts of B and Pathfinder Powell. ‘You don’t want to go down there, do you?’ I ask cautiously. ‘Because I’m not’, I add as an afterthought. And, let’s face it, few venture into Salisbury these days. Sorry Salisbury because you’ve got a wonderful museum … ‘oh you and your conspiracy theories’, the pathfinder admonishes me. Hutton doesn’t have a clue what we’re talking about. He’s a big fan of Salisbury, going so far as to have a Nelly Erichsen illustration of the High Street Gate as the frontispiece in Highways and Byways in Wiltshire. ‘Just concentrate on where we are now’, I suggest.

Hutton brightens up considerably at the prospect: he’s got eleven pages on Old Sarum in you know where. Briefly, there may have been an iron-age hill fort here around 400BCE and subsequent Roman occupation both within and without the ramparts with three Roman roads converging to the east. William the Conqueror turned up and built a motte and bailey and the original cathedral was constructed after 1075 before being moved to its current site a couple of hundred years later. That’s about all you need to know really as the place was abandoned and most of the stonework removed. Naturally, Hutton is appalled by the despoliation and drones on and on about the accomplices of vandalism, ending rather piously with his opinion that ‘their excuse is I suppose that they know not what they do’. Hmmm. I think you’ve stolen that line, Edward.

  We abandon him and pay our £5.20 each to English Heritage to get in. To be fair, most of it – the best bits – are free but we are tourists as well as walkers and we want to have a look at the ruins and the more up to date information. Further, there’s a gift shop. There haven’t been many of those on this holiday and B and the pathfinder immediately stock up on jam, honey and sack-loads of ye olde Saxon fudge. I purchase a wooden ruler with all the kings and queens of England illustrated thereon for my daughter. She’s thirty seven. Further, this photo was taken elsewhere but I like it.

 Some of the high-spots are rather too high for B and I but Pathfinder Powell bravely plots a course along the ramparts and later all around the lower external rings. She has no fear of heights and takes great pleasure in spitting on unsuspecting cows below. Mostly, we have the wide green expanse to ourselves; apart from a few dog walkers, one of whom we accost for the final photograph. It’s not until we sit down for the last picnic, that the place is invaded once more by the French: hordes of loud students with a worrying lack of supervision. It’s of no consequence. We lay back enjoying the sunshine once more. It’s been a truly lovely holiday.

 

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Great Stones Way. Day 5: Casterley Camp to Netheravon

Back on track – so to speak, as largely we’re on tank tracks- we begin again at Casterley Camp, a Neolithic hill fort on the perimeter of Salisbury Plain. I was looking forward to this bit: I like a decent hill fort for grounding oneself in the past. That was before I engaged with a spot of early morning reading courtesy of the Guardian to accompany my Weetabix. The unnamed author took this walk a couple of years back to mark the inauguration of the Great Stones Way. Strangely, Friends of the Ridgeway decided that this stretch was to be the first official part of the Way: strangely, because there’s not a stone in sight. Not many folk in sight either. The Guardian writer remarked that he only saw one other person and she had found her car surrounded by police who said she couldn’t possibly be a walker because of the absence of an accompanying dog. To be fair, both the map and the instruction book make quite the thing of close to hand areas marked DANGER in bright red, but, hey – I spend every Tuesday evening listening to the army blowing up Bindon Abbey. It’s just war games.

 Hutton is about as handy as a chocolate tea-pot, making no mention whatsoever of Casterley. Given his one paltry sentence regarding Barbary, I’m of the view he didn’t do hills. I am anxious. Arriving at Casterley, which is on top of the world in the middle of nowhere, smoke is already in evidence and the nearest red flag is about two feet from our car. A solitary woman with some sound recording equipment claims to be present in order to hear the vibrations of the flag in the gale that’s currently blowing. It seems a lonely sort of spot to record the noises of a flag but B is in a vaguely similar line of work and believes it to be perfectly normal. There’s a random portaloo to hand and, having had three cups of coffee whilst waiting for those two to secrete extra rations about their bodies earlier, I feel the necessity to take advantage. I open the door, take a half-second inspection and, concluding that at least three regiments of tank types have been this way previously, decide a couple of polythene wrapped hay bales offer a cleaner option. ‘You have to pay to go in there’, shouts the woman who is pretending to be a sound recordist. We smile pleasantly. Well, they do: I mouth some whispered obscenity that I hope will spoil her allegedly recorded day out.

 There doesn’t appear to be much of the hill fort left and all the stones have probably been blown into kingdom come as opposed to kingdom past. Within fifteen minutes we lose our way. That would be the way that we MUST follow; no deviations allowed on this route. I hide my tears and knock back the Rescue Remedy when the others aren’t looking. Bang, Bang. The smoke is getting nearer and thicker. Those two think it’s all terribly jolly and point out an interesting tumulus which has just been destroyed after 5000 years of existence. Bits of cow parts float by on the wind. The army has us surrounded in three directions, whilst from the left comes the reports of the local civilian shooting school. Udders to the right, udders to the left. Bang, bloody bang.

 Those two may be trying to appear calm but we get down into the valley in record time. Naturally, we end up in the wrong place and are temporarily lost. I have another quick ‘Paula’ whilst they peruse various maps and Pathfinder Powell discovers a way over the A345 and down into a dingley dell where one of the River Avons is waiting delightfully for us. This is the Salisbury Avon.

 Stopping only for a quick game of Pooh Sticks, we arrive in Miss Marple country: East Chisenbury. Hutton wasn’t here either: he goes so far to say of the place, ‘I marked it not’. Poor show, Edward. You missed a trick. The map informs of a priory which we duly find by means of asking a servant painting one of the many rose-encrusted thatched cottages. He points us in the direction he claims to take frequently on his way to see my lady. Wandering through a wrought iron garden gate, past the massive edifice, we discover that the South Glamorgan Hardy Perennial Society have dropped in on the first call of their weekend away from the slag heaps. Wait, weren’t those pigeons up on Barbary Castle last Sunday from South Glamorgan? Wales must be shut.

 B locates the owner who graciously says three more [plebs] won’t be a problem so we gate-crash their tour of the outstanding gardens. It’s charming and there have only been three murders this morning. All the Miss Marples are out and about pretending to look at the flowers whilst eyeing up potential suspects and listening to other folk’s conversations.

 

 After, we walk along a few more lanes and arrive at Enford. Hutton thinks Enford, which used to be called Avonford, to be a remarkable place. Largely, he informs us, this is because the Norman church was virtually destroyed in 1817 by lightning and, following its reconstruction, some other unnamed catastrophe took place necessitating further restoration in 1892. Doesn’t seem a very lucky place but they’ve mown the grass for us so we sit down for our picnic near a pile of stones. Despite all the historical changes, these particular stones have been in their current position since 1007. How do they know that? Following lunch, whilst B and I are laying on our backs, soaking up the sun, two men arrive and ask if we’re quite well or should they go back for their spades? Time to look a bit more active. We set off for our final destination – Netheravon.

 We wander once more through ye olde England which is full of yet more thatched roofs distinguishable from each other by various birds and animals moulded from the leftover straw and numerous signs proclaiming no MOD vehicles. There’s not a soul in sight apart from Inspector Barnaby desperately seeking suspects. Troy – tell him they’re all in East Chisenbury. We’re unable to help as we have to cross the River Avon for the fourteenth time today. Arriving in a field where I find myself temporarily exhausted, and where B takes a very nice photo (note Pathfinder Powell sitting behind me still looking at the bloody map). We note that the path which we’re to follow next, according to both the map and the guide book, doesn’t exist in reality.

  Fake news. B and the pathfinder press on, wading through thigh high grass. I meander after them looking at butterflies and suchlike until I’m awoken from my rural solitude and soliloquy by notification of a disaster: no! Don’t say Enford Church has fallen down again. It’s worse – there are two signs proclaiming ‘out of bounds’. Pathfinder Powell is a stickler for rules and has found us an alternative route which will only take us an extra three miles back across the river. She’s out-voted and we proceed with caution, wary of lurking fisher folk and mutant herons.

 In Netheravon there is a poster reminding us that hare-coursing is illegal. It’s not the first we’ve seen on the Great Stones Way but Netheravon has form (see what I did there?). In 1829, when researching his book Rural Rides, William Cobbett enjoyed disposing of ‘an acre of hares’ in Netheravon. Call it social history if you will. Hutton calls it a place of considerable beauty. I call it not very quiet. Outside McColl’s, where the particular ice-creams that B and the pathfinder require on their non-Slimming World diet are unavailable, a woman shouts across the road to another: ‘OI! OI! YOU HAVING TWINS THEN?’ ‘NO‘, shouts fat woman, ‘I’M JUST BIG’. ‘YOU SEEN BARNABY?’ shouts the first one. ‘NO’, answers the other, ‘I’M JUST BIG’. My theory is that because there are so many bangs emanating from the nearby plain, everyone shouts as a matter of course. Hare course.

And back at Casterley Camp to collect car number one we are stopped by a pleasant soldier with an Iraqi tan who enquires as to whether we’re ‘just dropping off?’ The place is afire; I’m not hanging around and B and Pathfinder Powell have an assignation in the Devizes branch of Morrison’s. I’ve got a bit of empathy with Hutton. In the 1899 Hansard, it’s possible to find a brief, unanswered question relating to the ‘purchase’ of Salisbury Plain by her majesty’s government in the name of the War Office. How they bought an area of Wiltshire covering 300 square miles is one of life’s mysteries. Folk like Hutton probably didn’t query such things, let alone venture on government property. Little changes.

 

Great Stones Way: Day 4

Bath

All this walking malarkey, along with two of us sleeping badly in foreign beds, has finally caught up and we decide on a day of rest. We will be tourists at another World Heritage site – Aquae Sulis.

There are a number of benefits to this decision, not least amongst them that we can discard the plastic lunch boxes. It’s a day free of cottage cheese that separates itself on route into lumps of polystyrene packaging floating in suspect fluids. No more leftover cold curried chicken or Slimming World dressing-soaked salad. No watching those two digging into ham-filled doorsteps and chunky kit-kats with slabs of Kendal mint cake to help down their lashings of ginger beer. And as there’s none of that nonsense, there are, by default, no spine-bending rucksacks. Further, there’s no need for Hutton to attend proceedings as Bath falls outside his remit.

Someone that isn’t me drives us to Bathampton Mill where we wait in anticipation on the jetty for the 12.10 ferry into town. It never arrives – apparently it’s broken down. ‘What’s that?’ a man from Paris asks me pointing at the weir. ‘It’s a weir’, I say. ‘Where is the ship?’ says the man from France. ‘Who can say’, I reply. A boat full of Germans arrives at 12.25 and we embark to search for seats. Quite a crowd disembarked at Bathampton, believing themselves to have arrived at a place of significance. Logically, this means that there should be a few spare seats but the Germans, devoid of towels, have shuftied along the benches leaving no room for the nasty Brexiteers. It’s tricky but we accomplish the feat by sitting on two different levels. I go downstairs where someone has made the mistake of standing up. Silently, I slither into his seat.

This is by far the best way to journey into Bath – calmly gliding along the Avon with no thought of traffic congestion or parking problems in the city. A large grey heron stands serenely in the waterside foliage. Camera at the ready, I tap Herr Mann, sitting next to me, on the shoulder with a view to sharing the experience. ‘Sorry’, says he. I tap him again. ‘Sorry’, he repeats. He’s got the hang of English culture – apologise before anything has happened. ‘Look’, I say as our boat glides past. Just in time to get the photo. But Frau Mann interrupts. ‘Is it real?’ she asks. No it’s a plastic one I don’t say. You’re too late, he says. But I’m not. Just got it in time. Well, except that there’s no card in the camera. I don’t realise this until the evening having happily snapped my way round Bath. Pointlessly.

We disembark at Pultney Bridge and fall into Ponte Vecchio, a handy Italian restaurant that celebrates Bath’s effort at emulating a Florentine shop-covered bridge. We are allowed to sit on the terrace and drink long glasses of blushing rose wine whilst overlooking the river. Another luncheon party arrives followed by an animated man in a green check shirt who, without introduction or contextualisation, recounts a story concerning a juggling feat he performed on the weir 25 years ago, along with an unfathomable account of Robert Maxwell’s coffin. We assume him to be the restaurateur, especially when he asks us how far we’ve come. However, he turns out to be with the other party. He is loud and boring and needy of attention. No matter, the lunch, seafood in tomato sauce on pasta, is splendid.

 Subsequently, having had the foresight to book online, we bypass the hordes in the abbey square and join the hordes inside the Roman Baths replete with our audio aids, voiced over by that much-loved Brit, Bill Bryson. I haven’t been here for years. Half of it hasn’t changed. Since the Romans. The other half has been brought up to date in décor and display but the audio aid is overwhelming and is quickly abandoned. Next year, even more of it will be opened up to the public in a sort of interactive way. Swimming and suchlike perhaps. (Photo courtesy of Pathfinder Powell)

A brief look around the shops. Those two want to go into Milletts. I don’t so I rest awhile on a handy fishing chair that’s being advertised on the pavement, passing the time thinking of excuses to recount if a Milletts type emerges to ask what I’m doing. I recall a long-ago shopping trip to Bath with Barbara which seemed to be full of incidents. One of those inconsequential days in which nothing of particular importance occurs, yet one that will always be remembered: passing each other on the escalator in Debenhams like something from that old, old joke about the Pope’s haircut; me persuading her to purchase an extraordinarily expensive lemon skirt from an exclusive boutique which, to my knowledge, she never wore; attempting to board the two-carriage train home that was full of Bristol Rovers’ supporters trying to stop the Bath Rugby folk from boarding; a man wearing a small Box hedge on his head. Happy days. B and the pathfinder come back out into the open and pretend they’re nothing to do with me on my reminiscent recalling fishing chair. Then, the boat back to Bathampton. Not an otter or a woodpecker in sight but it’s calm and peaceful and it was a good rest day.

 

Great Stones Way: day three

Stonehenge

 It’s the summer solstice in two days’ time. From the relative comfort of my Dorset home, back in the mists of time, I had harboured thoughts of attending the celebrations at Avebury. I’d even gone as far as investigating the cost of a pre-dawn taxi from our holiday cottage in Potterne – thirty five pounds. B and Pathfinder Powell didn’t seem too keen. ‘That’s ok’, I’d said recklessly, ‘happy to go alone’. In the real world, intention has almost entirely dissipated: the thought of rising at 3.30 in the morning no longer fills me with glee.

The impending solstice also affects the chronological order of our route: we’re due at Stonehenge on Thursday along with a conservative estimate of 10,000 others. B and the pathfinder would like to actually see the stones and there won’t be much chance of that with a mob of druids thronging the joint. Moreover, Hutton and I would like to see the new visitor centre and as English Heritage are partaking of half-day closing on Wednesday, which will last until Friday, we’re bringing this stage of our journey forward to today.

I have a cunning plan: we take one car to Woodhenge and will walk the processional route to the stones in the footsteps of the ancients, thereby taking in all the landscape has to offer. There are already a few old vans parked on various verges with even older hippy types spilling out onto grassy knolls but we find a place easily enough. Hutton has written reams and reams on Stonehenge but nothing concerning its wooden neighbour. To be fair, it’s pretty much a reproduction of where the original timbers were placed and its whereabouts probably wasn’t even known when Hutton first passed by.

 Durrington Walls, however, where we begin our walk, was in visible existence. Hutton begins promisingly with the statement that ‘Durrington is a place of great antiquity where there was a village before the beginning of history’. Correct. Sadly, having got that news out of the way, he then drones on and on about chapels and churches, topics with which he’s far more comfortable. Durrington Walls enclose what was once a large Neolithic settlement which may well have been where those who built Stonehenge resided with their families. On this sunny morning, one of the final bearable few before the heatwave begins, the long grass is still wet with dew. We stride through wondering whether shorts were such a good choice as we towel our legs down. The grasses are also full of moths and butterflies which rise and flutter away on our approach although I manage to trap a ‘common blue’ in my camera lens. You may call it common; I don’t.

 Leaving Durrington behind us, we take a short walk south to the Cuckoo Stone; a huge and lonely sarsen surrounded this morning by grazing ewes and their fast growing lambs. No-one knows why it’s here. Hutton surmises that it was possibly dropped on its way to Stonehenge. The problem with this theory is that there’s evidence to show that the Cuckoo was once upright, suggesting an intention. Perhaps it was a way marker. In 1995, the National Trust archaeology team purchased the stone in order to preserve the archaeology beneath it. Good work NT but who did you purchase it from? Good morning, I’d like to buy the biggest free standing stone you have please. No, I don’t mind if it’s fallen over. Hutton tuts.

Skirting the leafy way of the disused railway which is garnished on the right by the officers’ quarters at Larkhill, we arrive at a gate of some importance. Here we attain our first view of Stonehenge in the distance, as would those not taking the route from the river in the dark past. Hutton waxes lyrical: ‘Stonehenge is beyond such memories and sentiments … it stands wholly within the shadow, over the horizon not only of history, but of legend’. ‘The horizon of history’ – I like this and we think him quite poetic this morning until he spoils it all by quoting vast tracts of Lear. We tell him to shut up.

 From this viewpoint, we are looking straight along the Cursus. Well, we would be if you could see it but, of course, its visibility has been lost to the modern day traveller. The Cursus is approximately 1.9 miles long and between 330 feet and 490 feet wide and was constructed several hundred years before Stonehenge. The second photo is a highlighted image courtesy of English Heritage. Looking at it on the map and in this image, it appears as a racecourse, for which the Latin word is – cursus. I consult Hutton as to his thoughts but he’s sulking and isn’t speaking. Neither does he have anything to say about the King Barrows alongside which we amble on our way to The Avenue.

 These days, the barrows are mostly clothed in trees so it’s not until we pass the first group that we emerge back into the open to begin our processional walk. And thus not until this point do we discover that the vast tract of land we’re about to cross is full of cows. An involuntary ‘oh’ escapes me and the other two think I’m still exclaiming the beauty of it all until the pathfinder sees what I’ve seen. It’s a tricky moment in time. The pathfinder has turned very pale and quiet. The alternative route would be to continue on this path and walk down along the road but that would be hideous. We trundle off to inspect one of the barrows while a decision is made.

 Good news! We are to take the processional route down The Avenue in the footsteps of our forebears. Some of us process. B and the pathfinder fairly gallop the best part of a mile as if plotting the route of a new cursus. Half way across, I shout to B to stop. I want her to look back at the barrows, the beauty and symmetry of which, like everything else, can only be appreciated from a distance. It’s a lost cause: they’re rushing for the gate and trying to ignore the cows that are, of course, ignoring us. It was brave of the pathfinder and it means they at least get the pleasure of walking slowly along the rest of The Avenue, the other side of the fence, which is absolutely the best way to reach Stonehenge.

 Having arrived, we would like to actually go into the stones but English Heritage, in their dubious wisdom, don’t let travellers in without a ticket purchased from the visitor centre. Ostensibly, that’s fair enough but a couple of years ago they moved the visitor centre and it’s now a mile and a half away. This is also ok we’re informed, because you can go there on the shuttle bus. Providing you’ve got a ticket. That would be a ticket you’ve bought from the visitor centre. English Heritage doesn’t do irony. They ‘manage’ a place that folk came to from all corners of the kingdom on foot but don’t have a ticket booth at the site for today’s walkers. They only cater for people who arrive in cars or on coaches so, having walked at least four miles, we have to trudge the extra mile and a half in order to get a bus back. Further, it’s lunchtime. And just before I finish this rant, let me tell you that another couple arrive on foot with PRE-PAID timed entry confirmation and are denied access until they go to the bloody visitor centre and retrieve paper tickets.

 On the positive side, the new visitor centre, once we crawl in, is excellent. It’s difficult to describe the façade: it looks like one of those weird buildings they have on Grand Designs but it somehow seems to fit cleverly into the landscape. (Photo courtesy of the architects, Denton, Corker and Marshall).Today, of course, the place is full of spotlights, portaloos by the hundred and temporary parking areas in preparation for the solstice arrivals but none of this paraphernalia would normally be here. And the award winning exhibition is truly impressive. My favourite part is the digital wall which gradually changes from the original bare landscape to show the evolution of the Cursus, the barrows and the phases of construction of Stonehenge over time. Much to Hutton’s disgust, it’s fairly rammed with schoolchildren. And why not Edward? They’re not about to read Highways and Byways in Wiltshire.

After this, and following our picnic, we take the shuttle bus along the new service road to become proper tourists visiting the stones. It’s lovely and Hutton, who’s now back on speaking terms, has loads to say on it all. He begins with the ideas of my hero, Stukeley, back in 1740 and follows on with other antiquarians before asking, ‘how much further than that have we got? Very little…its purpose is inscrutable.’ Exactly 100 years since he wrote that, and despite all the archaeological advances, we might justifiably repeat those sentiments.

 

Great Stones Way: day 2

Monday: Overton Hill to Alton Barnes White Horse

Prior to today’s walk proper, we are paying a visit to West Kennet Long Barrow, parking for which is conveniently situated in a layby on the hideous A4 opposite Silbury Hill. It’s an ideal spot for a photo opportunity; and for getting mown down by pantechnicons and suchlike.

Commencing our walk over Pan Bridge and up another ‘rise’, Pathfinder Powell is suddenly alerted to the presence of black cows. Not too big, not too many, but cows nonetheless which are blocking the entry to the barrow track. I am all for pressing on. B is wavering from loyalty and the pathfinder is resolute – she’s off back to the car. This bovine denial of all things ancient is a shame but we are who we are. I’d be the same if the only route was via a very high bridge. Meanwhile, the cows shuffle off to another part of the field and B and I make our escape through a small gate to begin the next ascent.

This place is wild flower heaven. We turn to look back at Silbury Hill which is rising majestically from a sea of poppies and daisies. It’s exquisite and once again far more startling than the close-up view we experienced half an hour ago. Of Silbury, Hutton writes, ‘that inexplicable hill vast and conical, as if it were a barbaric pyramid’. I think he means barbaric in the sense of primitive but you never know with Edward.

The West Kennet Long Barrow is a Neolithic tomb that was in constant use for at least a thousand years following its completion around 3650BCE. I have to check that and it’s right. Fairly old then. The twin sarsens that were placed to block the entrance were erected around 2000BCE when the tomb was closed. Hutton gives us its length – 330 feet – and writes the place off as ‘something of a ruin’. That Hutton, he’s such a chump at times.

I once came up here with a bunch of new age types following a guided tour of Avebury. At that time, some aliens had constructed a rather impressive crop circle in the adjoining field which seemed entirely apposite. It was charming, although today’s floral display just inches ahead I feel in terms of dressing. Anyway, on that occasion, we all duly trooped inside the barrow which can be accomplished by sidestepping the frontal megaliths. It’s quite dark in there. Once inside, our leader sat on a rock quietly tapping away on his bodhran whilst his girlfriend flattened herself against a stone and advanced into some sort of hallucinogenic induced trance. ‘Ohmmmmm’, went everyone else. ‘Ermm’, I mumbled, heading back outside for a breath of fresh air and a chat with my shaman.

In fact, in as much as facts prevail in these parts, a current theory suggests that the acoustics inside the tomb played an important part in whatever rituals the ancients undertook at West Kennet. B and I go in because we can and because it would be rude not to.

As B notes, it’s not oppressive inside; no bad vibes and not a ghost in sight but I don’t feel I’m missing out by not venturing the full 42 feet of the interior that’s accessible. However, on emerging from the otherworld, we do traverse the whole length along the top where we see bright red butterflies with black bodies, swallows playing happily and Pathfinder Powell watching us through binoculars from the safety of the A4. Because of the topography and architectural design, the pathfinder thinks we’re on the ridge of the hill; she doesn’t realise we’re actually standing on the West Kennet Long Barrow. Clever stuff this mystical landscape. As I keep saying, you’ve got to see the whole in order to join the dots.

Back at Overton Hill, the car park seems unusually busy this morning. A Royal Mail van screams around the corner and stops in front of the three thousand years old tumuli. ‘Expecting something from Amazon?’ B asks struggling with her boots. There’s also a BT Openreach van, a British Gas van and a refuse lorry up here. I suspect this to be a Neolithic holding bay for tradespeople seeking a hiding place. Two ladies ask us to take their photograph to mark the beginning of their jaunt along the Ridgeway. They’re going in the opposite direction, all the way to Ivinghoe which is a mere 87 miles. ‘We’ve just completed The South Downs Way’, says one of them with a degree of jollity and we are suitably impressed. However, Pathfinder Powell, astute as ever, notes a distinct lack of rucksacks. They’re certainly not laden down like we three snails with our homes on our backs and we surmise that they must be paying someone to transport their baggage along the way. Not proper hikers then.

Rejoining the Great Stones Way, we are as big game hunters beating a path through a foliage-ridden route that may not have witnessed a traveller since the last of the ancients passed this way a few millennia ago. In fact, we won’t see a living soul until the end of this section. Even when we arrive in the village of East Kennet the place is as silent as the grave; well, with the exception of a few lorries taking an environmentally unfriendly short cut along a miniscule lane to the A4, but they are driven at top speed by unseen persons.

We skirt Manor Farm and begin our ascent of Lurkeley Hill. This is no rise or incline or any other of those false euphemisms: it’s a very steep hill with a hard-core chalk path which necessitates many stops along the way. I walked most of this route a couple of years ago in the opposite direction which was considerably easier. On that occasion I only saw one other traveller in two hours. I wonder if would-be hikers believe it to be too far from the main highlights of the Avebury World Heritage environment. In truth, nothing could be further from – well, the truth. The more we pause, the more opportunities there are to see the landscape in all its timeless glory. From up here, one can see the West Kennet Long Barrow which I’m almost sure isn’t possible from anywhere else.

And of course, Silbury Hill sits where it’s proudly remained for who knows how long. I recall that on that previous journey, I emerged from the woods at Cow Down on the other end of the track and caught my first glimpse of Silbury. I subsequently recorded my sense of awe and nothing less than spiritual well-being on stepping into what truly seemed the otherworld.

East Kennet also has a long barrow which, when constructed, was an even larger affair than its neighbour in West Kennet. For unknown reasons, its survival was not similarly successful and being now covered in centuries of turf and trees it’s difficult to see. I recently read a piece by someone who had tried to locate it by enquiring of his dowsing rods as to its whereabouts. Certainly Hutton has nothing to say on the matter but this is hardly surprising given his supercilious dismissal of the West Kennet Long Barrow. A much easier means of locating the East Kennet barrow might be to look at the Ordnance Survey Explorer map on which it’s clearly marked. It’s over there somewhere.

Meanwhile, we trudge on until, after a mile or so, Lurkeley Hill gives up on its attempt to beat us into submission and decides to behave more kindly by turning itself into a far more manageable state of affairs; but we still stop constantly to look at the scenery. For me, this part of the Ridgeway is my favourite among many worthy competitors. Its slopes and valleys, with their multitudes of paths and tumuli, are difficult to better. Whilst looking down on a random display of sarsen stones, we notice a strange post. Even through binoculars, it’s difficult to discern the shape atop it which looks somewhat like a badger’s head. There’s definitely no chance of encrypting whatever has been written there although, on reflection, it may have said ‘to East Kennet Long Barrow’.

At the place where the Wansdyke crosses the Ridgeway, surely a point of great significance, I bring up the thorny subject of lunch. B and Pathfinder Powell are rather rigid when it comes to meal-times; although, it has to be said, not so inflexible when it comes to the contents of their picnic boxes. Having completed our official stretch of the Great Stones Way, we choose a spot to eat at the foot of Knap Hill. Keeping strictly to my Slimming World regime, I have cold chicken curry and saag dahl. I have to content myself with the discovery that cold saag dahl is actually rather nice whilst those two prepare for the advance on their goodies.

They’re eating five times as much as me on this holiday with fairly pathetic attempts to disguise the fact. Yesterday, they stopped off in Devizes on the pretence of purchasing some healthy salmon for dinner, only to be forced into the subsequent confession of scoffing tea and coffee cake on the wharf. The day before it was a sneaky Victoria Sponge. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I had to confront them with a packet of pork pies I found slyly hidden in the fridge behind my fat-free yoghurt. B is currently launching into what she refers to as a cheese and ham sandwich. Let me tell you, this comprises half a piglet and a round of cheddar jammed between two bread vans.

And this isn’t the half of it: when they’re not talking about making a bloody bread pudding – a feat which the pathfinder has the nerve to say she can accomplish with MY raisins that I religiously count on to my morning’s Weetabix – there’s a veritable sack-full of Haribos and chunks of Kendal Mint Cake which they give to each other in tiny portions. Don’t they know that I know they had a slab each whilst I was taking a Paula? How did they think they were going to whistle with their teeth stuck together with sugar? Even Hutton looks askance.

We have already decided not to continue onwards to what the guidebook calls the end of this particular stretch of the Great Stones Way. It comprises almost twelve miles without consideration of our earlier walk to and from the West Kennet Long Barrow. More importantly, a large part of it is on tarmac which we are keen to avoid. Pathfinder Powell looks at Knap Hill and suggests we could go up there for a stroll. It looks a bit steep to one whose stomach is still coming to terms with the saag dahl and my heart is set on seeing the Alton Barnes White Horse.

We wander back over the little road and come across twenty or thirty schoolboys who, having tramped into oblivion and back, have now been forced to erect a number of tents at the edge of the field in record time. We leave them to their own miseries and trot up the aptly named Walkers Hill which is part of the Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve. I had the feeling the horse would be visible from here but in fact it’s further along the ridge towards Milk Hill. The pathfinder intends us to take a circular walk along the trail and back to the Wansdyke; and back to the Ridgeway; and back to Knap Hill. I don’t know where she gets her stamina but it transpires that her mind has been temporarily addled by an excess of Kendal Mint Cake because when we finally reach the horse, she gives in claiming an inability to walk any further. I can’t say I’m sorry.

The Alton Barnes White Horse is 180 feet high and 160 feet long. Dating from 1812 – music please – it was designed by a journeyman inn sign artist affectionately known as Jack the Painter. The horse can be seen from a distance of twenty two miles; indeed, there are few days this week that we don’t see it on the way to somewhere else. On two different April Fools Days in the past, it has been transformed into a zebra. Now, on one hand, I would like to see that. On the other hand, I have to say it’s looking a bit grubby today and not at all like its beautifully scoured cousin over at Uffington.

It’s sunny but a little windy up here as we sit next to the horse and embrace the perfectly stunning views across the huge landscape. On a distant ridge, we see miles of smoke and wonder whether stubble is still being burnt. On another day, we’ll discover that this is a clue to the war games being undertaken on Salisbury Plain. For now, however, we enjoy the flower covered serenity of this glorious spot in England’s finest.

The Great Stones Way 16 – 23 June 2018

Sunday: Barbary Castle to Overton Hill

There are four of us beginning our journey along The Great Stones Way: myself, my friends B and Pathfinder Powell, and Edward Hutton whose 1917 edition of Highways and Byways in Wiltshire will inform me historically and geographically. Hutton gives a solitary sentence to Barbary Hill in which we learn it to be 800 feet above sea level and the possible site of Cymric’s victory over the Britons in 556. I get the feeling Hutton never actually travelled here unlike the South West Glamorgan Pigeon Federation who have several hundred birds in the car park waiting to race back to Wales this morning.

Pathfinder Powell recounts the Tale of the Acton Pigeon: some years ago, having journeyed downstairs in search of tea, and to open the back door in order to let the morning in, she returned to bed to be startled by a loud bang emanating from below. Bravely, the pathfinder retraced her steps only to find a stunned homing pigeon lying inside the front door. Said pigeon, being in possession of a telephone number which it weakly squawked, happened to come from Acton. The pathfinder, residing not a million miles hence, popped the pigeon in a box and drove it home whereupon it was returned to an ungrateful owner who didn’t even bother to offer his thanks. Cross, I suppose, because Percy Pigeon hadn’t won the race.

There are also quite a few ramblers, some of whom we walk with until they become increasingly herded and corralled by their very loud leader who is trying to organise a group photo. In any case, they are taking another path and we aren’t unhappy to lose them and have Barbary to ourselves. The views are stupendous, as they’ll continue to be throughout this stretch of the Way.

Our path is an up and down affair; the up bits are a little challenging although not in comparison with some of the later stages when we will be fitter and more accustomed to what the guide book deceitfully refers to as ‘a slight rise’. B gallops on ahead. Pathfinder Powell and I dawdle to the rear discussing pelvic floor muscle exercises. The pathfinder has an aversion to al fresco peeing. Possessing the bladder control of a gnat, I have no time for such niceties and we quickly introduce the ‘backstop Paula’ into our routine. The eponymous Paula refers, of course, to Ms Radcliffe’s infamous call of nature during the London marathon. The backstop involves me doing a Paula whilst B and the pathfinder face outwards equidistantly with a view to whistling loudly upon the appearance of strangers. Naturally, we only attempt this when no strangers are in evidence; and naturally vast troops appear the minute the decision has been taken.

On this stretch of the route there are several groups of despondent looking schoolboys dragging themselves and their oversized backpacks towards us. We try a cheery ‘hello’ but no-one wants to engage. I think it cruel that, having finished the torture of early summer examinations, they are now expected to tramp the Great Stones Way as some sort of reward. Or penance. Well, that’s private education for you.

In fact, everyone we meet is travelling in the opposite direction to us. Here comes Bill and his remarkably well-dressed entourage. ‘Come far’, I ask him? ‘Worcester’, says he. It’s an unexpected reply and I try to make light of it: ‘what, this morning?’ (chuckle). ‘Yes’, he says, ‘it’s only an hour from Barbary’. Now Bill is no spring chicken and he’s here to say ‘hello’ to his mum who was born in Cricklade but spent her life on and around the North Wessex Downs. Loving the area as she did, she asked for her ashes to be scattered up here and once a year, on Mothers’ Day, Bill and his family make the ascent to pay their respects. It’s not Mothers’ Day today; it’s actually Fathers’ Day but Bill’s car broke down earlier in the year so they’ve all come today. ‘We’ve apologised to her’, he reports a little sadly.

 

B and the pathfinder are striding on ahead. Pathfinder Powell, in charge of the map, informs us that three beech copses are imminent and B says she’ll pop into number three for a number one. I don’t much care for woods so the pathfinder and I hang about on the track whistling until B emerges with news of a crop circle below Hackpen Hill. We venture in and there it is.

What more can one hope for in a mystical landscape? Well, actually, a red kite wouldn’t go amiss and here’s the first of many available in this neck of the world. A birding friend of mine is anxious that the red kite will see off the buzzards that have taken so long to re-establish themselves in the south of England. I don’t think she needs to worry too much as this kite is being shown the door by its smaller predatory neighbour.

According to the guide book, there’s a chalk white horse on Hackpen Hill. We make a half-hearted detour to locate it but the way is tricky with nettles and boulders and we give up. Maybe the next project would be to traverse Wiltshire’s white horses of which there are eight scattered around. In the meantime, we journey on to Berwick Bassett Down where a dew pond awaits our perusal. It’s rather pretty. A dewpond is sometimes known as a mist pond or a cloud pond, both of which sound more attractive to my tinnitus infested ears. They’re artificial sources of water used in the past for feeding livestock and are generally replenished by rainfall rather than dew, mist or clouds. Hutton offers copious instructions on how to make one. Not today thanks, Edward. We don’t have any livestock and if we did, well we’d use this one.

Across the track from the pond is a dog-leg that would take us off on a white horse trail should we so desire. We don’t. We might another time but this is day one and we’re still trying to get the hang of it all. The dog-leg is marked by standing stones, an increasing number of which are becoming visible as we get nearer to Avebury and its ancient landscape. Shortly, we’ll approach Fyfield Down which is famous for a multitude of sarsen stones from which the ancestors chose a number to construct a few rings down in the valley. Hutton notes that, by the time he got to Avebury, 650 megaliths had been removed from the circle to make houses and farm buildings with.

 

Tired, but feeling fitter by the minute, we stop to rest on a handy bench that overlooks the Lansdowne monument on Cherhill Down. It was erected by someone I’ve never heard of in commemoration of someone else I’ve never heard of. It’s probably worth further exploration on another trip as a) it seems to follow us for a large part of The Great Stones Way and b) it has one of those elusive white horses to hand.

 

I’d quite like to have my lunch now but the others want to wait until we reach a signpost they can see in the distance. I don’t mind too much as it’s on the edge of Fyfield which is a site of special scientific interest boasting the largest assemblage of grey wethers in England. Initially, I’d thought the grey wethers comprised some sort of man-made arrangement which I am keen to see. However, Pathfinder Powell allows me to hold the map briefly and I can see the area is positively dripping in the things. A handy noticeboard informs us that the sarsens were given this name because of their likeness to sheep from a distance. And – yawn – a wether is the name for a castrated ram. I check with Hutton. He mentions them four times, three of which are afforded capital letters as if they represent an actual place. On the fourth occasion, almost two hundred pages from the first reference, Hutton, probably bored with the whole debate, denies the wethers their capital appendage so those of us who stuck with him remain none the wiser.

Worse, when we arrive at the gate to make our entry onto the down, we discover about three million more cows than sarsens. The pathfinder doesn’t do cows. Neither, apparently, does the person who has defaced the sign warning that at least one of these beasts hasn’t been ‘wethered’.

Pathfinder Powell gives B and I permission to go alone. ‘Oh, that’s fine thank-you. We’ll stay with you,’ we say with a degree of disingenuous magnanimity. We find a cow-free patch of ground on which to enjoy our picnic. I have made Slimming World BBQ chicken for everyone. Last evening, I gave them Slimming World chicken korma. This evening, those two will produce a roast chicken supper. B announces, rather ungratefully in my opinion, that she’s already sick of fowl. Hutton says he’s not on a diet and will stick with a few cold cuts, a plate of oysters and a plum pudding. Actually, he’s not that far removed from B and Pathfinder Powell who have supplemented my healthy but meagre offering with a selection of sweets and cakes.

And now it’s time for the last part of this stretch of the Ridgeway as, refuelled, we stride onwards in the direction of the Overton Hill car park where, hopefully, the second car is still in situ. Many of the trackside fields hereabouts have been planted with corn and barley and poppies are much in evidence, especially on the borderlands. It’s such a joy, and one increasingly unusual in these pesticide-riven days, that we stop several times just for the pleasure of enjoying them. There are also clumps of wild purple geraniums and buttercups aplenty trackside. These are the flowers that will accompany us almost throughout our journey along The Great Stones Way. And because there is a plethora of wild flowers, there is also a multitude of butterflies and moths. Hutton pays no heed to such frivolities but I suppose that when he was writing such things were too naturally abundant to warrant comment. It’s a shame he didn’t possess a crystal ball. He might then have realised that there were other things worthy of record for future readers.

All of a sudden, I look to my right and there is our first glimpse of the mighty Silbury Hill. To my mind, the thing about Silbury, and indeed all the other important sites in this ancient landscape, is that you have to view them from a distance to get a sense of the wonder of it all. There’s little purpose in driving to the layby alongside the hill to take a few snaps: one should come upon it on foot, as did the ancients, to see it as they might have done for the first time as they processed along the Ridgeway. We should try to imagine Silbury and all the surrounding barrows when they were white, sparkling in the Wessex sunshine. To the rear of Silbury, we can just make out the avenues and stones of Avebury and we stand awhile, attempting to join the pieces of our oldest jigsaw.

 

Willows compendium

‘Any word from the hospital’, enquired Mole?

‘Serious foot surgery’, replied Ratty. ‘The doctor’s had to construct prosthetic toes’.

‘Will Toad be able to stand up again’, asked Mole?

‘Depends on how much he’s had to drink’, Ratty replied.

‘The doctor?’

‘Mole’, asked Ratty, ‘do you get the feeling we’re being watched?’

‘I know something you don’t know’, said Alice smugly.

‘Doubtful’, said Ratty. ‘We know she just tried to buy her Friday night wine with a Visa card. We can hear her thrashing around inside’.

‘What’s a Visa’, asked Mole?

‘Something the new man might need’, answered Alice enigmatically.

Ratty took a step backwards: ‘new man? I told you someone was watching us’.

‘There he is ‘, exclaimed Alice.

‘Morning men’, said Badger.

‘#me too’, cried Alice.

‘Are you sure’, asked ratty?

‘Morning Alice’, said Badger. Mole gulped.

‘Splendid day, men’, mused Badger.

‘Any news of Toad, Sir’, enquired Ratty?

‘Toad is back on his feet and the doctor sends a missive to say he’s recovering well with the help of his wine merchant’, reported Badger.

‘Who’s that next to Mr Badger’, asked Mole? ‘He looks a bit calcified’.

‘That’s a big word’, said Alice’.

‘No whispering in the ranks’, said Badger sternly.

‘Challenging news from the hospital’, reported Badger. ‘Apparently Toad was in recovery until the doctor tapped his head to wake him up’.

‘What happened, Sir’, asked Ratty?

‘Well’, said Badger, ‘seems that Toad fell off his feet again. Splints in the legs don’t you know. They’ve ordered a special fixative from Northern Ireland’.

‘Did they get permission from the DUP’, asked Alice?

‘Who’s that woman with Badger’, asked Mole?

‘Arlene Foster’, informed Ratty.

‘She’s not wearing much’, commented Mole.

‘It’s summer’, said Ratty.

‘News is flooding in’, said Badger.

‘It’s difficult to keep up’, observed Mole. ‘Things used to be so quiet around here’.

‘Firstly’, continued Badger, ignoring the heckler, ‘it seems that the doctor fell over on Wareham Quay. Someone picked him up. No damage done’.

‘I’m surprised anyone noticed’, said Alice. ‘There are prostrate drunks all over Wareham Quay’.

‘Secondly’, continued Badger with intent, ‘Toad has sent a missive reporting that, following plastic surgery, he’s ready to be collected despite feeling a bit damp here and there’.

‘Aren’t toads supposed to be damp’, asked Alice?

‘Do you think someone should cut back that rosemary’, asked Mole?

‘Saturday, Saturday night’s alright for fighting’, sang Toad.

‘Take it steady old boy’, advised Badger. ‘The doc’s coming for lunch tomorrow and we want you on your feet’.

‘I’m still standing’, hummed Toad.

‘But for how long’, queried Badger?

‘He’s a bit bossy’, whispered Toad. ‘When did he arrive?’