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VALE of PEWSEY & KENNET VALLEY - 17 miles - Friday 19th April 1991

 
 

     In his book ‘The National Trust Book of Long Walks’ Adam Nicolson suggests that anyone walking the Ridgway National Trail should acclimatise themselves beforehand by walking the lesser known stretch from Pewsey to Avebury. I was planning to walk the Ridgeway with a friend over six days from Sunday 28th April 1991, but for our final prep walk we decided to take Mr Nicolson at his word and drove to Pewsey in Wiltshire nine days earlier. The Ridgeway was an ancient track that once ran for 250 miles from the southern coastline somewhere near Lyme Regis and headed in a northeast direction over Cranborne Chase, Salisbury Plain and the Vale of Pewsey to Overton Hill in Wiltshire. From there today's national trail continues for 85 miles to Ivinghoe Beacon and beyond there the ancient track continued all the way to the Wash at Norfolk. Thousands of years ago this was the great Neolithic trunk route for traders and invaders alike which culminated in some of the first great cultures and civilisations in Britain which itself resulted in the great megalithic monuments we can still see today. In 1991 this walk would be a part of a gradual immersion into an ancient landscape along some of the lesser known footpaths of Wiltshire. As a starting point, Pewsey Wharf had a good car park alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal but before then we had to stop in Pewsey to buy something to eat from a local convenience chain that was popular at that time. It was run by an Indian guy who was clearly an Elvis fan judging by the sign in the window; ‘Elvis Patel at Grace Londis.’ What a fantastic way to start the day!

   

     In the years since doing this walk I've returned several times and have taken the liberty of including other photos as well as those from the early 1990's. After an enjoyable first mile along a canal towpath beneath an overcast sky, Alton Road then led to a climb up a track called Workway Drove. A mile to the west are the two villages of Alton Barnes and Alton Priors where only nine months earlier I'd witnessed an extraordinary phenomenon. The Alton Barnes key design first appeared on 11th July 1990 in East Field alongside the Ridgeway. A day or so later I was in the area and, like several others, wandered in to take a look. It was my first experience of being able to view a crop circle up close and personal from the inside. Although the full dramatic effect is best seen from the air, only when you are close up can you appreciate how intricate and incredibly symmetrical these things are, though I'm not sure the local farmers see it that way. Days later this particular design made national headlines and was even used on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits album ‘Remasters.’

     North of Alton Priors we climbed out of the Vale of Pewsey into a cutting wind to join the ancient Ridgeway at the foot of the appropriately named Walkers Hill surmounted by the burial mound of Adam’s Grave. The track led up to a gap through the line of an impressive earthwork known as the Wansdyke. This linear embankment was built during the 5th or 6th centuries, possibly by Romano-Britons in a desperate attempt to keep out invading Saxons from the north. At roughly 50 miles in length the Wansdyke follows an east west line to the Bristol Channel. Much of it has gone, or is lost within the landscape it once dominated, but for us the best of it was to be seen in the latter half of the day. In places it can rise up to 40 feet from the bottom of the adjoining ditch. The Wansdyke was certainly impressive but we had bigger fish to fry as we looked to the gradual opening of a valley to the north and from there the Ridgeway followed a gentle 2 mile descent to East Kennett. By now some of the more observant amongst you may well be questioning the inconsistency of my spelling, however the error is deliberate and, I might add, not of my doing. Perhaps someone could enlighten me as to why the villages of East & West Kennett are spelt thus, whilst the river and its valley are spelt Kennet? This anomaly makes no logical sense but then things are quite often not what they seem in this part of the British Isles.

     Beyond East Kennett and over the diminutive River Kennet we made our way up to the London to Bath road and stood opposite the starting point of the Ridgeway National Trail. It was a bit inauspicious to tell the truth, nothing more than a scrappy car park with several tumuli in a field alongside. At one time there used to be a cafe there at Overton Hill, imaginatively named the ‘Ridgeway Cafe.’ It hardly seemed possible but there must be pictures of it out there somewhere which I would love to see if anyone has one. Of more interest to us was a field to the left with a curious set of circles made of concrete blocks that marked the onetime site of The Sanctuary. This was a set of tall circles originally made of wood when first constructed around 4,500 years ago, some were later replaced by stone. The site contained circles within circles and was doubtless ceremonially linked by a stone avenue to the more impressive stone circle of Avebury 1½ miles away. For us this was the first of a number of hugely impressive ancient sites that would be visited that day, so significant that the whole area was declared a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site in 1986. That we know anything about The Sanctuary today or indeed much of the Avebury complex is largely thanks to the brilliant 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley.

 

     Our exploration of this ponderous little spot was curtailed by a sudden deluge and we were forced to take shelter in the lee of a fallen tree trunk nearby and huddled down for lunch. Afterwards we made our way westwards and climbed an open field to the next ancient monument on our agenda, the West Kennett Long Barrow. Built around 5,500 years ago, this remarkable structure is easily the best example of a chambered Neolithic tomb to be seen anywhere in southern England. By this time we found ourselves wandering around the site alone in blazing sunshine, all vestiges of the earlier rainfall having drifted beyond the surrounding plains into memory. This long barrow was constructed of earth over local sarsens and eventually sealed with tall entrance stones through which we weaved our way into the deeper recesses of the tomb, a full 33 feet in length. Over a period of 1,000 years 46 people were buried within the five burial chambers from what looks to have been a cross section of the community it served. Then, inexplicably, around 4,000 years ago the entrance to the chamber was permanently closed, possibly due to changes in beliefs at that time. Rather like us, the ancient people of this land turned their attention to other projects further to the north.

     
     

     Across the A4 was Silbury Hill, one of the most enigmatic sites in the UK the purpose of which has left our modern day perceptions dumbfounded. At nearly 100 feet high it is the largest man made hill in Europe and comparable in size to some of the smaller pyramids of Giza. Radio carbon dating has put the hill at around 4,500 years old. It is shaped like a giant Christmas pudding with a terrace and flattened top of around 100 feet in diameter. Several attempts to excavate and tunnel into the hill have revealed nothing and only served to destabilise the overall structure to such an extent that public access is no longer allowed, although that message seemed to have escaped one individual standing on top! Whilst heading north via the western flanks of Waden Hill alongside the River Kennet I pondered how the purpose of such a structure could have been lost and, in a strange way, hoped that it would remain that way. In just over mile we found ourselves in a village that is like no other village anywhere in the UK.

 

     Avebury, or at least part of it, sits within the remains of a massive stone circle covering an area of 28 acres, the largest in Europe. Built around 2,600 BC it actually comprises three circles, the larger outer one 1,080 feet in diameter was made of up of 98 sarsen stones hauled from nearby Fyfield Down. It had a ditch and bank on the inside, 50 feet from top to bottom and encircled two small circles about 350 feet across. Today Avebury stone circle as a spectacle is mostly gone both physically and visually with a large number of the stones missing. Most of the damage was carried out during the Middle Ages when locals broke and toppled the stones with bonfires. As the destruction continued, William Stukeley made a record of the stone’s positions so at least we know today where each one once stood. However, by the beginning of the Victorian era most of the Neolithic standing stones had been destroyed or buried. The fact that what we can see today is impressive is thanks in no small part to marmalade. Archaeologist Alexander Keiller was heir to the Keiller empire from Dundee, makers of the world’s first commercial brand of marmalade. During the 1930’s he bought the site which included Avebury Manor where he lived until his death in 1955. Keiller set about re-erecting many of the stones and as you wander around today it's not hard to see what an undertaking this must have been. Enough of the circle is there to gain some sort of appreciation of the sheer scale and size of this impressive place.

 

     Visiting Avebury on a day walk can prove immensely distracting and so, thus distracted, we made for one of the outer circle’s four openings from which two processional stone avenues once extended. Today the only surviving example is the eastern, or West Kennett Avenue, and we continued down this between lines of standing stones for half a mile. From the A4 we decided to head back up the western approach of All Cannings Down towards the impressive line of the Wansdyke, now an imposing embankment along the brow of the hill above. Compared to the ancient sites we had just visited, the Wansdyke was a relative newcomer at 1,500 years old, but it was every bit as secretive. In parts it was like an earthen version of Hadrian’s Wall as we wandered along its length for over half a mile. In total isolation we could have imagined ourselves as Romano-British defenders preparing for a last desperate struggle against the inexorable Saxon hoards, or at least I could have done had it not been for the clouds of cigarette smoke coming from my walking partner just ahead. The Saxons eventually overran southern England and defence works like the Wansdyke were left to the ravages of nature, but they must have been impressed enough to name it after their great god Wōden.

 

     We found ourselves once again below Walkers Hill and decided to take a different route back to the Vale of Pewsey by way of a due eastern line over the Neolithic enclosure of Knap Hill. The weather seemed favourable enough but it soon turned on us once we were up there. In no time at all the wind swirled and circled all around and I soon found myself forced into a frantic search for my gloves. As I turned around my walking partner was frozen to the spot, virtually encased from head to foot in snow. This most bizarre of days had suddenly turned bonkers and we were forced into a headlong fight against the icy blast of a blizzard. At the earliest opportunity we departed Draycott Hill to drop 440 feet off the high downs to make our final 2 miles along the sedate tranquillity of the Kennet and Avon Canal in sunshine so warm it made us strip down to our T-shirts. By this time we were long past trying to figure out this perplexing weather any more than we could fathom the true purpose of the Wansdyke or Silbury Hill. In all my life I had never experienced a four season day in such spectacular circumstances. That Wiltshire is a breathtakingly beautiful and history soaked part of the British Isles is undeniable, but it is also totally unique. Large swathes of it has an energy garnered from over countless millennia that can seriously mess with our modern perceptions. When walking over these hills, something I cannot recommend highly enough, it is best to leave all logical reasoning locked away in your 21st century car and just go with whatever that day of walking brings you. Then, should anything untoward occur you need speak of it to no one. I know I never will.

 
 

     In his book ‘The National Trust Book of Long Walks’ Adam Nicolson suggests that anyone walking the Ridgway National Trail should acclimatise themselves beforehand by walking its line from Pewsey to Avebury. ‘Mountaineers are not dropped at the mountain’s foot, but walk themselves in to get used to the thinner air. It is the same with the Ridgeway, but back to front. Around Avebury the air is so thick with the past the place is alive with the dead.’ The Ridgeway was a long distance path that myself and a friend were planning to walk over six days from Sunday 28th April 1991, but as our final prep walk for this adventure we decided to take Mr Nicolson at his word and drove to Pewsey in Wiltshire  nine days earlier on Friday 19th April. This is my journal with the times of the revised version in April 2015 as time checks but written as it would have been in 1991 for the TRW.

 

     The Ridgeway National Trail begins at a car park on Overton Hill in Wiltshire along the busy A4. It is 85 miles of a much longer highway that once extended for over 250 miles from the southern coastline somewhere near Lyme Regis to the Wash at Norfolk reaching Overton Hill via Cranborne Chase, Salisbury Plain and the Vale of Pewsey. Thousands of years ago this was the great Neolithic trunk route for traders and invaders alike culminating in the British Isles first great cultures and civilisations. Because of this some of the world’s finest megalithic monuments are to be found along the way. In 1991 this would be a part of a gradual immersion into an ancient landscape along some of the lesser known footpaths of Wiltshire. As a starting point, Pewsey Wharf had a good car park alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal but before then we dropped into Pewsey to buy something to eat from a local convenience chain that was popular at that time. It was run by an Indian guy who was clearly an Elvis fan judging by the sign in the window; ‘Elvis Patel at Grace Londis.’ What a fantastic way to start the day!

 

     In the intervening years since this walk I have ventured back several times and as such have taken the liberty to include some of the photos from those visits as well as those from that first outing in 1991. After a 9:20am start that fine morning we enjoyed the first mile along a gentle and serene canal towpath beneath an overcast sky. Beyond Wilcot we had to follow Alton Road to a track known as Workway Drove but further along were the two villages of Alton Barnes and Alton Priors where only nine months earlier I had witnessed an extraordinary phenomenon. The Alton Barnes key design crop circle first appeared on 11th July 1990 in East Field alongside the line if the Ridgeway. A day or so later I was in the area and happened upon this field and, like several others, wandered in to take a look. It was my first experience of seeing one of these things from the inside and although the full dramatic effect is best seen from the air, only when you are close up can you appreciate how intricate these things are and incredibly symmetrical, though I am not sure the local farmers quite see it that way. Days later this particular design made national headlines and was even used on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits album ‘Remasters.’

     A mile north of Alton Priors we climbed out of the Vale of Pewsey into a cutting wind to join the ancient line of the Ridgeway at the foot of the appropriately named Walkers Hill, recognisable by its surmounted burial mound known as Adam’s Grave. The clearly defined track led us up to a gap through the line of an impressive earthwork known as the Wansdyke. This linear embankment and ditch was built during the 5th or 6th centuries between the Roman and Saxon era. At roughly 50 miles in length, the Wansdyke follows an east to west line, more or less, from Berkshire to the Bristol Channel. Much of it has gone, or is lost within the landscape it once dominated but for us the best of it was to be seen during the latter half of the day. In places it can rise to 13 feet, sometimes 40 feet from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank. The ditch to the north suggests it was built, possibly by Romano-Britons, in a desperate attempt to keep out invading Saxons coming from the north.

 

     The Wansdyke was certainly impressive, but we had bigger fish to fry as we looked to a gradual valley opening to the north. From there the Ridgeway followed a gentle 2 mile descent to East Kennett with a distinctive and tree clad long barrow of the same name away to our left. By this time some of the more observant amongst you may be questioning the inconsistency of my spelling, however the error is deliberate and not of my doing. So perhaps someone could enlighten me as to why the villages of East & West Kennett are spelt thus, whilst the river and its valley are spelt Kennet? It makes no logical sense but then things are often not what they seem in this part of the world.

 

     Past the houses of East Kennett and over the diminutive River Kennet we made our way up to a meeting with the London to Bath road opposite the starting point of the following week’s great challenge, the Ridgeway National Trail. It was nothing more than a scrappy car park with several tumuli in a field alongside but at one time there used to be a cafe at there at Overton Hill, it was imaginatively named the ‘Ridgeway Cafe.’ It hardly seemed possible but there must be pictures of it out there somewhere, how I would love to see one. It was all a bit inauspicious for so grand a beginning I felt.

 

     Of more interest to us was a field to our left with a curious set of circles marked with concrete blocks marking the onetime site of the Sanctuary. This was once a set of tall circles originally of wood, some which were replaced by stone when first constructed around 4,500 years ago. The site contained circles within circles and was doubtless ceremonially linked by a stone avenue to the more impressive stone circle of Avebury 1½ miles away. For us this was the first of a number of hugely impressive ancient sites that would be visited that day, so significant that the whole area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 and our agenda included a visit to all parts of it except Windmill Hill, 1½ miles to the northwest of Avebury. That we know anything at all about the Sanctuary is largely thanks to the 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley, however subsequent excavations of the site in 1999 revealed far more about this complex than was originally thought.

 

     Our exploration of this ponderous little spot was curtailed by the onset of a sudden deluge and we were forced to take shelter in the lee of a nearby tree trunk where we huddled down for lunch. Retracing our footsteps for a few hundred yards we then made our way westwards and climbed an open field to the next ancient monument on our agenda, the West Kennett Long Barrow. This remarkable structure, built around 5,500 years ago, is easily the best example of a chambered Neolithic tomb to be seen anywhere in southern England. By this time we found ourselves wandering around the site alone in blazing sunshine, all vestiges of the earlier rainfall having drifted across the surrounding plains into memory. This long barrow was constructed of earth over local sarsens and limestone and eventually sealed with tall entrance stones through which we threaded our way into the deeper recesses of the tomb, a full 33 feet in length. Over a period of 1,000 years 46 people were buried within the five burial chambers from what looks to have been a cross section of the community it served. Then, inexplicably, around 4,000 years ago the entrance to the chamber was permanently closed possibly due to changes in beliefs at that time. Rather like us, the ancient people of this land turned their attention to other projects further to the north.

 

     Across the A4 was Silbury Hill, one of the most enigmatic sites in the UK the purpose of which has left our modern day perceptions dumbfounded. At nearly 100 feet high it is the largest man made hill in Europe and comparable in size to some of the smaller pyramids of Giza. Radio carbon dating has put the hill at around 4,500 years old. It is shaped like a giant Christmas pudding with a terrace and flattened top of around 100 feet diameter suggesting it was never finished or perhaps used as a later fortification. Several attempts to excavate and tunnel into the hill have revealed nothing and only served to destabilise the overall structure of the hill to such an extent that public access is no longer allowed. To that end we admired its form alongside the River Kennet whilst head north via the western flanks of Waden Hill. I could only wonder at how the purpose of such a structure could have been lost and, in a strange way, hoped that it would always remain that way. In just over mile we found ourselves in a village that was like no other village anywhere in these islands.

 

     Avebury, or at least part of it, sits within the remains of a massive stone circle covering an area of 28 acres, the largest in Europe. Built around 2,600 BC it actually comprises three circles, the larger outer one 1,080 feet in diameter was made of up of 98 sarsen stones hauled over from nearby Fyfield Down. It had a ditch and bank on the inside, 50 feet from top to bottom, and encircled two small circles about 350 feet across. Within the northern circle is a group of three large standing stones known as the Cove. Today Avebury stone circle as a spectacle is largely gone both physically and visually with a large number of the stones missing. Most of the damage was carried out during the Middle Ages when locals broke and toppled the stones with bonfires. As the destruction continued, William Stukeley made a record of the stone’s positions so at least we know today where each individual one once stood. However, by the beginning of the Victorian era most of the Neolithic standing stones had been destroyed or buried. That what can be seen today is impressive is thanks in no small part to marmalade. Archaeologist Alexander Keiller was heir to the Keiller empire from Dundee, makers of the world’s first commercial brand of marmalade, and during the 1930’s he thought to buy what remained of the site, including Avebury Manor where he lived until his death in 1955. Keiller set about re-erecting many of the stones and as you wander around today it is easy to see what an undertaking this must have been. Enough of the circle is there to gain some sort of appreciation of the sheer scale and size of this hugely impressive place.

 

     Visiting Avebury during the course of a day walk can prove immensely distracting and so, thus distracted, we made for one of the outer stone circle’s four openings from which two processional stone avenues once extended. Today the only surviving example is the eastern, or West Kennett Avenue, and we continued down this between lines of standing stones for half a mile. The B4003 took us back to the A4 from where we decided to head back up the western approach of All Cannings Down. Ahead was the impressive line of the Wansdyke, seen at its best as an imposing embankment along the brow of the hill above. Compared to the ancient sites we had just visited, Wansdyke was a relative newcomer at 1,500 years old, but it was every bit as secretive. In parts it was like an earthen version of Hadrian’s Wall as we scaled its impressive height and wandered its length for over half a mile. In total isolation we could have imagined ourselves as Romano-British defenders preparing for one last desperate struggle against the inexorable Saxon hoards, or at least I could have done had it not been for the clouds of cigarette smoke coming from my walking partner just ahead. The Saxons eventually overran southern England and defence works like the Wansdyke would have been left to the ravages of nature, but the Saxons must have been impressed enough to have named it after one of their great gods, Wōden.

 

     We found ourselves once again below Walker’s Hill and decided to take a different route back to the Vale of Pewsey by way of a due eastern line over the Neolithic enclosure on Knap Hill to Draycott Hill. The weather seemed favourable enough to encourage us up but what a turn it took once we were there. As the wind swirled and circled all around I soon found myself forced into a frantic search for my gloves. The next thing I knew, as I turned around to look, my walking partner was frozen to the spot, virtually encased from head to foot in snow. This most bizarre of days had suddenly turned über-weird and we were forced into a headlong fight against the icy blast of a blizzard. At the earliest opportunity we dropped 440 feet off the high downs to make our final 2 miles of the day along the sedate tranquillity of the Kennet and Avon Canal in blazing sunshine so hot it made us strip down to our T-shirts. By this time we had long past trying to figure out this perplexing weather any more than we could fathom the true purpose of Silbury Hill. In all my born days I had never experienced four seasons in one day in such spectacular circumstances. That Wiltshire is such a breathtakingly beautiful and history soaked part of the British Isles is undeniable, but it also totally unique. Large swathes of it have an energy garnered from over countless millennia that can seriously mess with our modern perceptions. When walking over these hills, something I cannot recommend highly enough, it is best to leave all your comprehensions locked in your 21st century car and just go with whatever that day of walking brings you. For when it does you need tell no one, the chances are they wouldn’t believe you anyway.