VALE of PEWSEY & KENNET VALLEY – 17 miles – Friday 19th April 1991
In his ‘National Trust Book of Long Walks’ Adam Nicolson suggests anyone walking the Ridgway National Trail should acclimatise themselves beforehand by walking the lesser known stretch from Pewsey to Avebury. I had planned to start 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 near Lyme Regis and headed northeast over Cranborne Chase, Salisbury Plain and the Vale of Pewsey to Overton Hill in Wiltshire. From there today’s national trail runs for 85 miles to Ivinghoe Beacon and beyond that the ancient track continues 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 in turn led to the great megalithic monuments we see today. In 1991 this prep walk would be 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. Before then we had to stop in Pewsey to buy something to eat from a local convenience chain that was popular at that time. The Indian guy who ran it was clearly an Elvis fan judging by the sign in the window; ‘Elvis Patel at Grace Londis.’ What a fantastic start to 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 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 can you appreciate how intricate and incredibly symmetrical these things are, though I’m not sure local farmers see it that way. Days later this design made national headlines and the farmer was charging people to go in, it was later used for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Remasters’ album.
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 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 invading Saxons out. At roughly 50 miles 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 the best of it was to be seen in the latter half of our 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, 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 again, 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 I would love to see a picture of this. It was more of a service station in the days before the M4 was built. Of more interest to us was a field to the left with a curious set of circles made of concrete blocks marking 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 it was the first of a number of hugely impressive ancient sites to be visited that day, so significant that the whole area was declared a UNESCO 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.
Exploration of this ponderous little spot was curtailed by a sudden deluge and we took shelter in the lee of a fallen tree 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 in blazing sunshine, the earlier rainfall having drifted beyond the surrounding plains. 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, a full 33 feet. Over a period of 1,000 years 46 people were buried within 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. Rather like us, the ancient people of this land turned their attention to other projects 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 to some of the smaller pyramids of Giza. Radio carbon dating ages it at around 4,500 years. Shaped like a giant Christmas pudding, it has a flattened terrace 100 feet in diameter. Several attempts to excavate and tunnel into the hill revealed nothing and only served to destabilise the overall structure to such an extent that public access is no longer allowed, though that message escaped one individual 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 it would remain that way. In just over mile we found ourselves in a village unlike any other in the UK.
Avebury, or part of it, sits within the remains of a massive stone circle of 28 acres, the largest in Europe. Built around 2,600 BC it 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 is mostly gone both physically and visually with a large number of the stones missing. Most of the damage stems from 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. That what we 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 re-erected 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 an appreciation of the sheer scale and size of this impressive place.
Visiting Avebury on a day walk can be very 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 line of the Wansdyke, now an imposing embankment along the brow of the hill. Compared to the 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 walked 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 attacking from the north and east, 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 defences 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.
As we found ourselves below Walkers Hill we decided on 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 at first but it soon turned on us again 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 an Artic like 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 have never experienced such a four season day in one. 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.