|My first trip to Wiltshire of the year, and summer is a comin’-in. The ever-handy 49 bus drops me just north of Broad Hinton, as today I’ve decided to approach Avebury from the north along the Ridgeway, as recommended by Mr. Aubrey Burl. The quiet walk along minor roads to Uffcott reacquaints me with the joys of wide Wiltshire skies, with the downs rising over to the east, topped by the long line of the Ridgeway.
Walking from Uffcott gives a slow and steady approach to Barbury Castle, today’s first objective and the proper start of the walk. A week or so earlier, G/F and I had a wander round Old Oswestry
, which frankly blew me away in its scale and ambition. As a result, I’m not expecting quite so much from Barbury, but you should never, ever, underestimate what you might find at a prehistoric site. You’d think I would have learned that by now.
As the rampart looms above me and the climb steepens, it’s already becoming apparent that this is going to be a good ‘un. The first thing properly encountered is a fine disc barrow set below the western entrance to the site, constructed on the slope and facing westwards over the edge of the down. The disc is actually easier to see from the approach than close-up. A smaller round barrow lies to the northeast, closer to the bottom of the hillfort rampart. On another day, in another place, these two would be enough to linger over. Here though, the pull of the earthwork is too much and I make my way up onto the bank.
I make my way clockwise around the outer ditch. Up close, the earthworks really are very impressive indeed, the ditch still deep despite 2,000 years of silting. There are terrific open views from here. Liddington Castle
, the next substantial hillfort to the northeast, can be seen on the horizon. Over to the east the views stretch across the Marlborough Downs, while to the south the fort commands views of anyone coming down the Ridgeway. Once inside the splendour of banks and ditches, there is little else to be seen. The real joy of the visit is undoubtedly in the perimeter and the views from it. A week after Old Oswestry, Barbury Castle is certainly holding its own. A gem of a fort, all in all.
Finally dragging myself away from the wonderful fort, I join the Ridgeway as it heads southwest. After an initial drop back down the road, the gradient climbs steadily, which provides a decent retrospective view of the fort. A couple of sizeable sarsens, marked on the OS map as BSs (boundary stones) point the traveller on their way. The weather has been fairly dry and the Ridgeway itself makes for pleasant walking without huge amounts of mud. Apart from a couple of horse riders and a group walking in the opposite direction, it’s pretty quiet along here. The steady rhythm of walking, the open landscape and the tranquillity of an English summer lift the heart and clear the head. Begone dull care!
Just below Hackpen Hill, the other world briefly intrudes onto this idyll, with weekend traffic flowing steadily along the Marlborough road. I resist the temptations offered by various (presumably Medieval) earthworks and the Hackpen white horse, choosing instead to keep the onward progress going. Sometimes you just need to walk, really. A similar impulse keeps me from visiting a solitary round barrow at the foot of Berwick Bassett Down (Berwick Bassett, incidentally, would make a great name for a character in a 1930s pulp novel, perhaps an investigative reporter).
At length I reach a fork in the track. The Ridgeway carries on its stately progress due south, but I’m leaving it here and taking the other fork, the White Horse Trail towards Clatford. Not without regret, as the section of Ridgeway between here and the Herepath junction would provide the first views of my ultimate objective, Avebury. My chosen route will delay that pleasure for quite a bit longer, but there are other pleasures ahead, less well travelled than the great henge.
The track skirts the very edges of the Grey Wethers sarsen drift on Fyfield Down. As it passes through Totterdown wood, it becomes apparent that some of drift has been subsumed into the shade of the trees. It’s rather odd to come across the great stones here, mossy and green, when in the mind’s imagining they stand exposed to wind and weather on the open downs.Out of the woods, past more scattered sarsen, my route crosses the Herepath in a dogleg and then I’m into horse racing country at Clatford Down. After the Ridgeway and Totterdown Wood, the manicured sweep of the gallops is jarring to the senses. But better this than a golf course, I suppose. The unlikely upright of Long Tom appears a couple of fields away – it’s not on the map and I’d forgotten of its existence. I don’t approach, but even from a distance it looks oddly unprehistoric, perhaps because its slender profile is so unlike the other megaliths of this part of Wiltshire. A hundred yards or so to the east, I come across the broken stump of another sarsen upright, but I have no idea if it has any age to it.
South of the Clatford Down gallops I finally part with the White Horse Trail, taking a bridleway southwest towards the second site of the day. As the path follows the contour of the hillside, Devil’s Den comes into view. This is one of those sites that you’ll already have seen, even if you’ve never been to it. Something of a celebrity, even in a county that boasts some of the biggest A-listers of them all. It’s great to see it first from afar, how it sits in its valley, tucked away below the windy downs.
Devil’s Den is something of a triumph in another way, as although the OS map shows it standing off the right of way, the little triangle of land is subject to permissive access, which means you can go and spend as long as you like there without worrying about any confrontation. This is a relief, because it’s a site I want to savour. No rushing here. The chamber sits on top of a little mound, all that remains of a much larger structure. The field is turning to meadow, and will be a haven for chalkland flowers and insect life. Beneath the low spread of grasses, the surface is completely littered with chalk and bits of flint, presumably turned up by years of ploughing but now left discarded in the sun.
I love this site. The whole structure looks poised, as if about the march away across the Wiltshire landscape. The sky has turned somewhat cloudy now, but rather than diminishing the visit it adds an extra drama to the backdrop. I could stay here a long time, and so I do.
Time passes, not a soul approaches. Just how a site visit should be.
The next part of the walk is a bit less straightforward. I’m hoping that I can find the Polisher, but I don’t actually know where it is. I know photos on TMA show a gallops fence nearby, but that’s about all I’ve got. Most significantly, I don’t know which side of the Herepath it’s on. The only thing to do is to wander.
Wandering in the drifts of Fyfield Down is a good thing though. After entering the Down at its southeastern corner, I’m immediately confronted by the scale of the drift itself. I’ve never really seen anything quite like it. I have a quick look at the Fyfield 1 and 2 barrows
, but really even these are overshadowed by the natural landscape here. From here I follow the ribbon of the Mother’s Jam, coming across The Monster Stone as I wander. Yep, it really is a monster. Other treats here include the experimental earthwork
, slowly decaying as intended. Overton Down (south)
may be just about the least impressive round barrow I’ve seen in Wiltshire, a barely-there mound under nettles – get the sheep in, someone.
Much wandering later, just as I’m on the verge of reluctantly giving up, I spot a pointy stone, which looks familiar. And so it proves to be, the unmistakable grooves of the Polisher lying just beyond. I’ll be honest, I’m feeling a bit pleased with myself at this point, but even without the extra euphoric boost, this would be a winner all day long every day.
I won’t try to describe the stone, the pictures do that better. Instead I’m going to lie down with my head resting on its smooth surface and enjoy the peace for a few minutes.
That’s better. Where was I? Oh yes, on my way to Avebury (just in case you’d drifted off too). Back on course then, after what has been quite a detour. From Fyfield Down the Herepath cuts across Overton Down and starts its descent to the great centre below. There are some decent barrows to be seen en-route, on both sides of the path. As always I get the feeling I’m only scratching a very superficial depth into the chalky surface of this landscape.
By the time I reach the eastern entrance of the henge I’m tired and the sky has turned much darker. As always though, meeting the huge stones of the circle boosts my flagging energy in a way that Red Bull will never be able to replicate.
I don’t take the full tour today. Today’s efforts have been focused on getting here through the landscape, the journey being the reward for once. Instead I have a mooch to the Cove
(still my favourite setting in the whole complex) and the southern quadrants. I finally take up residence on the sloping bank above the ditch of the southwestern quadrant, not quite at the bottom but on a level with the stones. Arriving at such a busy place after the quiet of the Downs would usually irk me, but today I enjoy watching the different interactions people have with the stones. Some stand in awe, some touch, some just have their picture taken. From where I sit, the voices are muted and the words don’t carry, except one who is expounding something about the electrical properties of the stones.
Ah, Avebury in the summertime. Long may it be a focal point, the builders would surely approve.
Posted by thesweetcheat
6th February 2014ce
Edited 6th February 2014ce
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