Day One – Avebury to Pewsey
The front cover of OS Explorer 157, the map used for the first stretch of this hike, shows one of Avebury’s ancient stones bathed in sunshine on a beautiful day. Unfortunately, the scene that greeted us as we stepped off a steamy bus was the complete opposite. Leaden skies, low cloud and drizzle that these islands specialise in would be the conditions for the start of this hike. As a keen reader of history, I was excited to see the stone circle and explore the site. They are undoubtedly impressive and of great cultural significance. But it was miserable, so we didn’t waste much time getting on our way. It seemed February was perhaps not the best time to begin a long distance hike, but by the end, we were delighted to have done it
In theory, our route would follow the Great Stones Way between two of Britain’s most significant heritage sites. However, this particular path was a fairly new creation and was not on our map. Instead, we would follow a number of tracks, and rely on our own navigation skills on some stages of the hike. In addition, the full route of the Great Stones Way runs from just south of Swindon down to Salisbury, something we didn’t have time for on this occasion. Significant landmarks would arrive early on this hike, and within half an hours soggy trudge the first came in to view. Silbury Hill, an impressive man-made pyramid. According to English Heritage, there are no burial chambers within this huge mound of earth, and they estimate it was completed in 2400BC. This was our first taste of history on a hiking route I had heard intriguingly described as Britain’s Inca Trail. Mulling over the mysterious hill, we continued on, crossing the road and began a gradual ascent up through farmland to the site of West Kennet Long Barrow.
Hampered by the growing wind and drizzle, we battled the slippery path to reach the top of the hill. Large Sarsen stones marked the entrance to the barrow. It was a great experience to have such an ancient and significant piece of history all to ourselves. When entering into the first chamber, the noise of the wind was muffled and the darkness grew the further we stepped in. There was an eerie atmosphere in the tomb, and a sour smell heightened the sense we were intruding on an ancient and secret place. Up to fifty people had been buried here, their identities lost to the depths of time.
After spending a while observing the barrow and absorbing its significance, a fresh burst of wind and rain prompted us to continue onwards. Slipping and sliding down the hill in an easterly direction, we joined up with the White Horse Trail that we would be following south. The sky was an ominous dark colour as we began once again to climb up into the hills, with the sun occasionally blazing through the thick cloud, like a searchlight scouring the land. We had reached an elevation of nearly 275 metres at this point, a height that is not always associated with this part of the country. Ignoring a path crossing us going directly east, we followed a track that balanced upon the ridge of the hills, overlooking an impressive slope that plunged steeply down towards a farmstead.
We abruptly stumbled upon the White Horse Hill Figure that faced outwards towards the small settlement of Alton Barnes. Imprinted on the face of these steep hills, the figure would be an impressive sight to anyone looking northwards from the valley below. These hills were home to Pewsey Downs Nature Reserve, but any sightings of birds and wildlife were not forthcoming as the wind swirled and battered the hillside. After a brief diversion to summit the pointy Walkers Hill, we continued east along the ridgeline for another hour. The Vale of Pewsey was to our south, and we would be staying at a B&B in the village.
To the south of Huish Down farm, we found a short but steep path that abruptly cut down from the hills towards flatter ground. We reached the small settlement of Oare with the sun sliding rapidly beyond the horizon. Due to this, we followed the A345 southwards rather than the White Horse Trail. Guided by the beams of our head torches, we eventually entered Pewsey in the pitch black. Our accommodation for the evening certainly showed us the spirit of the area. Guided to our room by our friendly host, I noticed several books detailing the intricacies of crop circles arranged on the bookshelf. In addition, we were hastily directed towards a menu that had been left on the bed, not of food but instead describing a number of probing massages and intimate spa treatments that were available during our stay. Being as diplomatic as we could, we gently declined our eager host as he rubbed his hands in anticipation. The bedroom door would remain locked that night.
Day Two – Pewsey to Durrington
Having resisted the urge to be massaged by a stranger or inducted into an alien-worshipping cult, we continued southwards out of Pewsey in the direction of the Pewsey White Horse. In theory, we would need to follow the River Avon southwards towards our destination. However, following the river would not always be possible, and we wanted to walk a more imaginative route. We aimed to explore some of the vastness of the Salisbury Plains. The climb up past the chalk figure was steep and slippery. At the top, we looked back south. Despite being only 200 metres high, we had wide-ranging views of the Vale of Pewsey and could see the steep ridgeline of hills we had descended from the previous day. After initially heading east along a quiet road, we cut back onto the fields, our first target was the small settlement of Lower Everleigh.
It was a beautiful day for walking. The late winter sun always seemed low in the sky, compelling us to don caps and sunglasses, and the first thoughts of spring entered our minds. Apart from some patchy woodland to our left, and some gently rolling hills ahead of us the landscape was fairly sparse. Our path was a narrow one between both farmland and intriguingly, areas cordoned off by the Ministry of Defence. The thought of a wrong turn in one direction incurring the wrath of a disgruntled farmer, or a misstep in the other alerting the might of the British Army to our presence was an entertaining one. As it was we proceeded unchecked by pitchfork or gunfire.
We reached Lower Everleigh, and after a brief refuel left following a path taking us in a southwesterly direction. The aim was to gradually traverse the plains and reach the River Avon at a point near Coombe. Here, the paths were not straightforward to follow, with little or no waymarkers to be seen. We wasted a fair amount of time squabbling over our exact location. Eventually, we decided to proceed with our course and not worry too much about such minor details as to where we actually were. There is always a temptation to look at a map and force your surroundings to fit the picture. The map was temporarily put away and the compass solely relied upon for a couple of hours.
The tranquillity of the day was disrupted by two unexpected events. The first occurred as we approached a small wooded slope, in which we intended to have a short break. A distant rumble was initially felt, and a low pitched drone made us stop abruptly and turn around. Hurtling down a track towards us were two heavily armoured jeeps, gun turrets ominously manned, followed by two huge tanks, eating up the ground with surprising speed. I shot a despairing look at Lisa, ready to confess I may have dropped an apple core near a Ministry of Defence sign earlier on in the day. However, it appeared they were out on a training exercise, not seeking retribution for an ill-judged piece of litter. To my delight, I received a wave from a soldier on top of one of the tanks, and I returned the gesture, trying desperately to remain calm and appear unimpressed. I was informed later that my manic waving and jumping on the spot may not have had the desired effect.
The second event occurred about an hour later. We had reached a high point on the plains, and our path would soon head downwards steeply towards a large fold in the ground. What appeared to be three dune buggies were tearing up the fields with wanton abandon, spraying mud in all directions. The drivers were evidently not appreciating the ancient significance of the plains and seemed intent on causing as much noise as possible. At one point a buggy became stuck in a bog, resulting in his fellow drivers ramming the vehicle in an attempt to free it. Startled dog walkers looked on as we took a wide route around the mayhem.
The last stage of the day would be following paths and country roads running alongside the River Avon. Our location was Durrington, a village nestled between a curve of the river on its west side and a busy A road. With map in hand, we passed through Haxton, Figheldean and Ablington, seeing for the first and only time a waymarker for the Great Stones Way. As night rapidly approached, we crossed the river and found our accommodation at Durrington, sadly devoid of the eccentric charm of our previous night’s room. Tomorrow would be an exciting day exploring one of Britain’s most revered prehistoric monuments.
Day Three – Stonehenge
To our immense relief, a bright and crisp day had dawned as we began our short walk to Stonehenge. Throughout this hike, we had passed barrows, burial mounds and other areas of historical interest without even noticing. Durrington Walls is another that was almost forgotten as we hurried towards Stonehenge. The large, raised area had been a fortified Neolithic settlement, defended by banks and ditches. As was the former site of Woodhenge, which we passed through as we left the busy road. Markers now replicate where buildings and pillars would have stood had they survived the ravages of time. On we went with anticipation building, and after about a mile we glimpsed our first sighting of Stonehenge.
Finally seeing Stonehenge almost took us by surprise. Turning left out of a narrow wooded avenue, we gazed across what appeared to be an inconsequential field and spotted the unmistakable outline of the stones. Indeed, the whole field was filled to the brim with history. Resisting the urge to cross country directly towards Stonehenge, we instead walked south for a short while towards the intriguingly named Old King Barrows. These barrows were significant in size but were seemingly ignored. If visitors to this area had a bit more imagination, they would leave with a more well-rounded view of why it is so significant. As it was we were pleased to be here alone. Further down the path were more barrows, and we pondered the mysterious mounds for a while, considering who was laid to rest here and what they had achieved in life to afford them such a burial.
Between the two sets of barrows runs The Avenue. This ancient path was the well-worn route ancient pilgrims would have taken as they approached the site from the east. The path undulated and dipped before rising to reveal Stonehenge in all its glory. Set against a clear pale sky the stones resembled the earth’s bones rising from the ground. Sunlight glinted of both stone and tourists cameras the nearer we got. The romance and intrigue of the occasion were somewhat stifled in the form of a chain-link fence barring our way about twenty metres from the stones. Both English Heritage and National Trust are involved in preserving the site from damage, so these precautions are unfortunately a necessity. Until recently you could walk straight up to the monument, and Stonehenge was only “gifted” to the nation in the early twentieth century by a landowner. Frustratingly we were told to board a bus taking us the short way to a visitor centre to purchase admission. Again, understandable from an administration point of view, but our sense of adventure how now fully worn off.
However, these were minor complaints in what had been a fantastic three days. The stone circle was impressive and thought-provoking, the visitor centre excellent. It is clear to see why these plains and hills have been a key pilgrimage spot for archaeologists and historians alike. Barrows and mounds surround Stonehenge on a scale I was unaware of. We eventually left the site three hours later delighted to have spent three days exploring the area and pondering the mysterious origins of the stones. In terms of the route we had chosen, it was enjoyable not following one distinct path, and navigating our own route. I would highly recommend arriving at Stonehenge on foot, as it felt as if we had completed a modern-day pilgrimage and walked in the footsteps of our own ancient ancestors.