Walk in Depth: Great Stones Way
Chris Hatherill explores the Ridgeway’s ‘missing link’ between two of Britain’s most spectacular Neolithic monuments, which will soon be opened up as the newly created Great Stones Way
Stretching from The Wash to the shores of Dorset, the Ridgeway traces the outline of history itself. A massive band of chalk forming the backbone of England’s oldest road network, this geologically defined artery has provided a favourable route for travellers through the ages – from Neolithic stonecutters and Iron Age chieftains to Roman legions and Saxon hordes. Coursing through nearly a dozen counties, it bisects the south-eastern part of the British mainland, offering sturdy, free-draining terrain. Often elevated, and affording views of the surrounding landscape, it was also a safe passage in more dangerous times – giving warning of bandits and approaching armies.
Today, the only opposition you’re likely to encounter is the many walkers, trekkers, cyclists, horse riders and other users who flock to the various trails along the Ridgeway. The myriad tracks that formed the Greater Ridgeway have coalesced into four main trails. In the north, the Peddars Way National Trail follows a Roman road from Hunstanton to Knettishall, and will this summer celebrate its 25th anniversary. In central England, the Icknield Way (recently expanded, thanks to the efforts of Suffolk Ramblers) joins up with the 139km/87-mile Ridgeway National Trail. And from the south coast, the Wessex Ridgeway winds north from Lyme Regis. But something is missing – and its location makes its absence even more of a mystery.
A missing link
If you look at a map of the Ridgeway National Trail, you’ll see that it ends abruptly as it passes Avebury, pointing directly south towards Stonehenge. As Friends of the Ridgeway chairman Ian Ritchie points out, it’s baffling that these two national monuments aren’t linked via a clear trail – especially as it’s likely that they once were.
“The Ridgeway National Trail we’re associated with is a fairly arbitrary bit in the middle,” he admits. “Our ultimate aim is to have the whole of the Ridgeway opened as a superb 360-mile walking route across the entire country, from the south coast to East Anglia. When you look at it, the bit that’s missing – quite incredibly – is the section from Avebury to Old Sarum, via Stonehenge. There’s this classic area between the two great stone circles that isn’t really a defined walking route at the moment.”
And so he hopes the creation of the 61km/38-mile Great Stones Way, using existing footpaths and rights of way, will finally plug this most scenic of gaps. The exact route is still to be decided, but the Ridgeway has always been a braided collection of tracks and trails that changed with the seasons, so it’s less a case of finding the definitive route than picking out the one that works best. Modern travellers reaching the end of the current Ridgeway National Trail at Overton need only cross the A4 to continue along the chalk escarpment. But our exploration of the proposed route of the Great Stones Way begins a mile and a half to the northwest, at one of the sites that gives the trail its name.
The stone circle at – and indeed around – Avebury is the largest in the world, stretching out from the present-day high street in a great ring around the eastern edge of the village. Setting off from the centre, I head south to retrace the footsteps of the ancients up the West Kennet Avenue (above), believed to have been one of two ceremonial entrances to the site. Avebury’s stones may be smaller and more spaced out than their more famous relatives to the south, but it’s a unique feeling to walk alone among them. Indeed, the 17th century re-discoverer of the site, John Aubrey, wrote that Avebury “does as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doeth a parish Church”.
Passing the even more ancient Sanctuary stone circles, which date from 3,000BC, I rejoin the modern world at East Kennet and pick up the route that will lead south from the Ridgeway. As the trail rises on to a chalky uphill section and the surrounding landscape falls away, it’s easy to see why these ancient byways might have appealed to travellers of old. In the distance, Avebury’s abrupt stones suddenly leap out of the landscape, while to their southwest the ancient mound known as Silbury Hill rises like a beacon. It makes navigation easy, but before long it’s time to bid these prehistoric markers farewell and head south. A beautiful section of wooded road at the top of the hill feels like a division between two worlds, and when the view opens up again I find myself looking over the Vale of Pewsey.
Detours and diversions
Descending into the sunshine and then ascending to skirt the Neolithic long barrow known as Adam’s Grave, my path affords stunning views to the south. A proposed circular route would branch out from this fascinating section, taking in the Wansdyke and one of the eight white chalk horses that dot the hills and give the White Horse Trail its name. Picking up part of this 145km/90-mile circular trail, I carry on south before meeting the Kennet & Avon Canal at Honeystreet. Though it’s been highly recommended, The Barge Inn here is currently closed, undergoing final preparations for the summer, so I head off along the towpath, making do with a granola bar instead. From the canal, the proposed route winds through farmland, villages and endless bridleways overflowing with spring blossom, before climbing up to the edge of Salisbury Plain. It’s here that matters get complicated for the Great Stones Way’s planners, as negotiations continue with the MoD to decide the best way to skirt the military ranges.
As Ian Ritchie explains, “We all have to accept that in times gone by the Great Ridgeway would have gone straight across the centre of Salisbury Plain. But we’re never going to get a 365-day-a- year trail across the centre of the plain because the Ministry of Defence runs exercises there – and fires some rather dramatic ordnance across the route. So we’re talking to them about a permissive path around the eastern edge.”
For now, I leave the eerie silence of the empty downs and make my way down into the Avon Valley. As dusk falls, a solitary hawk seems to beckon me down from the sun-orange hills on to an overgrown bridleway that leads towards civilisation. After the strange emptiness of the hills, the cosy thatched cottages, pubs and inns along the river offer a welcome break – it’s this area that could form an alternative route on the eventual Great Stones Way. The next morning dawns clear and bright and, as I set off, the sun dances on the River Avon, illuminating gurgling waterfalls and spiders’ webs in the dewy grass. It seems a shame to leave the riverside and join a tank track to head back towards the military range, but
duty calls. An Apache attack helicopter roars overhead as if to encourage (or perhaps discourage?) me and I’ve soon completed the dull but traffic-free approach to Woodhenge. Though less well known than its stony cousin, this low-key monument and the mysterious Durrington Walls to its north make a fitting warm-up for the main event.
Silence and stones
Having – like far too many of us – only glimpsed it from a passing car on the A303, I’m genuinely excited to at last be nearing Stonehenge. As with much of the walk so far, I find myself completely alone in the landscape as the path traces its way past little tracts of woodland. At the edge of one such pocket an unassuming sign tells me I’m standing at the edge of the Cursus, a vast manmade causeway stretching a full three miles to the west. Looking across to the gap in the distant trees that marks its far edge feels like gazing back across the millennia, and I wonder what sort of scene would have greeted a traveller arriving here 3,000 years earlier.
Now well and truly transported into the past, I round the last few bends and, suddenly, there it is. Though small and distant, Stonehenge still has the power to stop me in my tracks. It looks like a tiny, postcard-perfect model set on the landscape, and from a distance the tourists and tour buses are too small to detract from the first impression. As I open the final gate and start down the ancient avenue that leads to the henge – and the route that was most likely used to transport the stones – I can’t help but think that walking this final stretch should be a mandatory part of the experience. As it is, the spell is broken by a fence that surrounds the site, barring my path for the first time on my walk. If English Heritage’s plans to close the A344 and reconnect the circle with an ancient processional avenue come to fruition, future visitors will be able to enjoy a more authentic experience of Stonehenge. Combined with the Great Stones Way – which Ian Ritchie hopes will launch later this year – it should make a breathtaking finale to an unforgettable walk, experiencing an epic landscape the way our ancient ancestors once did.
Photography: Steve Morgan
TIME/DISTANCE: Allow at least two days to walk the entire 61km/38-mile route from Avebury to Old Sarum. Apart from a few muddy bridleways, the walking is generally very easy, with no steep ascents or scrambles.
MAPS: OS Explorer 130 and 157; Landranger 173 and 184.
TRAVEL TO: Nearest mainline train station is Swindon (✆ 0845 748 4950, www.nationalrail.co.uk). Bus number 49 runs from Swindon bus station to Avebury hourly Monday to Saturday and every two hours on Sundays and Bank Holidays (✆ 0871 200 2233, www.traveline.info). Salisbury train station is just south of Old Sarum.
GUIDEBOOK: The Friends of the Ridgeway are currently working on a dedicated guidebook for the Great Stones Way. For onward walks either side, read The Greater Ridgeway by Ray Quinlan (£12.95, Cicerone, ISBN 9781852843465).
FURTHER INFO: www.ridgewayfriends.org.uk/greatstonesway.html.