I don’t know about you, but all these gloomy mornings and dark afternoons have been giving me cabin fever so when a free day coincided with a hopeful weather forecast I headed for the hills. Well, not the hills exactly – more of a ridge, but even so I reckoned I was on course for a splendid vistas, far horizons and all the rest of it.
Where was I? Hard to tell.Turns out I was on the Ridgeway, right down towards its southerly beginnings in Wiltshire, aiming for a gentle stroll from the Hackpen Hill white horse to Barbury Castle and back (and then to a cup of tea at Avebury, but more of that later).The white horse, usually visible for miles, was lost in the mist but at least the weather conditions made for some artsy photo opportunities.
Back to the Ridgeway – what it’s all about then? It’s a way for sure, along a ridge at a guess, but how come it’s one of those tracks that sound vaguely familiar? Time for a quick Google of the facts. Looks like it’s been around for 5,000 years, through the Neolithic Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Then the Romans took to it, followed at a discreet distance by the Saxons, the Vikings and anyone who was anyone ever since. Crikey. It’s route long been used for ceremony, for communication and for commerce and for good reasons it sticks to the high ground where, although exposed to the elements, it’s dryer underfoot and the open vistas provide ample warning of bandits and bad hats.
Off I went into the gloom and soon a grove of trees loomed up in a field just off the track. Now I’ve always assumed that a glade of trees on top of a hill has something to do with ancient customs, pagan worship and all the rest, so I took a look at it and kept going. But I hadn’t gone very far before another grove appeared and, now that the mist was lifting, I could see another one a bit further ahead, maybe just a quarter of a mile distant. They couldn’t all be sacred sites, could they? Well maybe, but I’ve got another idea. I think they are early road signs, planted centuries, even millennia, ago to mark the way across this exposed, featureless ridge. Take away the cultivated fields and the fences and it would be easy to go astray up here.
Imagine the drovers herding their beasts along the Ridgeway and plotting their course through rain and (yes) fog from one clump of trees to the next. Even though the path is so well fenced today that accidentally wandering off would take some doing, I too began to search for the next grove to lead me on.
The ridge narrowed as I approached Barbury Castle; to one side the plains of north Wiltshire with Swindon in the distance and the M4, heard but not seen; to the other, rolling hills, bare arable fields and racing stables’ gallops – all silent and empty on a Sunday morning. Barbury Castle itself was anything but quiet and still. This enormous 6th century BCE earthwork was full of people taking the air, dogs and children racing up and down and round the concentric walls. (OK, so it looks like it was just me and my shadow, but take my word for it, it was busy)
I stuck determinedly to the path across the centre – don’t know why as it was clear that I was missing the views – thinking of what a wonderful refuge from the perils of the journey the earthworks would have provided for the drovers and their herds over the centuries, a motorway service centre of its time (I have a soft spot for drovers, in case you hadn’t noticed). I also fell to wondering why artists’ impressions of life back in the day are always so unlifelike. I speak as one who cannot draw a straight line and make it look realistic, but even so…
On to the carpark on the far side of the castle in the hope of finding a tea truck there, but nothing doing. Just a gathering of kite flyers who, having got their craft airborne, promptly tied them to a fence, turned their back on them and had a good chat. I liked their style.
Back then the way I had come, now with a determination to seek out that white horse which had eluded me at the start. The cloud had lifted, the thing was presumably enormous so surely it was just a question of stepping into the field. Turns out 23m long representations of horses cut into the chalk hillside are not as easy to find as you might think.
This is what I was led to expect.
This is what I found.
And stepping back a bit, here it is again.
Hm. Artists’ impressions.