The Ridgeway, Barbury Castle, the old groves, the not so old white horse… after my walk on the ridge I was immersed in the ways of the ancients. Next stop? Had to be Neolithic Central, a few miles down the road. If you’ve ever been to Stonehenge you’ll know that, stunning place though it is, it does come with a hefty helping of hoo ha. All the apparatus of enablement – visitors’ centre, interpretation boards, guided tours, shop, café, loos, car park – and all that of preservation – fences, ropes, guardians and the like – are crammed into a small site, into which coach after coach disgorges its load of visitors.
Then there is Avebury. A lesser known spot which is not only bigger but, for my money, a whole lot better too. Take a look.(Thank you, English Heritage, for the aerial photo http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/avebury/) It’s a huge circular ditch of nearly a mile in diameter (that’s the henge bit), in the centre of which are two circles of rough Sarsen stones. Whereas at Stonehenge English Heritage only allows access to the stones on special occasions, here you can get right up to the stones whenever you want. There is nothing precious about Avebury and EH manage this site with a very light touch. I saw one woman using the monuments to pace her jogging route, a young family having a lovely game of hide and seek, and a well insulated couple pressing a Sarsen stone into service as a handy coffee table.
So insouciant are they hereabouts about the history in their midst that not only did a village spring up around the stones but there’s even a road running right through the middle of them. Not a mere quiet country lane either, this is a full fat, copper bottomed main road.
It negotiates three dog leg bends in quick succession but on my way in I was tailgated by that rarest of rural creatures, a country bus. A double decker too. On a Sunday. And then we met another one of these mythical beings coming the other way. Rather a nice reminder that Avebury, once a place of importance served by the Ridgeway, is still a spot serviced by the No 49 from Swindon. Old ways, new ways, same ways.
After a peaceful stroll around the perimeter in the pleasingly fading light there was just time for a look around the village before diving inside for a cup of tea. Walking from the car park, the place grated on me. Too gentrified, too twee (looking at you, Lacock).
But I take it back. Alongside The Old Vicarage, The Old Bakery, The Old Teacher’s House – gussied up bijoux every one of them – there was what looked like an old schoolroom turned village hall which was hosting a craft fair, and a row of cottages which appeared to be family homes rather than holiday lets, judging by the kids’ toys scattered around. Plus there was the general store – a community one, run by volunteers, but well stocked, busy and staffed by a charming woman with whom I bonded over our mutual conviction of the utter invincibility of flapjack. On then to the National Trust café (there’s a manor, gardens and museum to see here another day) which was a good one, offering a fine scone and excellent overheard remarks. I hear that Ascot Forest is packed full of resting actors and dancers at this time of year. Confused? Well, that’s what you get for listening in to other people’s conversations.
My journey home had one more delight in store. Heading west, I found myself driving into the most spectacularly beautiful sunset. It was so astounding that when I spotted a layby I pulled over to stop and watch the sky. I had no idea where I was exactly but by some serendipitous chance, I found myself with glorious views stretching away into the distance. Here’s the sun setting and here’s the moon rising and here, in the words of my wise friend K, are some hills that need walking.
And there, quite by chance, on the side of the old Great West Road was a milestone, a latter day way marker, just like the glades of trees along the Ridgeway.
So my day began and ended with these old guiding signs. Long superseded, they quietly mark and celebrate the journeys along their way by long forgotten travellers. It seemed a rather fitting bookending of my trip somehow.