THE RIDGEWAY NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 1: Overton Hill to Foxhill
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
With regard to public transport, the official starting point of the Ridgeway is in a bit of a no-man's-land. The only bus service passing near to the start comes from the town of Marlborough to the east, but as I was coming from Swindon, about 20 kilometres to the north, the closest bus stop was beside the Red Lion pub in Avebury Village (picture 1), about three kilometres from the start of the Ridgeway.
The pub stands right in the centre of the prehistoric Avebury Stone Circle, which is roughly divided into four quadrants by minor roads. Part of the village is inside the massive circular bank and ditch that surround the circle, though the bulk of the village lies just over the bank to the west. In addition to the main stone circle, which measures about 400 metres across, there are also two smaller inner circles.
Originally, the circles contained well over 100 standing stones, some weighing as much as 60 tonnes. All of the stones were dragged here from the Marlborough Downs, several kilometres to the east of Avebury, between 4,000 and 4,500 years ago. Parts of the Marlborough Downs are still littered with such large sandstone boulders.
Sadly, only about one third of the stones are still standing today. Many were tipped over and buried during medieval times or broken up for use in local buildings as recently as the 18th century. Some of the buried stones have been dug up and re-erected by archaeologists, while concrete markers show the locations of many of the missing stones. What remains is enough to give a good idea of what the site must have been like when first completed, though archaeologists believe the chalk banks would have been gleaming white rather than being grassed over as they are today.
While less famous and less visited than Stonehenge, about 40 kilometres away on Salisbury Plain, Avebury is every bit as interesting and has an informative museum nearby in the village. Unlike Stonehenge, one can wander freely among the stones at Avebury and there are also a number of other prehistoric remains to see within the World Heritage Site that surrounds the village. I had already managed to spend a couple of days exploring the village, the World Heritage Site and the Marlborough Downs before coming back for my first day's walk on the Ridgeway, and I'd suggest that every Ridgeway walker should plan to spend a little time to look around before setting off on the trail.
There are several different ways to get to the start of the Ridgeway from Avebury Village. The route I chose wasn't quite the most direct, but did pass by a couple of sites of interest. From the pub, I headed south past the Southern Inner Circle (picture 2) and a little further on the left side of the road to leave the main circle through a gap in the surrounding bank. Through a gate on the other side of the B4003 road, I continued heading south, parallel with the road, along the middle of West Kennet Avenue (picture 3), two long rows of standing stones that form an ancient approach to the Avebury Stone Circle. The avenue originally stretched all the way to the start of the Ridgeway, but now only the first 750 metres still stands.
At the end of the avenue, one can continue straight ahead, but it's well worth making a detour a few hundred metres to the right to make the easy climb to the top of Waden Hill. From the top there are good views of Silbury Hill (picture 4), Europe's largest man-made prehistoric monument at 40 metres high and 167 metres in diameter. The almost perfectly round mound, built around 2,400 BC, was constructed from an estimated quarter of a million cubic metres of chalk and clay. Despite numerous scientific investigations, including the excavation of three tunnels into the centre of the mound, nobody has yet discovered its purpose, though a complete lack of human remains suggests that unlike the many smaller mounds dotted about the landscape, this one wasn't used for burials.
From the end of West Kennet Avenue, a path along the side of the B4003 leads to the small village of West Kennet at a junction with the A4. The starting point of the Ridgeway is at a small carpark about 800 metres to the east along the A4 (picture 5), but there is no proper footpath beside the road, so one must be a little careful.
Opposite the carpark is The Sanctuary (picture 6), the site of some kind of circular wooden structure built about 4,500 years ago and a slightly later pair of stone circles, though nothing remains today except two concentric circles of concrete blocks marking the site of the original building.
By the road opposite the Sanctuary, the first of the distinctive Ridgeway signposts (picture 7) points northwards through the carpark beside a field containing a group of four Bronze-age burial mounds, or round barrows (visible in the background of picture 7). At the far end of the carpark, a map of the Ridgeway shows the scale of the challenge ahead (picture 8).
Leaving the carpark behind, the Ridgeway sets off across the wide open space of Overton Down on a deeply furrowed track (picture 9). Before long the view opens out to the west over a panorama of rolling farmland surrounding Avebury (picture 10). After three kilometres, the Ridgeway crosses the Wessex Ridgeway, which heads through Avebury on its way between Marlborough and Lyme Regis. The National Trail continues north for another three kilometres, crossing Monkton Down and Berwick Basset Down before bending to a more north-easterly direction for another kilometre across Hackpen Hill to a small carpark where a minor road crosses the Ridgeway at right angles.
The Ridgeway continues ahead, but first I took a diversion through a gate on the left and a short way down the steep side of the hill to see the Hackpen White Horse, a large figure created by cutting through the grass and top-soil to expose the underlying chalk. There are quite a number of large figures carved into chalk hillsides in southern England and for some reason horses are a popular subject for these. Some of them have been present for many hundreds of years, though the Hackpen White Horse only dates from 1838. In this particular case, there were some real white horses grazing on the hillside above the chalk figure (picture 11).
These figures are generally designed to be viewed from a distance, so it's quite difficult to get a decent picture when standing right on top of it. Picture 12 was taken from above the head.
Back on the Ridgeway, I followed the broad track that continues north-east across Hackpen Hill, passing by three circular stands of Beech trees before running parallel to a horse gallop with hurdles. When the horse gallop eventually turns away to the right, the Ridgeway continues ahead, descending into a valley with the massive Iron Age earthworks of Barbury Castle dominating the view on the far side (picture 13).
Reaching a crossroads on the floor of the valley, the Ridgeway turns right for about 50 metres then turns left through a metal gate into the Barbury Castle Country Park. A rough path climbs steeply up the hill and over the double banks and ditches that once fortified an Iron Age settlement here (picture 14). The path heads east across the flat grassy space inside the oval banks (picture 15), through a gap in the bank and then along the edge of a field to reach the picnic area and carpark of the country park.
The Ridgeway takes a path ahead to the right of the carpark, heading through trees at the far end before turning right on a lane by Upper Herdswick Farm. After 150 metres, a signpost points through a wooden gate on the left, taking the Ridgeway out onto a grassy path along the crest of Smeathe's Ridge (picture 16).
The grassy path along the ridge is followed for about two kilometres, with panoramic views on both sides, particularly to the east across the valley of the River Og to the hills where I would be walking later in the afternoon (picture 17).
Shortly after passing through a gate into Herdswick Farm, the Ridgeway bears left at a fork in the path and begins to descend from the ridge on a track that was quite muddy in places (picture 18). In the valley ahead, the village of Ogbourne St George grows steadily closer (picture 19).
After passing below a fenced-off reservoir, the path runs through trees to reach Draycott Close just outside the village, turning right. After 100 metres the road turns left and heads into the village, but the Ridgeway continues ahead on a rough, tree-lined vehicle track that runs between fields. At the next junction, the trail turns left to follow another track through the hamlet of Southend, with it's pretty thatched houses (picture 20), and across the River Og to meet the A346 road, which runs north to south through the valley.
Crossing over the busy road, the trail continues ahead past Elm Tree Cottage and a few minutes later between the abutments of a dismantled railway bridge (picture 21) that once carried a branch line between Swindon and Marlborough. The old trackbed is now used as a popular cycling route and before continuing on the Ridgeway, I used the cycle path to walk into the village of Ogbourne St George, about a kilometre away, which the Ridgeway had been gradually circling around for the last couple of kilometres. In search of lunch, I soon found the Parklands Hotel (picture 22) on the village High Street, with a sign outside proclaiming that walkers are welcome.
After a hearty lunch I retraced my steps back to the dismantled railway bridge, beyond which the Ridgeway climbs steadily for the next kilometre to regain the top of the chalk ridge. On the way up the hill there are ever-widening views to the left over Ogbourne St George (picture 23) and across the valley to the earlier part of the trail along Smeathe's Ridge.
As the path levels off, Old Chase Road, the second minor road to come up from the village, comes in from the left and after another 50 metres, the Ridgeway turns left at a crossroads to join a rutted and sometimes muddy track across Round Hill Downs. I found the going a little difficult here as the narrow strips of grass between the parallel furrows in the path were quite slippery after recent rain and it was a bit of an effort to stay upright.
After about 1,300 metres, the trail meets a tarmac lane at the corner of Chase Wood and bears left along it for another 400 metres to a crossroads with Copse Drove, the last minor road to come up from Ogbourne St George. The Ridgeway continues along a rough track opposite, initially between open fields before the path becomes more enclosed (picture 24).
The path continues northward through a narrow strip of trees for around 1,500 metres before the path jinks right then left where the second of two farm tracks crosses the route. A short distance further, the path passes by a stand of trees where a memorial bench for 33-year-old Paul Parker (picture 25) gives a good opportunity to take in the views over the lower ground to the west.
Just beyond the trees the path starts to descend across a shallow valley, continuing ahead when the main vehicle track bears right. Beyond a gate, the narrow bridleway joins a field-edge path that climbs over Liddington Hill (picture 26), though the path is now some distance back from the edge of the ridge and passes about 200 metres to the east of Liddington Castle, another Iron Age hill-fort, which occupies a headland at the summit of the hill.
Just after the path bends to the right, it reaches a gate where a signpost indicates a permissive path that allows a diversion of about 600 metres around three sides of the field to visit the fort which, similar to Barbury Castle, is surrounded by massive double earth banks with a deep ditch between them (picture 27). From the top of these ramparts there are far-reaching views north-west over the city of Swindon and beyond (picture 28).
From the gate where the diversion begins, the Ridgeway continues straight ahead on a farm track that soon begins to descend into a gap in the ridge (picture 29) to meet the B4192 road. Turning left along the opposite side of the road for 200 metres, the route then turns right at the Liddington Crossroads to join an unnamed road, signposted to Bishopstone.
For the next 700 metres the route runs along the very narrow verge beside the road to cross a bridge over the very noisy M4 motorway. A short distance past the bridge the verge widens (picture 30) for the last 500 metres up to a crossroads in the centre of the small village of Foxhill (picture 31) and the end of my first day on the Ridgeway. My GPS showed 35.2 kilometres walked for the day, with exactly 27 kilometres of that being on the official trail.
One of the reasons I had planned to end the day at Foxhill was that one of the guidebooks reported that there was a good pub, The Shepherd's Rest, at the crossroads. Unfortunately, it turns out that the pub closed in 2009, about the same time that the book was published, and has since been replaced by an Indian Restaurant, The Burj. Interestingly, the weathered old pub sign was still standing out the front (picture 32).
With the restaurant yet to open, all I could do was wait patiently at the bus stop for the 55 minutes until the last bus of the day came by to collect me for the short ride back to Swindon.