Far from the crowds on Wiltshire’s Great Stones Way
Sitting atop a 180-year-old stallion, just off Britain’s ancient Ridgeway, I watch a man meditating inside an extra-terrestrial doodle. From my vantage, by the rump of the huge chalk figure that is Hackpen Hill’s White Horse, I see the man stroll amid a crop circle of alien (or prankster?) flattened wheat before pausing to commune, I presume, with Martians or Mother Nature. This is the sort of thing that happens when you go walking in Wiltshire, a county with maps scrawled with more gothic font than you can wave a dowsing rod at. Late last year marked the 30th anniversary of the designation of the Stonehenge and Avebury UNESCO area, one of Britain’s first World Heritage sites, but Wiltshire’s appeal is not confined to these Neolithic headliners.
I am hiking the Great Stones Way, which runs from just south of Swindon to Old Sarum, north of Salisbury. Launched five years ago, the Way has not been 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 almost 58km that doesn’t pass any “great stones”. However, follow the detours suggested in the official guidebook (increasing the route to 85km) and you can incorporate both Avebury and Stonehenge, as well as the ancient landscape in which they sit. As I tramp along, it seems those naysayers had worried unnecessarily. Some stretches, overgrown and thorny, look unused since Neolithic times. Packed with ramblers it is not, which is perhaps a disappointment for the Way’s organisers but a boon for me as I hike in peace.
The walk starts inauspiciously with a bus ride through Swindon’s unlovely outskirts, a roundabout, an underpass and a pedestrian bridge over the M4. But soon I pick 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 gives directions, and a warning, “They should change the name. Tourists expect turrets!”
In fact, Barbury “Castle”, a 4.45ha Iron Age enclosure 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 World War II, when Allied troops were stationed there. There are no barriers around the Avebury stones, and I can’t help but touch the hefty sarsens, wondering at their meaning.
It is soon after Barbury that I pause by Hackpen’s chalky horse. I also chat to a coach driver ferrying French tourists between the season’s crop circles; he is waiting by the gate as his group further tramples the wheat. Doesn’t the farmer mind? “This farmer charges a fee, which he donates to charity,” the driver says. “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 of which are on my route.
Guided by geomancy or otherwise, I am soon in Avebury, a profoundly English scene with its thatched