His­tory underfoot

Far from the crowds on Wilt­shire’s Great Stones Way

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SARAH BAXTER

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

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