Swindon is the closest station to the start of the trail; buses run from Swindon to Coate Water, from where it is about 11km on foot to Barbury Castle. Salisbury, at the trail’s end, also has good rail links. The X5 bus runs between Swindon and Salisbury. More: salisburyreds.co.uk. The Old Forge B&B in East Kennett is a converted blacksmith’s house near Silbury Hill; theoldforgeavebury.co.uk. There are five stylish riverside guestrooms at the Troutbeck Guest House in East Chisenbury, which is attached to the Michelin-starred Red Lion Freehouse; redlionfreehouse.com. The Great Stones Way (Cicerone Press, 2016); OS Explorer maps 157 and 130. More: ordnancesurvey.co.uk; visitwiltshire.co.uk; visitbritain.com/au. pub, Tudor mansion and cream tea cafes packed into a village ringed by the country’s biggest stone circle, erected about 2500BC. There are no barriers here as there are at Stonehenge and children play hide-and-seek among the sarsens.
I leave the circle for Silbury Hill; at almost 30m high, it’s the largest man-made mound in Europe. What was it? A ceremonial site, an observatory, a giant compost heap? Archaeological excavations have uncovered no human remains inside, unlike at nearby West Kennet Long Barrow (built 3650BC), where evidence of more than 40 bodies has been found. What is known is that Silbury started as a small mound and was added to over time, like a slowly expanding ball of rubber bands. The more time I spend there, the stranger it seems; the walk from my B&B to the pub takes me past it at dusk, when all is quiet, and with the unnaturally conical hill silhouetted against a reddening sky, theories of alien activity seem almost plausible.
The next morning as I plough south, mentally scanning the landscape for tumuli, I periodically glance over my shoulder, each time seeing Silbury still looming behind. How imposing this strange mini-mountain must have seemed in a time before great buildings and monuments had been erected.
Eventually I escape from Silbury’s shadow and into a land of … well, what? The expanse between Avebury and Stonehenge has been dubbed “the great separation”, overshadowed by those sites to its north and south. But, with its unheralded man-made relics, gently rolling fields and complete absence of other people, it provides some of the most satisfying walking. For a while I follow the Wansdyke, a remnant of the early medieval period. This deep-ditched, long-forgotten earthwork once stretched for about 65km across the West Country. Then I traverse Milk Hill, a flock of paragliders swooping overhead. I pass a Georgian-era White Horse, crest Adam’s Grave, yet another Neolithic barrow, and gaze over Pewsey Vale.
A few kilometres ahead sits probably the country’s biggest henge — not that you would know it. Marden Henge’s features have been diminished by centuries of farming; Hatfield Barrow, Marden’s own 15m-high version of Silbury, was flattened in the 19th century. As I stride the unremarkable field, I just about discern earthworks first raised around the time of the Egyptian pyramids. If a jolt back to the 21st century were needed, Salisbury Plain provides it. Here, the route skirts Ministry of Defence land that booms with ordnance; I stick dutifully to the path, relieved to descend to the willow-lined River Avon. Near its banks, the Red Lion Freehouse provides Michelin-starred sustenance and a wine or two to settle the nerves.
I have broken this hike into three sections, although you could take longer, or even include short hops by bus. So the last day is a big one, both in terms of distance and historical import. After a morning walking in mizzle, I eventually approach Durrington Walls, a huge enclosure that now embraces the busy A345 but once held a settlement of about 4000 residents. Theories about it emerge all the time. For instance, large numbers of adolescent pig
Stonehenge, left; Avebury henge stone circle, top; walking the Wansdyke ancient earthwork, below left; Barbury Castle, bottom