Archive for the Wiltshire Category

A Magical Walk in Wiltshire, Part 2

Posted in History, Landscape, Standing Stones, Wiltshire with tags , , , , , , , on September 17, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Silbury Hill is one of those fascinating mysteries that still manages to defy explanation, despite centuries of investigation and all the scientific progress of modern archaeology. It is hard to tell from photographs just how huge and impressive it is; an immense pile of chalk, the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe. Its purpose is still unknown, and historical attempts to discover burial chambers or secret tunnels were all to end in disappointment, also causing problems with the stability of the mound in modern times. But whatever it is, Silbury Hill is definitely astounding, awe-inspiring, magical.

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

It’s been many years since I visited Avebury. Last time I was there I was in my late teens, and I remember it as a peaceful, wondrous place, its huge circle of stones surrounded by a strangely mystical aura. Since then it has changed dramatically. The National Trust have moved in, and brought with them a huge car park, a visitors centre, a gift shop, and of course hordes of day trippers.

A rare moment of peace amongst the stones of Avebury, Wiltshire

A rare moment of peace amongst the stones of Avebury, Wiltshire

The drizzle began just as I entered the village, but that wasn’t the reason that I didn’t stay long. It is hard to get a sense of magic in a place like this, surrounded by crowds, traffic and silly souvenirs. Perhaps an early afternoon in August was not the best time to visit. I decided to head on, and as I walked out of Avebury along the Wessex Ridgeway the rain thankfully petered out.

Walking up to Fyfield Down, Wiltshire

Walking up to Fyfield Down, Wiltshire

Fyfield Down is a landscape like no other I have seen. Thanks to unique geological conditions, the ground here is littered with huge boulders, or sarsens, which now provide a home to many rare types of lichen.

The stone-studded landscape of Fyfield Down

The stone-studded landscape of Fyfield Down

Looking out across the Down, it is hard not to imagine that there was some human involvement in the placing of these bizarre boulders – from a distance it looks like an immense, decimated stone circle – but apparently it is all natural, despite signs that humans have lived here for thousands of years. In fact these sarsens were sometimes moved elsewhere, and used in the construction of prehistoric monuments both near and far, rather like a quarry for ready-made standing stones.

One of the huge sarsens of Fyfield Down

One of the huge sarsens of Fyfield Down

The final leg of my long walk was all downhill as I descended gradually from Fyfield into the Kennet Valley and back towards Marlborough. I was tired but happy, ready for a nap and a decent hot dinner. My walk had taken me through diverse but always beautiful landscapes filled with history, flora and fauna. It also confirmed what I have always suspected, namely that nothing dulls the atmosphere of magic like a car park full of cars and coaches. Instead I had found magic in the lesser-known places, the spots away from the beaten track. They weren’t quiet places as such, in fact they were often filled with noise; the twitter and screech of birds, the rustle of leaves, the scrabbling of something unseen in the undergrowth, the rush of the wind. But they were places where I could truly connect with the landscape, just as walkers before me have done for thousands of years on these ancient, magical paths.

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A Magical Walk in Wiltshire, Part 1

Posted in History, Landscape, Standing Stones, Wiltshire, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I set off from Marlborough later than I had intended, delayed by a huge, deliciously lardy fried breakfast. By the time I had left the town and set off along the White Horse Trail the sun was already high and bright in a blue sky flecked with fluffy white clouds. Following the trail wasn’t always easy, with marker posts few and far between, but with the help of my trusty map I managed to stay mostly on the right path.

Setting off along the White Horse Trail

Setting off along the White Horse Trail, Wiltshire

The trail led me up out of the Kennet Valley, along the edges of dusty, stubbled fields, where a flock of nervous pheasants toddled anxiously in front of me before awkwardly taking flight in a flurry of angry croaks. I scrambled through overgrown hedgerows where my legs were stung by nettles and my clothes grabbed by brambles, then down again into the West Woods.

Looking across the valley towards the West Woods, Wiltshire

Looking across the valley towards the West Woods, Wiltshire

Here I came across the ancient Wansdyke, a long, meandering earthwork consisting of a high bank and deep ditch which stretches for miles across the Wiltshire countryside. The date or purpose of the dyke are not certain, although it seems to have been constructed sometime around the Saxon period, and may well have been defensive, its name apparently a derivation of ‘Woden’s Dyke’.

The bank and ditch of the Wansdyke, Wiltshire

The bank and ditch of the Wansdyke, Wiltshire

Despite a couple of wrong turns along the network of trails in the shady forest, I eventually found the path again and soon ended up on a high ridge, looking south across the Vale of Pewsey. The views here were stunning, the low green hills fading to grey as they rolled gently into the distance.

It was obvious by now that I was nearing the magical landscape of Avebury. My map was dotted with little stars marked as Tumuli in that distinctive gothic script used by the Ordnance Survey to denote ‘sites of antiquity’. As I arrived at Knapp Hill I spotted the charmingly named Adam’s Grave, a long, low ancient burial place on the crest of a nearby hill.

Adam's Grave, Wiltshire

Adam’s Grave, Wiltshire

The next stretch of my journey was uphill again, along the ancient Ridgeway which leads northwards from this spot toward the famous White Horse of Uffington. I was now walking in the footsteps of our ancestors going back centuries, maybe even millenia, as I puffed my way to the top of the ridge.

Walking the ancient Ridgeway, Wiltshire

Walking the ancient Ridgeway, Wiltshire

Towards the summit I walked back across the Wansdyke, larger here but more overgrown with trees and scrub. The vista from the other side was magnificent, facing north now towards my destination. As I scuttled down the chalky, flint-flecked path two birds of prey, buzzards perhaps, or maybe red kites, wheeled and swooped playfully above me, their sharp cries cutting through the soft sigh of the breeze. The sun was hidden now, and I could see an ominous bank of grey cloud moving in speedily from the north.

I knew I was nearing my destination when I spotted the distinctive shape of Silbury Hill in the valley below. Soon I was in the pretty village of East Kennet, with its quiet lanes and thatched cottages, the wooded mound of East Kennet Long Barrow looming on the rise to my left. Not much later I took a short detour to see the impressive remains of West Kennet Long Barrow, now extensively excavated and open to curious visitors. Inside I noticed the strong scent of incense, and in one of the burial chambers I found a lit candle sitting next to a strange corn dolly, a pagan offering of some sort I suppose.

Huge stones around the entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire

Huge stones around the entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire

Sitting on top of the barrow offered more wonderful views of the surrounding fields, and also the opportunity to take of my heavy boots and grab something to eat. But before long I was up again, and walking down towards the main road, past an old oak tree hung with colourful ribbons and offerings, and on towards the village and prehistoric henge of Avebury.