There’s something haunting about the Marlborough Downs. Perhaps it’s their sense of openness – the wave-like hills crashing towards the horizon. Or maybe it’s the solitude – I can walk here for hours encountering only the song of skylarks raining down from the big skies. And, if I’m honest, there’s something sensual in the curves of the scarps, ridges and valleys.
But it’s mainly the atmosphere of the place.
It is a mysterious landscape, littered with earthworks, stone circles and hillforts of forgotten peoples. The writer Richard Jefferies described it as being “alive with the dead”. And whenever I’ve walked along the Ridgeway – an ancient road that clings, you guessed it, to the downland ridges – I can’t help imagining the armies, traders and herders who passed this way long ago. Everywhere there are barrows – burial mounds of ancient kings and warriors. When I’m walking alone, particularly towards evening, I find their ancient silence spooky.
Few people come here. This is because most bypass Wiltshire on their way to the honeypots of the Cotswolds, Wales or Cornwall. Travellers on the M4 might notice sweeping hills just south of Swindon, but few are tempted to take the quiet roads up on to the great chalk plateau. The motorway and Swindon form the northern border of the Downs, which are bounded also by the Lambourn Downs to the east and Devizes and Calne to the west, while the Vale of Pewsey separates this chalk upland from that of Salisbury Plain to the south. And the south is the best place to start an exploration.
Wine and white horses
I love watching the hills from the haven of The Barge Inn. This old pub in the hamlet of Honeystreet on the Kennet and Avon Canal has a garden where I recommend supping a glass of wine or a pint and watching the sun set on the ridge to the north, while swallows skim over the water and narrowboats chug by slowly.
It’s also a good place to watch the white horse galloping perpetually over the slopes of Milk Hill. This was cut into the hillside in 1812 but cleaned up in 2002 by the Wiltshire Crop Circle Study group – the Barge Inn is the epicentre of crop circle activity in the area. Wiltshire’s immense arable fields prove an irresistible temptation for aliens – or local ‘artists’ – to flatten various geometric shapes in the fields (circles are so last year). But the best vantage point to see these is the top of the downs.
Immediately to the north of Honeystreet is Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve on Walkers Hill. The impressive hump on the spur of downland above the vale is a massive long barrow known as Adam’s or Woden’s Grave. It’s a tomb with a view for a long-dead warrior, although some claim it is the resting place of a giant.
By early spring, the first downland flowers will be emerging here from the short, springy grass – harebells, cowslips and orchids. The writer HW Timperley described them in his 1939 book Ridge Way Country as “the most beautiful and pleasantest earth-covering in the world.” With the flowers emerge the tiny blue butterflies typical of chalk landscapes – the Adonis and common blue.
Heading west you’ll meet Wiltshire’s twin highest peaks, Milk Hill and Tan Hill. Both are 294m (965ft) high according to the Ordnance Survey, but as Julia Bradbury revealed on Countryfile in August 2009, Milk Hill is actually 26cm (10in) higher than its brother.
Further west you’ll meet a deep ditch running east-west. This is the Wansdyke, which sporadically links Bristol to Marlborough. It was built by the beleaguered Britons – deserted by the Roman legions in the 5th century – as a fortification to stem the Saxon advance. It didn’t work.
You can follow the Wansdyke for a couple of miles west through a roadless landscape, save for the line of a Roman road that meets the ditch just south of Cherhill (pronounced ‘cherrill’) Down. This remote National Trust-owned sweep of hills includes a series of strange humps and ditches that a soaring buzzard might be able to identify as an Iron Age hillfort (Oldbury – bury meaning fort in Saxon tongue), wildflower grassland, another white horse (this time facing north) and the Cherhill Monument – a striking obelisk built to aggrandise a Victorian worthy we’d probably deem a Z-list celebrity today. It seems too hard, vertical and masculine to fit in here.
But if you want to see the crown jewels of the Marlborough Downs, you need to leave the Wansdyke long before Cherhill Down and head north. You’ll soon notice an odd conical mound in the valley ahead of you – Silbury Hill. Despite its massive size – it’s 40m (131ft) high – it’s not natural. It was built 5,000 years ago but no one knows why. It’s not a fort, nor have excavations found human remains to suggest that it is a barrow.
The stone road to Avebury
The same cannot be said for the huge long barrow at West Kennet just to the south of the A4. This stone buttressed tomb sits incongruously in a vast field of crops, which diminishes its magic slightly – as do the folk who leave incense and tealights burning inside, ruining the stones. But it is one of the best-preserved such tombs in Britain – you can even venture in, though this is not for the faint-hearted. If you walk to the long barrow from the A4, look into the little chalk stream that you cross, the infant River Kennet. I’ve seen water voles here.
More treasures lie beyond Silbury Hill, following the line of stones north. This was once an impressive corridor of mighty sarsens, but many have been lost over time, broken up to be incorporated into local villages. In their place are slightly disappointing concrete milestones, but the overall impression is daunting. If you’re walking here in spring, listen out for a ‘zipping jingle’. It’s the song of the corn bunting, a rather dumpy, brown, finch-like bird that has declined at a terrifying rate in the past 30 years due to changes in the way we farm these landscapes. It thrives here still on grassland among the stones.
The stone corridor leads to Avebury, the purists’ favourite henge. Constructed around 1700BC, it is more random, more impressive, more romantic than Stonehenge. The stones are massive, forming two concentric circles and earthworks around a medieval village. And, like Stonehenge, no one really knows its purpose – ancient temple, clock or, if you’re a mischievous cultural historian like Jonathan Meades, it exists because humans like putting stones in pretty patterns.
Under the spell
Here you’ll find busloads of visitors pouring around the huge stones – and then diving into the gift shops and cafés. But it’s still impressive. The most exciting time to visit is during the Summer Solstice, when campervans and caravans fill the village car parks, while druids and earth mothers throng the leylines. Strangely, it really is magical.
But the origin of Avebury’s stones is less well known. Follow the chalk road east from the village up on to Avebury Down, passing many strange barrows in the empty farmland. Fans of The Lord of the Rings will know what I mean when I say that this is Barrow Downs country.
You’ll cross the Ridgeway path here, a milky white lane that draws you along it. But hold your easterly course, crossing a gallops used by nearby Manton House for training racehorses, and an extraordinary shallow valley opens up, littered with massive grey stones – 25,000 of them. This is Fyfield Down and the stones are what is left of a massive sheet of rock that broke up during the last Ice Age. From a distance, the sarsens have often been mistaken for flocks of sheep, hence their name Grey Wethers.
Fyfield Down has other natural treasures. Unploughed for centuries and only lightly grazed by sheep, it becomes a sea of wildflowers in spring and summer, while the scrub and small copses support a range of birds, from yellowhammers and willow warblers to the increasingly rare spotted flycatchers. Hares and coveys of grey partridges find shelter among the stones and I’ve even watched a stoat hunt and kill a rabbit in the valley.
Allow yourself to be swept back on to the Ridgeway as it runs north along the edge of the downs, giving you blustery views west to church spires of lowland villages with the Cotswolds beyond, past mighty Hackpen Hill with another white horse. The downs here seem more intensively farmed than further south and if you climb up here in high summer, you’ll be dazzled by the yellow blaze of rapeseed. Still, it’s good for bees they say.
Further north lie the steep defensive ditches of the Barbury Castle, site of the Battle of Beranburgh, when the Romano-Britons were defeated by the Saxons in 556. Here, you get a choice of following the Ridgeway north, or cutting back east along the spectacular Smeathe’s Ridge on the ‘new ridgeway’. The latter brings you down eventually into the hamlet of Ogbourne St George and a welcome cup of tea. The former brings you more directly to a strange and forgotten hillfort: Liddington Castle.
Relatively unknown, even to the people of Swindon whom it overlooks, this well-preserved series of ditches could be the site of one of the most epic battles of the Dark Ages. This is the Battle of Mons Badon, where the Romano-Britons, possibly led by a man who later became the mythical King Arthur, defeated the Saxons, temporarily slowing their advance. According to naturalist and historian Peter Marren, that is. In his book, Battles of the Dark Ages, Marren claims the nearby village of Baydon, Wiltshire’s highest village, could be the Badon of Dark Age history.
As you stand on the highest earthwork surveying the panorama, you can imagine how important this site was to our ancestors for defending their farms and sacred sites on the downs. More than one visitor has reported hearing the sounds of battle. For writer Richard Jefferies, it was a place to escape to: “moving up the sweet, short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling.”
But this is not the end of the journey. The Ridgeway snakes away from Liddington Castle over the M4 and towards another series of downs to the north-east. These Lambourn or Berkshire Downs hide their own ancient secrets and you’ll have to stop yourself from being drawn on by their spell.
A characterful place with no traffic noise, save the putt-putt of barges. Food is fairly standard but there is cheap camping available in the field out the back.
Ivy House Hotel, 43, The High Street, Marlborough, SN8 1HJ
The largest and most obvious hotel on Marborough’s bustling high street, the Ivy is a Grade II-listed Georgian building covered in its namesake. Simply decorated but with a delightful inner courtyard.
Formerly an 18th-century coaching inn, this is now a comfortable family-run hotel. Ideal for walking directly on to the downs or a trip to Avebury.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 32 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!
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