A Pilgrimage to Avebury
James and I have a long-distance walk coming up soon and, to be ready for it, we have been ‘getting some miles in’. The other day, I was pondering what we might do, and thought of walking to Avebury.
Now, it is possible to walk to Avebury from home, but it is at least 22 miles. We could not walk there-and-back, and nor did we have the option of a car-shuttle. I decided we would start from somewhere further along the route: we would walk to Avebury along the Ridgeway and the Herepath; we would walk around the entire stone circle; we would have tea in the National Trust tearoom; and we would then return by the same route.
I chose Barbury Castle as the starting point. It’s a huge Iron Age hillfort on the edge of the Marlborough Downs. Although only 260 metres above sea-level, it is a commanding point, and offers panoramic views. Anyone wishing to attack it would have faced a steep climb in preparation, and then have met with defensive earthworks, and double ramparts separated by a deep ditch. I always find it an atmospheric place. You can walk on both the outer and inner ramparts, and within and around are wide open spaces perfect for flying a kite.
It was bright and clear but cold and our fingers fumbled as we tied our laces. We were keen to get walking but took the time to fit our gaiters too, as I knew that a long stretch of this route had deep furrows which would be full of icy water. We set off across the field and decided to walk around the southern ramparts: James took the inner one; and I took the outer one. It was very still, and the visibility was fantastic. Away across the field, we could see a kite flying, but we could not see the person flying it, and our only companions were sheep.
We walked on, across the minor road, above the Hackpen White Horse, which may have been cut in 1838 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria. James admired the sheets of ice which had formed across the puddles; I admired the beech trees stretching up to a blue sky in which the Red Kites circled.
Although it was well-below freezing, there was barely a whisper of wind, the sun felt warm on our backs. There was hardly anyone else about. The stretch above Monkton Down was indeed slow-going due to deep troughs of water. James was fascinated by these and I kept having to nag him away with a reminder that an error would mean wet and cold feet for the rest of the walk. Why is it that children are more attracted to water than they are to dry feet? We left the Ridgeway for the Herepath and began our descent into Avebury. It was warm, and the chalk balled up under our boots as snow does sometimes. We could not shed it, and so slid our way down the path towards the great beech trees and the great stone circle. The road, when we reached it, felt hard under our feet after the chalk and grassland.
The great stones of Avebury never fail to arouse in me a sense of wonder. There is something really evocative about arriving at them on foot. Perhaps it’s because it’s only by doing so that you can begin to appreciate what the site must have meant to people all those millennia ago: you feel like a pilgrim yourself. You also feel quietly superior to anyone arriving by motorised transport. James put it perfectly: ‘Mummy!’ Most of these people got here in a car! Pah! That’s not very adventurous!’ Although it could hardly have been considered ‘busy’, the village of Avebury felt like a buzzing metropolis compared to the solitude we had experienced on our walk.
We walked on, looking forward to our circuit of the henge, when…. Shock! Horror! We found the north-east sector closed for erosion control! (This was before the recent ‘Deep Freeze’ and the extremely mild winter until that point had left the site waterlogged and at particular risk from the passage of feet). We had to admire our favourite beech trees from behind the fence. To console ourselves, we made for the tearoom, where James set about eating his own bodyweight in cake.
Later, we found one of the sectors was open and so were able to walk among some of the wonderful stones before returning to the Herepath and then to the Ridgeway. We retraced our steps, stopping more frequently as tiredness took hold. The colours were rich in the light of the afternoon sun, and there was still only a faint whiff of breeze, but I kept the stops brief: we needed to keep going. The walking was measured in bounds: here to the bench; the bench to the lake; the lake to the Horse; the Horse to the Castle; the Castle to the car. Mini Jaffa Cakes, hot Vimto, and poems repeatedly restored James’s energy and humour.
We climbed the slopes of Barbury Castle, choosing this time to trace the lines of the northern ramparts as the light began to fade. Ours was the only car in the car park. We had walked 14 miles across one of the most important prehistoric landscapes in Britain. We felt quietly satisfied, but wondered where everyone else had been. Another time, we will walk to Avebury from home and complete our circuit of the henge… I will remember to check it is open before setting off!
About the Author
About Me & Mine
Hi there! Helen and Ian here from the Oxfordshire-Wiltshire border! We have two boys who love everything in the Great Outdoors (especially sticks), and a border collie who also loves everything in the Great Outdoors (especially tennis balls). We also have a toddler daughter who is fiercely independent and proving to be just as intrepid as her brothers.
Favourite place in the world:
A difficult one... There are so many wonderful places to choose from... But it has to be Sandwood Bay in the far north-west of Scotland which can only be reached by a 4-mile walk. Last time we went it was a full-on winter mountaineering experience (with ice axe and crampons!) just to get there. Wild and windswept, it's totally unspoilt.
Favourite things to do outdoors:
Enjoy beaches, woods, and coastal paths; explore waterways in our open canoe; go for a big day out on a small hill; go rock climbing; collect sticks, conkers, and acorns; investigate puddles and rockpools; ride our tandem; fly a kite against a clear blue sky.