Magic circles: walking from Avebury to Stonehenge

14 05 2011

A new walking path links Britain’s two greatest prehistoric sites, Avebury and Stonehenge, and is as epic as the Inca Trail

The Great Stones Way is one of those ideas so obvious it seems amazing that no one has thought of it before: a 38-mile walking trail to link England’s two greatest prehistoric sites, Avebury and Stonehenge, crossing a landscape covered with Neolithic monuments.

But like any project involving the English countryside, it’s not as straightforward as it might seem. The steering group has had to secure permission from landowners and the MoD, who use much of Salisbury Plain for training. They hope to have the whole trail open within a year, but for now are trialling a 14-mile southern stretch, having secured agreement from the MoD and parish councils. The “Plain & Avon” section leads from the iron age hill fort of Casterley Camp on Salisbury Plain down the Avon valley to Stonehenge. Walkers are being encouraged to test the route, and detailed directions can be found on the Friends of the Ridgeway website.

It’s an area all but the boldest have avoided: negotiating the MoD areas needed careful planning. Few walkers come here and not a single garage or shop along the Avon valley sells local maps. The Great Stones Way should change that.

What makes the prospect of the Great Stones Way so exciting is the sense that for more than a millennium, between around 3000 and 2000BC, the area it crosses was the scene of frenzied Neolithic building activity, with henges, burial barrows and processional avenues criss-crossing the route.

Stones mapAt Casterley Camp, high on Salisbury Plain, it takes me a while to realise what is strange about the landscape, as wild and empty as anywhere in southern England, and with a large burial mound directly ahead. Then it hits me: this is perfect high grazing country, but there’s not a single sheep. Maybe they have read the MoD notice which points out that “‘projectile’ means any shot or shell or other missile or any portion thereof”, and that over much of what you can see you’re liable to be hit by one. You can also be arrested without a warrant. But the trail cleverly and legally threads its way past the firing ranges towards a delightful and ancient droving road that plunges down between cow parsley to an old farm.

Five minutes in we are passed by a lone woman wearing Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and heading determinedly towards the shooting area, where the red flags are up to signify that it’s a “live” day. In a Kensington and Chelsea accent, she tells us that she regularly drives down from London as it’s one of the few places “where you don’t run the risk of meeting anybody else”. I murmur that this might be because they know they’ll get shot at. “Oh, I love all that. It gets my endorphins going. I got back to the car once and found it ringed by military police. When I told them that I just enjoyed the walking, they didn’t believe me. They said, ‘How can you claim to enjoy walking when you don’t have a dog?'”

One animal practising its duck-and-cover technique here is the remarkable great bustard, recently reintroduced to the UK after its local extinction two centuries ago. At 40lbs, the male bird is one of the largest flying animals in the world, so it’s unmistakable even for the most hesitant birdwatcher. As we reach an isolated farm building, we pass a Land Rover full of enthusiasts heading off to track some down.

The trail curves below to cross and then follow the Avon, a river that loomed large in the affairs of Neolithic man. It was along the Avon that the bluestones of the Preseli hills in Wales are thought to have been transported by boat to Stonehenge, after being moved an almost unimaginable distance around both the Pembrokeshire and Cornish peninsulas to the river mouth at Christchurch.

There are some pretty villages along the upper Avon: Enfold, with its flint and stone church, and old funeral wagon in the nave; Longstreet, with the Swan pub appearing at the right moment for a lunchtime reappraisal of the route; Coombe and Fittleton, with their judas trees, mill ponds and dovecotes. At Figheldean (pronounced “file-dean”), an allotment holder tells me he doesn’t grow courgettes “because they’re foreign food”.

Woodhenge, WiltshireWoodhenge, Wiltshire. Photograph: AlamyIt’s a peaceful valley to stroll along, with some beautiful stretches under beech trees and past bluebell woods. Which is why it comes as a shock to have to stop for a couple of tanks to trundle past at Brigmerston ford. The route follows the tank tracks back across the river and out onto the plain, so the last stretch again has wide-open vistas of the prehistoric landscape. At Durrington Walls, the trail cuts through a huge enclosed area where the builders of Stonehenge may have lived – the site is aligned to face sunset on the summer solstice – and on past Woodhenge, with its concentric circles of wooden posts (marked now by concrete posts).

As the walk gets into its finishing stride, you pass the King Barrows still sleeping along their ridge, some of the few sites that remain unexcavated (the local farmer didn’t want the trees cut down), and the mysterious Cursus group of Bronze Age barrows, so named because 18th-century antiquarian William Stukeley thought it must have been built by the Romans for chariot races. Across a meadow land of dandelions and buttercups, the familiar silhouette of the stone and lintel circle finally appears, at the end of the processional avenue that once led there from the river. In the distance, the stones themselves are a flat grey. What gleams all around them, like fish circling, is the traffic on the A303.

I can’t help thinking how much better it is to arrive at Stonehenge on foot. The comparison that comes to mind, and which I know well, is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The experience of trekking to both sites is immeasurably richer, not just because you’ve “earned it”, but because both sets of ruins are only properly understood in the context of the sacred landscape that surrounds them.

• For details of this 14-mile section of the walk, and accommodation and transport, see the Friends of the Ridgeway website: ridgewayfriends.org.uk/plainandavonwalk.html

Hugh Thomson’s The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland (Phoenix, £10.99) has just been reissued to mark the centenary of the discovery of Machu Picchu. His most recent book is Tequila Oil(Phoenix, £8.99)

There are already ‘Crop Circles’ in Stonehenge and Avebury area well worth exploring.  If you do not have the time or require a guide try the excellent ‘Stonehenge Tour Company’
There is also a new ‘Henge Hopper service covering this area

Links:  http://www.guardian.co.uk
The Henge Hopper

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website





The Henge Hopper

3 04 2011

The Wiltshire Heritage Museum is planning to launch a bus service to link Stonehenge and Avebury. At the moment, it is extremely difficult to travel between the two, and the Museum hopes to be able to boost tourism in the Vale of Pewsey and the Avon Valley. They hope to launch a service in due course.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

The Community Bus Service will be operated by minibuses, and the route would take in a range of archaeological sites and monuments in the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, including Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow and Woodhenge.

The ‘hop on, hop off’ service would include free entry to the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes, encouraging people to discover the collections excavated from the World Heritage Site.

The Henge Hopper enables you to visit:

Avebury
Britain’s largest stone circle, at the centre of a remarkable complex of monuments, including stone circles, burial mounds, two stone-lined avenues and Silbury Hill.

Alexander Keiler Museum, Avebury Manor
Explore the world famous stone circle. The bus starts from just outside the Museum, which features fascinating finds from Alexander Keiler’s excavations at Avebury, and, in the barn, interactive displays bring the Avebury landscape to life. Explore also Avebury Manor and its wonderful garden. Cafe, toilets and shop.

Silbury Hill
The largest man-made mound in Europe, mysterious Silbury Hill compares in height and volume to the roughly contemporary Egyptian pyramids.

West Kennet Long Barrow
One of the largest, most impressive and most accessible Neolithic chambered tombs in Britain. Built in around 3650 BC, it was used for a short time as a burial chamber, nearly 50 people being buried here before the chambers were blocked.

Wansdyke / White Horse Trail
Massive Saxon defensive ditch and bank running along the top of the North Wessex Downs. Walk along the Wansdyke, following the White Horse Trail, with stunning views over the Vale of Pewsey.

Marden Henge
Britain’s largest henge, Excavations in 2010 have revealed much about its fascinating story.

Alton Barnes White Horse
Dominates the landscape of the Vale of Pewsey.

Adam’s Grave / Wansdyke
Neolithic chambered tomb on the summit of the Downs. Walk along the Wansdyke, following the White Horse Trail.

Stonehenge

The most sophisticated stone circle in the world, at the centre of a remarkable sacred landscape. Includes the cursus, a 3km long earthwork and the Avenue, leading from the River Avon.

Winterbourne Stoke

The most impressive barrow cemetery – a Neolithic long barrow and a line of Bronze Age burial mounds.

Normanton Down
Cemetery of over 50 round barrows, including the famous Bush Barrow.

Amesbury

Amesbury is an attractive small town embraced by a loop of the River Avon as it cuts through the high plateau of Salisbury Plain. The town has served the needs of travellers for centuries. Highlights include the Amesbury is the closest settlement to Stonehenge.

Durrington Walls / Woodhenge
Durrington Walls is a massive henge, the site of the recent discovery of Neolithic houses, where the people who used Stonehenge may have lived. Nearby is Woodhenge, where excavations showed a series of concentric circles of wooden posts, enclosed by a bank and ditch.

Where to Stay
Local accomodation listed by VisitWiltshire.

Alternatvley you could join a guided sightseeing coach tour with ‘The Stonehenge Tour Company’ or a privat tour with ‘Histouries UK’ or ‘SalisburyGuidedTours‘ based is Salisbury

The Henge Hopper – http://www.stonehenge-avebury-bus.org.uk/
Stonehehenge Tour Companies – http://www.stonehenge-stone-circle.co.uk/stonehenge-tours.htm

However you get there, get there…………………….

Merlin @ Stonehenge
The Stonehenge Stone Circle Website








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