Ridgeway (sort of): Pewsey to Avebury

At the end of my walk along the Ridgeway in July I'd originally intended to walk on a little beyond Avebury, to explore all the other Neolithic sites to the south of the village - West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill and so on. As it turned out though, I was a bit too exhausted after covering 30 miles in a 24 hour period, and decided to just call it a day at Avebury. So today's walk, I suppose, forms something of an epilogue to my journey along the Ridgeway. For one reason or another it hasn't been easy to get out into the countryside for a proper walk for the past month, but today I had the daytime all to myself, and decided I should really make some effort to do so.

So, the plan for today's walk was to approach Avebury from the south - starting at Pewsey, a station I had often passed on the train down to Devon, but had never got off at. I intended to walk from there, over Pewsey Downs, and then to East Kennet and West Kennet, so I could take in West Kennet Long Barrow, Silbury Hill, the stone aevnue to the south of Avebury, and finally end at Avebury itself.

Pewsey is, I believe, the closest station to Avebury, and although less frequent than the trains to Swindon, can be reached from London Paddington in just under an hour. It's about a 9 mile walk from Pewsey to Avebury, a bit closer than Swindon (about 11 miles), and I suspect a much nicer walk - from Swindon you'd spent pretty much the first hour just getting out of Swindon, and you'd have to cross the M4.

Pewsey on the other hand is quite a pretty village, so even the very first part escaping civilisation was not wholly unpleasant. There were a good number of thatched cottages, and the pub near the station I passed looked quite appealing - they brew their own beer on site - but alas it wasn't yet midday so I walked on.

Given a bit more time, it would be possible to choose a route from Pewsey to Avebury which makes more use of footpaths at the start than I did - perhaps the White Horse Trail. I however was on a fairly tight schedule, knowing that the buses from Avebury to Swindon only go once every two hours, and if I didn't get the 3:30 then I wouldn't be back home in time for dinner with the girls. So I took the Wilcot Road out of Pewsey, which was not aesthetically unpleasant, but I did meet a lot of cars along it - parts are at the national speed limit and there's mostly no pavement or grass verge to walk on.

This did however take me to the charmingly sleepy village of Wilcot, where more thatch was in evidence, and another appealing pub, but again it wasn't quite midday yet, so I pressed on. I also crossed over the Kennet and Avon Canal here.

Beyond Wilcot, what was previously a leafy tree lined country lane opened up somewhat, and provided glimpses of Pewsey Downs. It's quite an impressive prominence, seen from here. As I have commented before, despite the altitude of the highest points of North Wessex Downs being higher than the South Downs, often the contrast with the surrounding landscape is more subtle - the slopes are gentler - and so you usually don't get the same sense of being on a ridge. This bit of landscape today was a bit more reminiscent of the South Downs - approach along a more or less flat plain to a looming range of hills on the horizon.

I finally left the road about 45 minutes into my walk to follow a track (named "Workway Drove" on the OS map), which heads up Knap Hill. I'd actually got quite warm by this point, despite the glorious blue skies today it was a bit chilly - around 14 degrees I think - but the walking had warmed me up to the point where I felt it necessary to take off my tweed jacket. Fortunatlely I was wearing a waistcoat today as well so at least some sort of standards could be maintained.

It was a bit of a slog to get to the top but good exercise, and I knew that was pretty much all the climbing I'd have to do today. Plus I had those gorgeous skies to keep me going.

Once at the top I had a choice to make. Around the Pewsey Downs car park there's a confluence of several paths. Again given more time today I could have gone a slightly longer route, taking in more of the ridge of the Pewsey Downs, and following some of the White Horse Trail, but an unnamed track heading closer to due north looked like a more direct route. This route also came with a nice surprise, which I'll get to later.

It was now around 1pm, and my stomach was definitely rumbling. I decided I would stop at the next sheltered spot to make lunch - but the initially the track, as it went over the open hillside, was a bit too windy. So I stopped when the track passed through a little copse, and got out my campstove to boil some water. I had just brought one of those dehydrated meals with me - fittingly one leftover from my Ridgeway expedition - so all I needed to do was boil some water, pour it into the pouch, then leave it for a bit to soak. To be more time efficient I decided to keep on walking for the time the meal was soaking, thinking I'd find a spot with a nice view a bit further along to actually sit and eat.

Pleasingly the views opened up just a few minutes further along, and eventually I found a spot beside the track to sit and eat. This was Summit To Eat's "5 bean cassoulet" which perhaps I left a little too long to soak, as it ended up a sort of nondescript looking mush, and it was all over in a couple of minutes, but it actually tasted OK. I wished I'd also brought along some snacks today as I burned off considerably more than the 600 calories this meal provided during the day's exertions.

So, onto the surprise which came with my choice of route today. As I was proceeding along this seemingly nameless track towards East Kennet I glanced at the OS map and saw some letters on there which were very intriguing. Having walked the Ridgeway, or at least the modern national trail named the Ridgeway, I had been under the impression it ended at Avebury - or, technically, Overton Hill, just outside Avebury. And yet, here I was some way south of Overton Hill, seeing that name on the map in that archaic font the Ordnance Survey uses for ancient things. Now, of course I'm aware that the modern national trail isn't exactly the same thing as the ancient trackway of the same name - and this is further confused by the way it is sometimes used interchangeably with the Icknield Way, but that is also used as the name for a modern trail now, and to add even more confusion is occasionally used to denote the cycle path version of some of the Ridgeway. However I'd often spotted on the map these glimpses in that mystic font of the ancient route of the Ridge Way and/or Icknield Way, and indeed on one of my walks had decided to deviate from the national trail to follow it. Still though, what seemed like a constant here was that the Ridgeway / Ridge Way was an ancient means of getting to Avebury - there is  archaeological evidence of earthworks predating the stone circle at Avebury going back 5000 years, which is sometimes cited as the age of the Ridgeway (although evidence is patchier here). Intriguing then, that this glimpse on the map seems to suggest the route continues beyond Avebury then. Bound for Stonehenge perhaps?

Anyway, back to the present day. I continued my walk along this enigmatic extension of the Ridgeway towards East Kennet, and as I approached I had my first glimpses of Silbury Hill in the distance. At this point I was only 3 miles south of Avebury, but it was hidden in the folds of the hills. It made me wonder if part of the function of Silbury Hill was as a navigational aid.

After passing through East Kennet (another pretty, sleepy Wiltshire village), I headed to West Kennet Long Barrow. It was, alas, a bit of a flying visit, and for a monument likely 5600 years old, it really deserved a bit more time. I was expecting to only be able to see it from a distance, as it's in the middle of a large field, which isn't marked as common access land on the OS map, and the footpath only follows the edge of the field. However it turned out there is a well trodden track leading from the dotted green line on the OS map, presumably a permissive footpath if not officially a public one. There were plenty of other people there and the farmer was actually tending to the field during my visit, so presumably does not object.

West Kennet Long Barrow probably dates to 3600 BC, so may actually predate the earliest establishment of earthworks at Avebury (from perhaps 3400 BC onwards), and could predate the stone circle at Avebury by almost a millennium (from around 2850 BC onwards), and similarly the first use of stone at Stonehenge (from around 2600 BC onwards - which also roughly coincides with the building of the pyramids at Giza).

Next on my itinerary was nearby Silbury Hill, although again another fly-by sort of a visit. This too is pretty ancient, built between 2400 and 2300 BC - and has a rather striking appearance.

The marked footpath from Silbury Hill heads to the west side of Avebury, but having spotted the area of common access land here I decided instead to cut across so I could walk up the stone avenue (sometimes referred to as West Kennet Avenue or simply Kennet Avenue) which approaches Avebury from the south. It's not clear to me whether this was intended as an entrance to the Avebury complex, or perhaps a processional route linking the stone circle at Avebury to Silbury Hill / West Kennet Long Barrow. Either way this made for a very atmospheric way to arrive in Avebury, albeit that it would have been nicer with fewer people (I had it all to myself when I was here for the winter solstice).

So, once more, I was back in Avebury, and beneath far bluer skies than last time I was here.

Time was ticking so I just paid a cursory greeting to the stones before heading to the Red Lion for a refreshing end-of walk pint (with a lemonade on the side for rehydration).

After my swift pint there was just time for one quick walk around the stones again before the bus came.