Fyfield Down

I had read about Fyfield Down some time ago, so when I had a day to myself I decided it would be a good opportunity to go and investigate. Fyfield Down is just a couple of miles east of Avebury, and is a landscape strewn with sarsen stones, or "grey wethers". It is believed to be the source of the stones used at Avebury, as well as the larger stones at Stonehenge.

As it happens today's walk had the same starting and ending point as the walk I did on the summer solstice in 2019 - Hackpen Hill to Avebury. However this time, rather than mostly following the Ridgeway (then an ill advised "shortcut" down Monkton Down) I instead took a large U shaped detour to take in Fyfield Down, before eventually following the Wessex Ridgeway into Avebury.

In the interests of timeliness I took a taxi from Swindon to Hackpen Hill. Once there I set purposefully off along a section of the Ridgeway which is now quite familiar, having also walked this stretch when I completed the Ridgeway back in July of last year.

The sprawling views of the Wiltshire countryside were helped today by glorious blue skies and I had a real spring in my step.

After about a mile heading south along the Ridgeway I turned off onto the White Horse Trail, trading the chalky track of the Ridgeway for a grassier path, lined with hawthorn and elder, and already a taste of what was to come, with the odd sarsen stone along the way.

Also a feature of this section of the path were a couple of beautiful ancient beech trees, one with a jumble of rocks (possibly also sarsens?) around its base. These had quite a significant feel to them - the sort of trees you might expect to have names.

As the White Horse Trail approached Fyfield Down I had a brief moment of indecision - whether to head straight into the hillside of common access land, or whether to follow the footpath through Totterdown Wood. I'm glad I chose the latter as it was rather magical. There were a number of sarsen stones lying around in here, too, but given the wooded environment they were mostly covered in moss, and looked all the more evocative. Add to that the fact there were still bluebells in flower here and it was really enchanting. I had imagined today's walk would all be across wide open hilltops, so this was an unexpected surprise.

I emerged from the atmospheric shade of the wood onto the open downland, and what a change of landscape. Perhaps aided by today's bold blue skies it had an almost surreal quality to it, and it was awe inspiring to see the sarsen stones spread all over the hillside. I couldn't quite decide whether it felt more like some kind of geological nursery, where the stones grew prior to taking their rightful place in some megalithic structure or other; or whether it was more of an elephant's graveyard containing the broken remnants of now expired monuments.

Occasionally I would see a cluster of stones and fancied I could see some kind of structure to them, like this group here, which had a slight hint of a stone circle about them - although they are probably just naturally positioned like this. It does make you wonder if Neolithic man wandering through this landscape went through a similar thought process - and perhaps whether those naturally occurring shapes were the inspiration for Avebury and elsewhere.

Of course, you can just look at these scenes and see nothing more then a bunch of rocks strewn across a hillside... but knowing what some of these rocks went on to become, I at least found it all quite captivating. It was also a delightfully peaceful spot - despite it being a bank holiday and a lovely sunny day, I had that whole hillside to myself.

I continued my exploration of Fyfield Down, heading further south west, and after negotiating my way round a herd of cows (and choosing not to go the original route I had planned due to a rather large bull in the field) I passed a rather unassuming barrow, marked by a couple of small standing stones, a little way into a field. In any other part of the country you might expect something like this to be fenced off, perhaps have a sign telling you all about it, but here in the vicinity of Avebury such things are two a penny.

Beyond that I followed what felt like a dry river valley, with the bank to my left rendered almost entirely yellow by a mass of buttercups - again all the more vivid thanks to the glorious blue skies today.

Eventually I came to the dolmen burial chamber known as the "Devil's Den". This was apparently reconstructed in the 20th century, and there's a big slab of not particularly neolithic concrete involved in the structure now, but it is still a striking monument in the midst of this landscape - and a few clouds gathered overhead as I arrived to give it a suitable level of gravitas. I paused here a little while to eat my lunch and take it in. I was somehow reminded of Coldrum Long Barrow - perhaps because of the way it was a tiny island of something ancient in the midst of a modern agricultural landscape.

From there, I started heading towards Avebury, following a footpath along the southern edge of the Fyfield Down common access land area. Along the way I noticed these white flowers, which I believe to be meadow saxifrage, one of the wild flowers Fyfield Down is noted for. Also, once again following what felt like another dry valley I got a sense of the extent of the sarsen stones - thousands of them.

Before I reached the Wessex Ridgeway I saw a few of these pointed rocks which put me in mind of the mark stones mentioned in Alfred Watkins' "The Old Straight Track", which I have recently read.

I followed the Wessex Ridgeway - also known here as "Herepath" or "Green Street" - the rest of the way to Avebury. Presumably this would have been the route which the stones followed after being extracted from Fyfield Down before they took their place in Avebury's stone circles.

The sky took on these wonderful silvery hues at this point, with a scattering of clouds, and I almost thought it might rain for a moment. I seemed to be bounding along, with no sense of fatigue, or any signs my feet  might be starting to hurt.

It was great to be back in Avebury once again, and especially in such fine weather. After a refreshing shandy from the Red Lion I went and sat amongst the stones for a while, which had an added sense of satisfaction today for having seen where they had come from.