Sunday, 9 November 2008

Avebury: stoned-o-blog™ day 2

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

IMG_8350 We were up early today and took the dog out for a warm-up to get everyone's walking reflexes established. It was a lovely misty morning which of course greatly enhanced the stones' spookiness - having them looming at you out of the greyness is really quite something.

Added to that of course you have the usual problem of wondering if the stones are moving quietly around while you can't see them. Although none of them appeared to have actually moved any closer to the cottage overnight, clearly it will be wise to keep an eye on them ... eventually we stumbled our way back to Fishlock's for breakfast and to prepare for going out on a (slightly) more serious walk.

Today's walk came from Country Walking magazine and its excellent website. (Update: currently closed for rebuilding: it'll be interesting to see what emerges.) This was walk number 1639, "Where Ancients Trod" - it's classed as "moderate" and is a not-too challenging 6½ miles (10½ km) of extremely pleasant strolling.

IMG_8351 We left Avebury by the southwest corner and headed south, straight down the east bank of the River Kennet, which here is not much more than a pretty little stream. (Please see the top photo.) Very soon we passed the fascinating and brilliant Silbury Hill, a 40-metre high manmade mound, the highest of its type in Europe. The walk passes it - a couple of hundred metres off, with good views - and doesn't try to visit it. This is just as well as it's shut at present while they sort out damage caused by generations of archaeological exploration - it was getting into danger of collapse and they now need to stabilize it and fill up all the old tunnels. (Update: the work is finished and it reopened in May this year but you can just park at the visitor centre and look - you can't go on the hill itself, and indeed you haven't been able to for many years.)

IMG_8353 After passing Silbury we crossed the once-main road, the A4: nowadays a bit of a backwater with the M4 taking most of its former trade, though it's worth noting that what little traffic it still had was moving pretty fast so you really wouldn't want to cross incautiously. From there a gentle slope led up to the excellent West Kennett Long Barrow which is really most impressive. It's not that high but is very long and has a wonderful commanding site with views over the rolling countryside.

Back down the same path we continued along the valley side, roughly parallel with the A4 but at a good distance from it. Pretty paths and lanes through fields and a diversion south and east through the tiny hamlet of East Kennett led us in an wide arc so that we again crossed the road after another mile or so.

Just at this crossing stood the Sanctuary, once another impressive monument and now a sad collection of little wooden marker posts to show where things used to be. You need a serious application of what the late and lovely archaeologist Vince Bellamy called the Eye of Faith if you're going to make much of the site, though to be fair the inevitable interpretive board does offer help. Why the monument is in this sad state I'm not sure: I could speculate about the usual suspects but it wouldn't be polite and anyway I dare say that the board knows.

From the Sanctuary it's just another quick but cautious crossing of the A4 and you're into the second half of this excellent walk. We were at the very start of the Ridgeway, a very fine neolithic track which goes all the way from here to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, taking in many miles of lovely upland countryside as it does, hugging the tops of ridges (ah you guessed) for much of the way. It's a wonderful experience - the combination of the antiquity and the incredible feeling of space and landscape is really something special.

I don't feel qualified to comment on the legal or environmental issues surrounding the status of this route. Do feel free to look it up, though, if you feel so inclined: I think it's a RUPP or a BOAT or something, at least in part. The bottom line is that at some (drier) times of year we might have found ourselves sharing it with offroad-ish cars and bikes and to be honest I'm not sure I'd want to, though clearly those people have rights and views too ... hmm, tricky. Anyway, right now it's February we're dealing with and nothing is going brmm or chug along there at all. J. Gooders.

IMG_8381After walking up the Ridgeway for a while we stopped for lunch. One brilliant feature of the landscape here is the "hedgehogs" - these are neolithic barrows each with its own little beech wood perched perfectly on top. In the otherwise-unwooded countryside these make a very distinctive sight, and we walked just a hundred metres or so off the Ridgeway to go and sit on one of them.

This was a completely fabulous lunch. There was a bit of leftover food from last night and this steak, cut wafer-thin, anointed with the onions and a bijou hintette of mustard, made truly exceptional sandwiches. Sitting there on our hedgehog I was, frankly, blissed out. One of those perfect moments.

IMG_8394 The break over, we regained the Ridgeway and set off again. I was astonished when Deb found a beautiful patch of frost, all lovely spiky crystals, in a sheltered bit of vegetation. I can't guess how this one place managed to stay when everywhere around seemed so warm, but it was a fantastic thing to see.

A bit further on we came to a splendid junction, where the Ridgeway, or perhaps THE Ridgeway, is crossed by the Wessex Ridgeway long-distance footpath, a youthful upstart in comparison. Bidding the Ridgeway farewell we turned west down this, starting a long descent down a delightful, shallow valley. It was, as it had been for the whole walk, sunny and gorgeous and this was a very fine section of the route.

One weird thing towards the end of the descent was the path's surface: we couldn't understand whether this new, very white path was a recent resurfacing job now finished, or whether it was awaiting its top coat, or what. I rather hope that it was the latter, for the surface as we saw and walked it was quite the stickiest I've encountered. It was a sort of hyper-claggy chalky clay which was moist in situ on the path. However once on your boots, clothes or border collie it dries and hardens into an amazing kind of Neolithic concrete. To remove it you're talking less J-cloth and more Black & Decker. Worth avoiding, but maybe by now it's buried under a layer of something less alarming: who knows? No, Tamsin, it was a rhetorical question, don't be silly.

IMG_8400 All too soon, the Wessex Ridgeway led us back to Avebury and the end of this lovely landscape loop. In fact, it's rather a splendid ending for us because the path becomes a track then a little road then, passing through the henge, ends up taking you right up to Fishlock's front door. There's something very nice about living actually on the walk you're doing (c.f, for those with long memories, the very nice Hawes cottage of our maybe 1966 and 68 family holidays, whose front doorstep was directly on the Pennine Way. Rather good.)

Anyway, there we were arriving back at our excellent cottage and the day was still relatively young.

One very exciting diversion which took place towards the later afternoon was a visit from two helicopters which landed and took off, several times, in a field just outside the henge's southwest quadrant. These were very beautiful and made a fine and fascinating sight viewed from a convenient earthwork. I don't want to labour the poetic point too much (nor indeed, Tamsin, should I overegg the omelette and yes Colin I will also endeavour to keep my powder dry thank you). But here's the kit of parts; do with it as you will: helicopters new, henge old. Off you go.

IMG_8411 Anyway (anyway) I watched the aircraft for a while and it all made for excellent spectating. One of them, with the rather good registration G-PIXL, was obviously carrying cameras and was in the livery of FlyingTV, Mike Smith's specialist TV helicopter company. The other was in civvies, had no cameras that I could see, and was carrying a smartly dressed passenger: guessing wildly I imagined that both the glamorous passenger and her helicopter were actors, being filmed by the camera ship. But then what do I know? Quite. Whatever exactly it was they were doing, it was all rather interesting and wonderful to watch for a while, before they packed up and flew off. Splendid.

IMG_8387 In the interests of balance I should add that the Hound Gänseblümchen does not agree with me in this matter of helicopters, their beauty and fascination. Indeed no. She finds them noisy, visually intrusive and extremely threatening. Not quite as bad as kites, perhaps, but not at all good. Her blog would probably say "Big Sky Bird Eat Good Dog Damn Quick", and have photos of good armchairs for hiding behind.

We also had a bit of a wander round the village and a look at its few shops. It's all very pretty. The National Trust, as custodians of the site, are well-represented: they have a nice shop and café and a superb, massive barn which serves as an exhibition space. Rather a good setup, in fact.

In the Avebury National Trust shop - a very fine example of the type! - I had the most acute difficulty not spending money, lots of money, on books about ... well, stuff in general and trees in particular. This tree thing or perhaps thang is something which I should explain, but not now Tamsin. Suffice it to say that there were several interesting-looking books, ranging from coffee-table lushness to academic simplicity, that I'd very much have liked to buy. Their subjects ranged from general surveys of all trees, or interesting/old trees in the UK, to much more specific profiles of particular types of tree. All very nice and tempting but for a change Sprengel, the Imp of the Left Shoulder, was kept a safe distance from my plastic cards so financial catastrophe was avoided and I remain, so far, unenlightened about the intimate personal life of the English oak.

That night we had dinner at the Red Lion in Avebury, all of a minute or so's walk from our cottage- this was quiet (maybe too much so), and had very nice staff, and we had a perfectly good meal. I felt a bit brave and complain-y because I sent my beer back as it tasted vile. They were very nice about and replaced it with something very much more palatable.

Later we finished watching our DVDs of the cult kids' classic Children of the Stones, a matter to which I shall return in another blogological entity.

This was a most excellent walk and day.


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