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Wednesday 1st May 2019
Route: Knoll Down, Windmill Hill, Avebury Trusloe, West Kennet Long Barrow, East Kennet, West Kennet, Avebury, Avebury Down, The Ridgeway, Berwick Bassett Dewpond
Distance: 19.1km/11⅘ miles, 9 hours
Ascension: 295 metres/960 feet
May Day! Alternately since sunset last night, Beltane! I arise early as a result of a yellowhammer, wanting it's vegan breakfast, bellowing its lungs out from the top of my tent. I watch the dawn while making breakfast. Then I zig-zag across the ancient landscape around Avebury to find some of the lesser-known prehistoric sites that the car- or bus-borne visitors rarely see. By the afternoon though, the weather is on the change.
Knoll Down to Berwick Bassett
I wasn’t sure how this morning would turn out. The first day of a backpack is always fun. It’s the waking next morning that tells whether you are really fit enough to do what you are doing; not so much whether you can move, but will anything move? (albeit tomorrow morning will the more exacting test). As I gain consciousness within the warm, snug cocoon of my sleeping bag I run a ‘systems check’… everything present, correct, and seemingly in working order!
I always strike camp before making breakfast. Also, if you strike camp and then do breakfast, when you re-check before leaving you’re more likely to find what you’ve inadvertently left on the ground.
I was awoken about 4.30am by a loud dawn chorus. With well over an hour until dawn there’s no rush this morning. I enjoy the misty pre-dawn views from my camp site on Old Bath Road before dropping my tent and packing it away.
A good breakfast when walking should consist of a really stodgy, slow to digest complex carbohydrate, with plenty of additional proteins, minerals and sugars that will steadily nourish your body as you progress through the day. There’s a word for that; muesli!
I boil the Kelly Kettle with a handful of the sticks collected yesterday, pour half on a peppermint teabag, and the rest on a big bowl of fruit and nut muesli and set it to soak for five minutes. Then I sit and watch the developing misty Beltane sunrise across Windmill Hill and Avebury.
It was never going to be a clear blue and brilliant sunrise. What I get is something more atmospheric, as the swirling ground mist renders the hills and woods on the plain below as layers of silhouettes, appearing occasionally before dissolving back into the mist minutes later.
I pack away, haul the bag onto my back, and plod downhill to cross the A4. In reality, I didn’t pick the quietest of camp sites last night. Both the A4 and the A361 are busy roads, even in the depths of the night. It’s only around 6.30am, and already the A4 is buzzing with traffic.
My first call today is at Windmill Hill, almost two miles in a straight line across the valley from Knoll Down. The byway runs up through some woodland, ringing with an early morning cacophony of nesting rooks, and then out onto the top of the broad hill punctuated with ditches, mounds and barrows.
Resting on the top to take some photos, I remove a layer as the sun begins to beat down. The dawn mist has mostly lifted now, giving views to Silbury Hill and the line of high hills along Wansdyke beyond.
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Recent evidence suggest that our ancient ancestors travelled with their animals for big festivals at Avebury – or perhaps on from here further south towards Stonehenge (click this… it's a brilliant paper!).
What’s also curious, given the political debate raging right now, is to think that the people who created these monuments were part of a European-wide culture which spanned Britain, Central Europe and Iberia. My travels today represent nothing compared to the journeys which would have been routine for a large number of people 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.
I descend from Windmill Hill to Longstone Cove, the little-visted western outpost of the Avebury complex. I drop my bag on the ground and lay out my tarp to sit on and take the first break of the day. Noise from the Beckhampton roundabout a quarter of a mile behind me rather spoils the atmosphere, but the view of ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’, with the lumps and bumps of Windmill Hill behind them, makes a nice spot for ‘second breakfast’.
Avebury henge is not a singular monument, it was the heart of a landscape stretching a few miles in every direction. From the small circle here at Longstone Cove, a stone avenue – Beckhampton Avenue – extended into the Avebury henge and then out the other side (which I’ll visit later today). That’s the purpose of today; to experience that whole landscape in one sweep, on foot, like the people who used it 4,000 years ago.
Feeling refreshed I pack away and pull my bag onto my back. There’s a popping sound from within. The noise that persisted this morning (though not as annoying as yesterday) changes to more of a sawing sound and the tension in the left shoulder strap changes.
Problem? It’s only had six years of use it can’t have worn out yet!
I take it off and check. If something’s torn it’s within the lining of the pack (come back external frame packs with their visible supports, all is forgiven!). I put the pack back on, re-tension the back, shoulder and waistband to trim-out the shift in support, and then set off.
I’m avoiding Avebury itself, taking the footpath and the road past the village and on down the diminutive River Kennet past Silbury Hill. I’ve done this walk a few times, and so I don’t really take notice of the surroundings. Instead plod on to my lunch break at West Kennet Long Barrow.
Arriving at the top of the hill there’s a coach party walking over the barrow. I put my bag down some distance in front, throw down my tarp and sit and eat an apple. After a while the leader of tour comes over. "Have you got any dowsing rods?", he asks. I shake my head, and indicate they’re not standard issue for backpacking. Obviously I must look like a person who should be carrying dowsing rods!
By the time I’ve eaten my apple and had a drink the coach party has left, and I get to walk around and go inside myself. As I emerge it has started to rain. I unpack the wet gear, pull the bag on my back and set off again.
The next section, following the river towards Overton Hill, is ‘off the beaten track; it’s overgrown and the paths have stiles rather than gates. I find that apart from the tension in the straps being wrong, when I get over a stile the weight in the pack shifts unpredictably because it’s not securely fastened to me. It makes progress rather difficult.
Eventually, climbing the hill on a very green (by local standards) byway I arrive back at the A4. This is the location of The Sanctuary, the small circle at the opposite end of the stone avenue which begins in Longstone Cove. Today there’s nothing but concrete plinths to mark the position of the stone and post holes of the site.
In actuality I’m not here for The Sanctuary. I want a to explore Sanctuary Barrows opposite, which, over many years of coming here, I’ve never done before.
It’s raining steadily now. Miserable day-ramblers, who hadn’t anticipated the change in the weather, walk down the to the car park at the end of The Ridgeway path and get in their cars. I set off down the A4 towards West Kennet. On the way I take the time to find one of the ‘lost’ avenue stones that sits buried in the bank of the modern-day A4.
Right in West Kennet, I take the B4001 towards Avebury. Very soon I transfer onto the access land that allows my to walk across nice springy turf into the village along the (restored) West Kennet Avenue. I don’t want to tour the village; done that. Instead, after a brief stop at the pub (excellent coffee!) I head-off east on The Herepath.
Many years ago I helped with a public inquiry that sought to ban motorised traffic from The Ridgeway. The result was a partial success. Motorised traffic is now restricted during the winter months when most of the damage to the land surface occurs. That winter-time ban ends on the 1st May – today.
As part of planning this little wander I was anticipating having to share The Ridgeway with petrol heads, let off the leash for the first time in seven months. Luckily it seems even that seven month break is not enough. A notice attached to a sign beside The Herepath indicates that the byways are to remain closed because more work is needed this year to repair damage to the surface.
I take a left turn across the fields. Apart from being a short-cut towards Berwick Bassett hill where I’ll stop the night, I’m off to find an ancient cemetery on Avebury Down – and a curious circle of stones there. All around there are round barrows dotted across the landscape. Clearing the trees I find the circle, though in reality it’s likely to be the foundation of an eroded barrow rather than a true stone circle.
Arriving at Monkton Down I stand at the bottom of a steep winding gully that will take me up to The Ridgeway. Like yesterday, I’m ending the day with a 100 metre/330 foot climb. That might sound a bit silly, but, apart from the wonderful views when camping, it does make it easier when you set off the next day because it's all down hill.
It’s difficult climbing with my unruly pack, swaying as I climb (the dreaded angular inertia!). Since the rain has come down I can’t keep enough tension in the straps to strady it; they keep sliding through their worn fasteners. Every five minutes or so I have to stop and re-tension for comfort.
On reaching The Ridgeway I drop the pack down and look at the view for a while. As the rain has seemingly stopped I get out my tarp and sit for a while, have a drink, and much on a lembas scone. A pheasant struts out of the hedge only a few metres away, and curiously looks me up and down, before walking off through the gate opposite.
I could stop here. Plenty of space. Instead I continue north towards a spot I’ve stopped at before; Berwick Bassett dew pond.
Dew ponds are human-engineered ponds, originally for sheep and travellers on the down. Today these are being restored (watch the excellent video on that web page!) to improve local habitats. I want to stop near the pond precisely because, as one of the few open water supplies on the nearby chalk downs, it’s an excellent place to camp if you want to sit quietly and watch for birds and insects.
I arrive at the dew pond. There's a nice bank of bare excavated soil alongside the field where I can safely make a brew with the Kelly Kettle; tonight, cocoa with own-made soya milk (from the dried soy and cornflour compound I make for these journeys). Then I stand my fire grate over the base section of the kettle to make a rice pudding for supper. While that’s stewing I put up my tent.
The rain has gone and the sky is clearing for an animated sunset. I sit watch from the flap of my tent, munching the sweet nutmeggy rice pudding with sultanas. The birds are singing and, compared to the arable desert I stopped in last night, there’s far more insect life here. If the first day was about views and hills, today has been about the sites that make up the whole Avebury complex and the landscape they inhabit. Tomorrow will be different again, as I head out across the sarsen stone fields of the Fyfield Down.