The Sanctuary to Segsbury Camp.
Over the previous 4 years I walked the South Downs Way with my brother and sister, generally doing a section of 2 days walking once a year till we had completed the whole 110 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne. Last year we didn’t do any walking, but decided that we’d undertake the Ridgeway this year, walking the 87 miles in the course of one year. On Saturday 19th May we set off on our epic journey from The Sanctuary on Overton Hill (near our childhood home of Wroughton) under a grey, cloudy, but not unpromising, sky. Of course I always have an ulterior motive when we do these walks in that I’m constantly waving a camera about and pointing out things of interest in the passing landscape but the primary reason is really about talking absolute bollocks and having a damned good laugh.
The initial part of the walk is a personal favourite as you leave the stunning views from the Sanctuary over East and West Kennett, Silbury and the numerous scattered Bronze Age barrows on Overton Hill and make your way North towards Hackpen Hill and Barbury Castle. I’d forgotten just how many sizable sarcens hug the path in this area mostly dragged from ploughed fields over the centuries by generations of taciturn Wiltshire farmers. Today dotted across the landscape are herds of hardy Downland sheep barely discernable in the distance from their stony namesakes and in the space above the ever-present accompaniment of skylarks. A section on Overton Down has a string of large sarcens lining it and it made me wonder whether these hadn’t been part of some ruined monument nearby which had succumbed to clearance, but given the proximity of the Grey Wethers to the East maybe not.
You can always tell when you’re near a parking area on the downs because the number of people, dogs and kids on bicycles rises and so we knew that the White Horse figure on Hackpen Hill was imminent. As children we often used to take this minor road passing through Rockley and Old Eagle as a shortcut to Marlborough or sometimes just for a picnic up by the Gallops. Passing on we began to make out the mighty banks of Barbury Castle, another childhood playground. This is quite a busy section of the Ridgeway as it’s open to motor vehicles during the summer months so you’ll quite often encounter 4x4 freaks or strings of young men on cross-country motorbikes, the whine of their engines buzzing in your ears five minutes before you encounter them and five minutes afterwards. I’m not sure who’s more selfish; me for wanting peace and quiet or them for seeking thrills.
Arriving at Barbury around 1.00 we stopped for lunch and sat on a section of the bank looking down on the beech copse and reminisced about the bendy branch of one of the trees that we used to take turns sitting in while our dad twanged it up and down. All around us were newly flowering yellow cowslips and thousands of brightly coloured small snails encouraged by the recent wet weather. Moving on to Smeathe’s Ridge we dropped down to Ogbourne St. George and wondered if there was still a pub there. In Wroughton we’d known nine pubs but in the intervening thirty years three had closed so it was with some relief that we discovered that The Inn with the Well was still there. A swift pint and we were on our way again making the gradual climb to Round Hill Downs where the going is relatively flat until you go a little further North and start the climb to Liddington Castle. All day I’d been spotting what I thought were round barrows only to discover upon consulting my OS map that they were almost always small reservoirs, the consequence of a relatively dry landscape.
Just before arriving at Liddington there are a series of earthworks one of which runs parallel with the path. It consists of a ditch and bank and strewn along the ditch are more sarcens, which had become scarce since we left the Grey Wethers earlier, and I assume that this was probably a boundary marker. Liddington is a strange place and had always seemed so. It’s about the same size as Barbury but seems to be ‘back to front’, the western side being too big and formidable where you don’t really need it due to the steepness of the hill and the eastern side being too small and under-protected. Perhaps it was never a hill fort at all but a prestigious enclosure or corral?
After Liddington we dropped down towards our days destination at Fox Hill crossing the B4192 and then walking along a horrendous section of road across the M4. Because of the abundance of foliage at this time of year you’re forced to walk along the edge of the road into the face of cars travelling at 50 mph just a couple of feet from your body. I don’t understand why there’s not a proper pavement here as this is the official Ridgeway path and must be used by thousands of walkers every year. There’s certainly no other crossing point nearby. So an imperfect end to a perfect day.
Following the Saturday evening disappointment of Chelsea undeservedly winning the Champions League cup, and so displacing Spurs from next seasons CL campaign, it was now Sunday morning and the wind was up and blowing almost straight in our faces. We cursed Didier Drogba and set off. Nearby Charlbury Hill looks like it should have had an ancient settlement upon it but apparently didn’t. There’s not a lot of pre-history other than the Way itself until you get to Wayland’s Smithy, which was still some four miles off. So you have to be content with rolling downland, vivid yellow and green fields and path side flowers like speedwell, forget-me-nots, cowslips and borage. That’s fine by me. Wayland’s didn’t disappoint and we spent a good half hour wondering around, climbing in and out and taking pictures. My sister assured me that the hole on the back of one of the largest stones is where you place your silver coins when leaving your horse to be shod, but I’m not sure how she can know this and we have no way of testing it out other than leaving our brother there overnight dressed in a suitable costume. Obviously he’s not willing.
Next up is Uffington Castle and The White Horse. We made our way to the edge of the hill near the horse’s head and spent a while gazing over the Manger, Dragon’s Hill, a crop circle in a field of rape and the steaming towers of Didcot Power Station. We decided to have our lunch in the ditch of the castle, but whichever way we turned we couldn’t escape the blustery wind and eventually moved on to a strip of woodland near Ram’s Hill. Later, approaching the Devil’s Punchbowl, the sun threatened to breakthrough but, sadly, didn’t quite make it. A great shame as it’s a beautiful piece of landscape. Now we were almost in sight of our final stopping point for the weekend at Segsbury Camp. Again this is also a bit like Liddington in that it doesn’t seem substantial enough on the side where it needs to be so I came to the conclusion that this too was not really a fort but more of a gathering place. All the forts we had passed through so far had been quite evenly spaced as were the intermediate ones which are on the edges of the Ridgeway like Bincknoll, Alfred’s Castle and Windmill Hill. I wondered how different each of them might have looked in their heyday with different levels of fortification, palisading and gates, whether they all belonged to one large tribe who roamed between them or to different family groups or clans who farmed the local hills and valleys. What was the decision making process when deciding where to site them? It’s obvious for some but not others and it’s also difficult to know whether they’re all contemporary with each other. There may have been long intervals between them and almost certainly different phases in their individual construction. Ah, questions, questions, questions. So, a good weekends walk and the prospect of more to come when we venture on to unknown territory this summer.