The Great Stones Way (GSW) is one of those ideas that's so obvious that it seems amazing that no-one has thought of it before: a 65-kilometre walking trail to link England's two greatest prehistoric sites--Avebury and Stonehenge--crossing a landscape covered with fascinating Neolithic monuments.
As with any project involving the English countryside, it isn't as straightforward as it might seem. The steering group behind the initiative has had to secure permission from local landowners and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which uses much of Salisbury Plain for training.
It's a route from which all but the boldest independent walkers have shied in the past, as negotiating the MoD restricted areas without waymarks requires careful planning. When I followed the proposed trail, 1 noticed that not a single garage or shop along the Avon Valley bothered to sell local maps, so few have been the walkers who came here before. The GSW will change that.
What makes the prospect of the GSW so exciting is the sense that for more than a millennium--between 3000 BC and 2000 BC--the area that it crosses was the scene of frenzied Neolithic building activity, with henges, burial barrows and processional avenues criss-crossing the plain.
The walk has yet to be approved by all of the stakeholders--in this case, the MOD, various parish councils and the village of Avebury itself, which is curiously hesitant to attract walkers. But Ian Ritchie, the chairman of Friends of the Ridgeway, is hopeful that these will be negotiated soon and the route will formally open. An environmental impact study is just being completed and 88,000 [pounds sterling] has been raised to pay for putting in the necessary stiles and signposts. Meanwhile, a 'beta-version' is being trialled, with detailed directions provided on the GSW website.
The path starts at Barbury Castle, a fabulous place to begin such a journey. For a site so steeped in history, the Iron Age hill fort on the edge of the Wiltshire Downs is surprisingly little visited. When I arrived on a beautiful but crisp spring morning, I had the place to myself.
Just walking around the earthworks takes some time, as they enclose about five hectares. The naturalist Anthony Bulfield once commented that if you walk around the ramparts of Barbury Castle, you have walked around England. The line of the Downs turns here from the east towards the south and in doing so, opens up views in every direction; Barbury Castle is on the precise point of the turn.
Long after its use as a prehistoric hill fort, Barbury was the location of one of the most significant and forgotten battles in British history. In 556 AD, Cynric, the leader of the West Saxons, fought a decisive engagement with the Britons below Barbury Castle. The Britons were defeated. The Saxons went on to create Wessex; many of the remaining Britons became slaves.
The trackway on towards Avebury was lined with cranesbill and elderflower, and curled around the escarpment of the Downs. This was the end of the Ridgeway long-distance path, which finishes at Avebury--and this same stretch will now be the springboard for the GSW, taking the walker on to Stonehenge. In the fullness of time, there's no reason why the whole length of the Icknield Way, of which these are two links in the chain, shouldn't open up, a coast-to-coast walk connecting Dorset to Norfolk, although that's getting on for 650 kilometres rather than a more manageable 65.
The broad track led on down towards Avebury, a place that can disconcert the visitor, with its 'perfect English village' (rose-covered cottages, pub, church and extremely grand manor) dropped over the wild, prehistoric site. It has always beer] an uneasy mix: in medieval times, the villagers tried to bury many of the prehistoric stones to rid themselves of these …