Trekking the Ridgeway: Britain's oldest road
The stone in front of me, twice my height, has been standing here in Avebury, England, for more than 4,500 years.
The rough, pitted rock forms part of a huge Neolithic stone circle within which a pub, a post office and several cottages now stand.
Avebury is one of the world’s great pagan heritage sites -- and one of the most mysterious.
Exactly how, and why, its stones (originally numbering almost 100 and some weighing more than 50 tons) were erected is still debated.
The stones mark the start of the 140-kilometer-long Ridgeway Trail, aka Britain’s oldest highway.
Travelers, soldiers and settlers have walked this route for 6,000 years.
Equipped with a backpack, five spare days and probably not quite enough pairs of clean socks, I recently joined them.
Passing through five counties, the Ridgeway Trail runs through southern England from Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire.
London isn’t far away, but its crowds are entirely absent.
Instead you get one gorgeous or stirring view after another.
Much of the trail follows a raised chalk ridge, which in ancient times provided a dry pathway above the boggy lowlands below.
Rather than the Stone Age farmers, Iron Age tribes, Anglo-Saxon clans, Viking armies and medieval sheep drovers who have formerly trod these parts, today’s Ridgeway users are mainly day walkers and cyclists.
They’re generally of cheery disposition.
“Lovely day for it,” was the typically English greeting of more than one walker I passed.
British countryside at its best
History aside, my walk is also a chance to explore rural Britain at its most archetypal.
This isn't the England of Premiership soccer, tabloid-starring royals and multicultural shopping streets.
This is its slow-moving cousin, a world of beech woods, chugging tractors and thatched-roof cottages.
I stayed in farmhouses and bed and breakfasts. Bacon and eggs became staple morning fuel.
The past drapes itself over the trail in layers.
I pass prehistoric burial mounds, Iron Age hill forts and Roman temple sites, as well as two of the region’s renowned hillside chalk horses.
Carved more than 2,000 years ago into the white chalk beneath the topsoil, the Uffington White Horse is the oldest surviving example of these striking figures.
It makes for an impressive lunch spot -- even when you’re dining on squashed cheddar cheese sandwiches.
By divine deliverance, the lesser-spotted British sun joins me for almost the entire week.
In the heightened light, the landscapes along the way curve and warp with velvet softness -- a calming effect abruptly terminated when, once or twice a day, I encounter a snarling, busy road.
Halfway along the trail, the River Thames breaks through the hills of the Ridgeway.
In another 150 kilometers or so, the waters here will flow past the Houses of Parliament in central London.
For now, they’re occupied by rowers, ducks and canal boats. The path follows the river for a pleasurable 10 kilometers.
Wildlife is a constant theme on the walk.
The morning skies are full of caroling skylarks and swallows; the verges stir with rabbits and spring butterflies.
Bossing the whole scene, however, are the red kites tracing silent, predatory circles over the countryside -- at times, I counted as many as six of them above the same stretch of the route.
For long periods of the walk, the wide, winding path along the ridge genuinely gives the feeling of traveling an ancient freeway.
But then, like the road, modernity intrudes again in the form of power stations, rail lines or planes overhead.
A good long-distance walk needs good pubs, and the Ridgeway obliges.
They have names like The Plough (Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire; +44 0 1844 343 302) and The John Barleycorn (Manor Road, Goring-on-Thames, Buckinghamshire; +44 0 1491 872 509) and serve local ales and cook filling, unfussy meals. Rabbit and cider casserole anyone?
They’re also well accustomed to muddy-booted walkers straggling in for food.
As the route snakes its way towards its eastern end, it becomes less defined by open downland and more by quiet villages and valleys.
The path crosses golf courses, churchyards and daintily ordered gardens, at one stage skirting the expansive grounds of Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence.
Five days and 140 kilometers after setting off, I reached route’s end at the top of Ivinghoe Beacon, in the Chiltern Hills.
There’s no grand signage, no gift shop.
The walk was deeply enjoyable: a week to appreciate the shades of Britain’s past and tune in to the rhythms of rural life.
You inevitably wonder: Will people still be walking the path in another 6,000 years?
Find out more about how to plan a trip, and where to stay, at the National Trail website.