Great Stones Way 4 - Henge to Henge Navigation, Part II
Updated: Aug 13, 2022
According to my guide book, the onward route from The Barge Inn towards Marden begins by breaking into what appears to be a private yard next to the old pumping station. Instead of climbing over the fence, I stroll on through Honeystreet - what there is of it - to join the way via a path between houses about half a mile further on. The hamlet consists essentially of a row of spaced out dwellings along a single side of the road and I am now passing behind them. Already, the canal-side bustle feels a world away. It has clouded over somewhat and the air is still. The track has become increasingly enclosed. I ascend a small flight of steps to follow the margin of tree-lined fields towards a semi-concealed railway footbridge. Rusting and overgrown, I suspect it gets little use.
On the other side, I pass through a small field back onto the southwards-heading road I left earlier. It is now named Broad Street, as is the scattered collection of buildings that stretch out along the eastern side of it. The way strikes out right, passing under power lines that hum audibly in the silence of the expansive tilled fields. I join another desolate road heading westward, eventually passing a large dairy complex beyond which a winding path leads towards a treeline and a stile. From here, there is a mild, but perceptible incline as I pass through a couple of sheep-filled pastures and into the prosperous, if isolated, village of Marden. It is only looking back from the main road that I realise I have traversed the largest Neolithic earthwork in Britain, its outline obscured by erosion and agricultural usage into unassertive folds. It is, paradoxically, the site's sheer size and sprawl - ten times that of Stonehenge - that makes it hard to discern from the ground.
Marden is a tantalising, rather maddening Neolithic location, with a cautionary archaeological history. Jim Leary, who led the most ambitious excavation project here, may be exaggerating somewhat when he claims that this is "where it was at in the late Neolithic", but clearly this vast enclosure on a curve of the River Avon, roughly half way between Stonehenge and Avebury, deserves to be better known.
Not that too many tourists will be tempted to make the detour out here for what remains visible today. At the start of the 19th Century, the Hatfield Earthworks (as the monument was then chiefly known) encompassed standing stones and a fair sized mound. In 1807, two enthusiastic Wiltshire antiquarians - Richard Colt Hoare and William Cunnington - inadvertently destroyed the latter by burrowing into it. The treasure they sought wasn't there and the sandy structure crumbed as they dug. In subsequent decades, all of the enclosure's stones disappeared and the ground was churned up by the cattle and ploughs of local farmers. The northern extension of Marden's high street (simply known as The Street) compounded the carnage by chopping off the henge's most interesting corner, which lies over a style on the opposite side of the road from the one I find myself on.
Hoare and Cunnington were not clowns or vandals. Indeed, they did truly pioneering work on Stonehenge, establishing that most of the stones lying on the ground had once stood upright. Their disastrous assault upon Marden, however, is instructive; both Avebury and Silbury came close to going the same way.
Still, if Marden is something of a letdown after the Neolithic glories of the morning, that is not to say that nothing of interest has been retrieved here. Quantities of pottery and bone have been dug up, together with the best Neolithic house foundation ever uncovered; apparently some sort of smokehouse or even, as Francis Pryor has suggested, brewery. About a mile south of the main embankment, on the other side of the river Avon, a second, much smaller enclosure - Wilsford Henge - has been identified by aerial imaging. Evidently of much later date, it has given up the bones and jewellery of a Beaker period teenager.
Though close by, Wilsford will take me somewhat out of my way. A pity, since I am now curious about it. For the moment, I take a short break in Marden village, which for all it's remoteness has some imposing houses, a substantial Norman church and a rather grand Manor lining it's wide, handsome Street. Half way along I come to The Millstream pub, which has a pleasant garden and seems extremely busy. Is it always this well frequented at Sunday lunchtime, or are people simply intent on making the most of the current relaxation in covid restrictions? As I down my second pint of the day, I consider my progress. It is about two-thirty, which means that I have about four and a half hours of sunlight left. Still, miles to go before I sleep and some potentially arduous terrain ahead. The food on offer here looks appetising and affordable but I really haven't the time for it and cast temptation to one side. Anyway, I find I walk better on a half empty stomach.
At the end of the Street I swing left with a dusty bridleway past some squat outlying habitations and a cricket ground. The flat fields, straight hedgerows and narrow ditches have an unpromising aspect - not unlike that of the Fenland landscape round where I live. Now I am heading due South again, along the side of a ploughed field towards the A342. Close to the corner I am making for is what, without my glasses, I at first take to be a scarecrow, though it's position seems odd. As I stride ever closer, however, the form reveals itself as not just human, but animate. His jerky turning motions suggest that he might be digging, but no, the pole he is manipulating has no blade at the end of it, rather the flat pad of a metal detector. On a warmish day he is tightly wrapped-up, with raised hood. Clearly he does not want to be recognised as, aside from the archaeological vandalism he may be perpetrating, he is probably committing trespass. Though I pass within a yard of him, he pointedly declines to acknowledge my presence.
The road is well-used and takes a while to cross. Directly on the other side, I pause to put on the yellow high-viz jacket Andrew kindly gave me this morning. He tells me that budget cuts have somewhat diminished exercise activity on Salisbury Plain but that Sunday is still the day on which firing is most likely to occur. Even with the rigorous security reconnaissance the Army have in place, it is sensible to make sure one is easily seen. Before me is the wide track ascending to the Danger Area - wide enough for vehicles and clearly used by them, though banned (as a sign I soon encounter makes clear) to the Ministry of Defence. I expected the climb to be somewhat less of a slog than this. Behind, there is a view back to the Vale, but it soon disappears as the path contracts between hedges. There are extensive copses on both sides - one of them the delightfully named Marden Cowbag, though I suspect it is some time since cows grazed up here. As the path dwindles still further, I start to wonder if somehow I have missed a turning - perhaps at the diagonal service road I crossed earlier - even though map and guide both indicate a route straight ahead. Then suddenly, dead in front of me between the hedgerows, a red flag. Live ammo is in use today.
Optical illusion makes the flag appear surrounded by foliage, but actually it stands on the far side of the muddy vehicle track that rings the Plain, whose ragged tufts are soon revealed, extending lumpily into the distance. I cross over towards it and head East along the embankment. It is pretty bleak up here, though not entirely lonely. More cars growl past than one might have imagined, and there are even a few ramblers - including a father and son peering through binoculars into the forbidden territory in an attempt to spot rare birds. The great bustard - eaten to near extinction on Victorian dinner tables - has been successfully re-introduced to this pock-marked wilderness, though none enliven the desolation currently in view.
To be fair, this is not quite the deadly Zone of Tarkovsky's Stalker. When flags are down, one is permitted to follow various clearly marked permissive routes across it, though advised to keep an eye out for fragments of un-exploded ordnance. Obviously, this would not have been a problem for our Neolithic forebears, who would have happily forged on ahead towards Stonehenge. Presumably the elevation of the Plain as approached from this direction would have enhanced their anticipatory excitement. I stick to the perimeter path, which soon comes to seem interminable. Accessing it via Marden means I get to tramp more of it than I would have done following the official trail. Lucky me. Despite the flag, no sounds of a warlike nature emanate from the Plain. Apart, perhaps, from what might be a faint distant burst of small-arms fire.
Eventually, at the Danger Area's north-eastern corner, one comes to a strange, semi-dilapidated utilities building and car-parking space, across the road from which are the earthworks of Casterley Camp. Though nowhere near as imposing or well preserved as those at Barbury, they constitute a site of considerable interest,having been in near continuous use from the Neolithic through to the
Roman period. From it I turn Southwards, striking out across downward-sloping open-access fields towards a large modern barn. A popular hangout, it seems, for the local youth a small group of whom appear to be lounging and chatting inside. Just beneath it I join a wide metalled lane where I meet the first of a series of small misadventures that only slightly cloud the end of this great day's walking. The journey from Marden has taken longer than estimated and, in attempting to make up time with bolder strides, I miss my footing and tumble into a large pool of muddy water. Good thing I left my waterproof trousers on. I start to suspect that I might not get all the way to Amesbury before night comes - at least, not by foot.
The next stretch pretty much decides it. Passing through a well kept farm yard guarded by two miss-matched canon, I realise that my passage to the village of Enford and the River Avon, though short as the crow flies, involves the tortuous ascent of a steep cow pasture. The afternoon sunlight has taken on a distinctly deepening glow. Having attained the far side of the valley, I consult my map, only for a gust of wind to blow the paper chart completely free of it's cardboard cover. This makes it hard to grab hold of and even harder to fold up. I stuff the wretched thing into my sack and clamber downwards, emerging through a line of trees to find myself at a bus stop on the A345. The next bus to Amesbury is imminent, and I would have been well advised to wait and get on to it, but instead I stroll on through Enford, with its fine Early Medieval church, to a bridge over the river.
On the far side, the southward-curling road widens as it passes, pavement-less, through the linear villages of Longstreet and Coombe. By the time I recross the Avon, just beyond the latter settlement, it is getting very dusky indeed. I am now following the course of the fairly fast-flowing waterway through shadowy wooded fields and slightly miss my way, arriving at Netheravon - the largest village I've encountered since Avebury - on the wrong side from that anticipated.
It is now 7pm and properly dark. With under five miles to go, I decide to call it a day.
If I didn't quite achieve my ambitious objective, I came close. Had yesterday's storms not forced me to delay my exploration of the Avebury complex until this morning, I certainly would have achieved it. Since departing Swindon, I have walked well over 35 miles, some of it under the most appalling weather conditions and including several steep ascents, whilst taking in Chisleden, Barbury, Avebury, Silbury, West Kennet, the Wansdyke, Adam's Grave, Alton Pryors, Alton Barnes, Marden, and Casterley Camp. I am not too disappointed over breaking off here, as the remainder of the route - though, I'm sure, picturesque - winds gently through riverside villages with little of specifically prehistoric interest, aside from the mysterious secluded barrow at Ratfyn. It can wait for some time in the near future.
As I sit on the bus-stop bench in Netheravon, feeling remarkably un-exhausted, it becomes apparent that I must have just - only just - missed the last Sunday service to Amesbury. Eventually, I am picked up by a cab from outside the Stonehenge Brewery, it's barrels piled up impressively on the open street. Stupidly, I manage to leave my phone in the car, but it is retrieved without too much difficulty. Not quite the triumphal arrival at the dig I had envisaged, but no matter.
Later, in the pub, surrounded by my fellow Blick Meaders (most, it must be said, somewhat the worse for wear as they celebrate the end of a hard week at the sieves) the larger meaning of what I have done starts to sink in. As a backpacking challenge, The Great Stones Way may not quite rival the Inca Trail, but many more people aught to do it, not only for its scenic delights, but for the insight it grants into the larger prehistoric landscape of Wiltshire. Certainly it was well trod In the late Neolithic when Avebury to Stonehenge would have been a comfortable day's walking and Marden to Amesbury an afternoon's boat trip. Much has been made of the accumulated ritual significance of these sites, and clearly they do represent a purposeful, sustained, and deeply impressive effort to place human life within a transcendent cosmic context. But they were also social enterprises the actual construction of which would have been meaningful as, surely, wouldthe scale of their interconnectedness. Prehistoric Wiltshire was place where generations of humans lived, died, built, worshipped, hunted, feasted, congregated ... and walked.