Category Archives: Country Walks Without a Car

Neolithic Avebury

This part of Wiltshire is best know for expansive chalkland, a scatter of sarsens across the landscape. Also called ‘greywethers’, they are ‘the only remainders of the Eocene here; pockets of hard sand originally set within a softer and easily-weathered matrix’ (Pollard & Reynolds 14). We sought them out in their natural habitat.

Watts (1993) writes that before the sarsen cutters depleted them for local building, they could be used as stepping stones from Delling to Clatford. They were being squared off and sold up through 1938, the last cartloads going by barge along the Avon-Kennet canal to Windsor castle. It was a dangerous occupation, and cutters died young of silicosis and exposed on the hillsides. Curiously they don’t all split easily, and many were attempted and then left.

Of course, it was those placed here in Neolithic times that I cared most about.

This place was being used long before then, a stop over for the people of the Mesolithic — Cherwell hill was used as an ongoing camp at least, a place people stayed off and on. Earlier archeologists spouted theories left and right but seems that we are more and more reluctant to commit ourselves to any one defined belief of how people moved across the landscape in these prehistoric days. The record tells us little.

There are more signs of occupation from the Early Neolithic (4000-3000 BC), we walked near to the Roughridge pits, which mark the beginnings of creating monuments in this landscape that still remain. They were followed by two long mounds, one at least covered several burials and was constructed within sight of the Roughridge settlement.

The creation of monuments has been seen as symptomatic of new attitudes to place, landscape and the natural world (Bradley 1993,1998). Their construction served to ‘alter the earth’ in a way rarely seen during the Mesolithic, creating permanent landscape features that marked socially and mythically important places… (29)

At this time it was a ‘treescape’ rather than open downs, and trees are described as sources of food fuel and timber, but also ways to hold memory within their clearings. In some ways we can know so little, but science has brought improved ability to trace people’s passage through the underlying geology of their food (crikey), and they traveled fairly large distances. One such study shows that a woman buried with three children at Monkton-up-Wimbourne had originally most likely lived in the Mendips 80 km away, traveled to Cranborne Chase and gave birth to two children. She returned to the Mendips to give birth to the third, then returned to Cranborne Chase.

But mostly we look still to what has been buried, preserved. Evidence of settlements like Hemp Hill in carefully dug pits where objects have been buried though the structures people lived in were fleeting and have left no trace. Archaeologists believe such pits, some colour coded through soil and pottery in dark and light, marked a link, an attachment with places. They describe a certain ‘persistence of place‘ (cf Barton et al 1995), a regular returning to familiar spaces (40). I like too archaeological descriptions of their lack of imprint on the earth beyond their monuments, which ‘seem so permanent and enduring compared with the ephemeral settings of routine existence that Barrett has spoken of Neolithic life as ‘a process of becoming, a movement towards a future state which was described by reference to ancestors or to gods and where life might be spoken of as ephemeral‘ (1994, 136 p 45).

I’m not certain what I think of that, but both the sentence and the life thus lived have a certain poetry.

This is a map of Neolithic presence in Avebury’s landscape.

Map of Avebury – http://www.avebury-web.co.uk/avebury_map.html

Windmill Hill is perhaps the most significant monument over time in this landscape. We did not get here somehow, the timings and circuits were not right, but we did see it from over the path of West Kennet Avenue.

On Windmill Hill lies the greatest early Neolithic monument — a great oval enclosure enclosing nearly 8.5 ha. Bronze Age burial mounds cut into it. This hill, along with Knap Hill and Rybury also offer beautiful vistas across a country, which when wooded would have offered few such. There are various theories about the enclosures’ connection with the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture and that it represents a lost communal longhouse. There is greater consensus that such a structure is an act of enclosing space, setting it apart, surely of symbolic significance. What I love most though, is that this enclosure is not complete.

The permeability of the enclosure created by the broken sections of ditch implies a lack of concern with exclusion, of people, animals or things, allowing access and egress from many directions. This and other evidence, such as the occurrence of many different pottery styles, some in non-local clays, indicates the participation of large numbers and a range of people in activities at the site (Whittle et al 1999) (50)

It was also filled with animal burials.

We did get to Knap Hill it is splendid, the views above all as there is very little to be seen.

It stands across from a hill with a great long barrow on it — Adam’s Grave. This belongs to the period that follows those of the great enclosures. A number of these were built, more than have survived. They were

‘deliberately sited on locations that had witnessed earlier activity; as such they ‘elaborated upon a landscape which was already composed of significant locations, whether natural landmarks or places associated with particular events or practices’ (Thomas, 1999, 203 quoted on 59).

Many of them are located on vegetational or soil boundaries. Adam’s Grave is the one with the greatest view, here from below:

And here looking over to Knap Hill. This whole escarpment was wondrous looking out over the Pewsey Valley. The Saxons would fight long and hard over this, but more on that later.

West Kennet was the largest long barrow, used like the others for burials of fragments of bone over time. Both West Kennet and Adam’s Grave also contained oolitic limestone, which contrasts white with the grey stone, and had to be brought here from Frome-Bath-Atworth region.

The Later Neolithic period (3000-2400 BC) saw continued use of these areas — a continuity of memory. West Kennet barrow for instance, remained a focus of continued mortuary deposits and then became a repository for an infill of chalk, bone and other materials — but a purposeful one, with contrasting materials in different areas. They don’t make too much of these contrasts but I find them quite significant. They are not all on hills, we found this one in the West Woods covered in bluebells, obscured by saplings.

This is a period when the land was opening up, not so wooded but no evidence of cultivation until the end of the third millenium BC.

This is when Avebury stone circle was built. Deposits of worked flint, pottery, fragments of bone and skull at the bases of the greywethers. Pollard & Reynolds argue it should be seen as a continuation of whatever belief system underlay the enclosures of Windmill Hill, Rybury and Knapp Hill. Built on is it is, it is almost impossible to get a sense of the whole. It is experienced now in quarters, in bits and pieces created by the road.

A map of Avebury and its remaining stones without the village and the road driven through it.

The people here built additional structures at Beckhampton, West Kennet Palisades, the Sanctuary. Avenues connected Beckhampton and the Sanctuary (2.4 k) with Avebury, though almost nothing remains of them. That from the Sanctuary contains a sudden jog as it comes to it’s final third before Avebury — possibly to ensure a turn and then the monument opening up before you. This avenue was also laid out to cross an older occupation site, and a gap was left in its western wedge where it crossed the densest part of the old settlement. Pollard and Reynolds write:

The Avebury avenues brought together disparate places of significance in the landscape, creating connections not only between different parts of the landscape, but, because those places often had long histories of activity, between the past and the present. (105)

Nothing remains now of the Sanctuary but markers showing its complex arrangement of circles of wood and stone. It’s marvelous, and rediscovered by Maud Cunnington, ‘lady’ archaeologist of the 1930s who is never named in the signboards so you never know it was a woman running these early digs, yet who excavated a number of these places. This is directly alongside the ridgeway, but sadly also the A4.

The final monument is Silbury Hill — the largest prehistoric man-made mound in western Europe. MAN-MADE MOUND. Or human-made mound we should say. They built this, rising 37 m above the valley floor, base diameter of 160 m. Like the middens and infills of different colours, this hill was also made of contrasts. The primary mound at the base of turves brought from elsewhere.

The reasons are all opaque to us, but its presence demands a reason. There is some thought that the wooden constructions like the West Kennet palisades are perhaps versions of the Avebury circles for the living. Silbury hill a transition point. Reading about this landscape I found Silbury Hill perhaps the least interesting but seeing it…

It is extraordinary, and perhaps more so knowing that people are still not sedentary in this landscape. But they soon will be.

A last more detailed map of where we know they might sometimes be found while living, where their dead remained.

Sources:

Pollard, Joshua, and Andrew Reynolds (2006) Avebury the biography of a landscape. Stroud: Tempus.

Watts, Kenneth (1993) The Marlnorough Downs. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press.

Avebury Walk: Adam’s Grave and Knap Hill, Gopher Woods, West Woods, Fyfield Downs

This was a wopping 17.94 miles before my phone died, and the pub in Lockeridge closed down for refurbishment — so many pubs are gone. We felt the tragedy in a most visceral manner. But Knap Hill, the escarpment over Pewsey Valley was incredible. And the bluebells in Gopher Wood? Some of the loveliest I have ever seen, not to mention the hollow way leading down to Alton Priors. Road not taken…

More about these wondrous things from Neolithic times here, and for all things Roman, Saxon and Medieval here.

Avebury Walk: East Kennet to Wansdyke to the roman Road, Oldbury Castle, Avebury

I’ve finally started mapping these. This was an astonishing 16.6 miles, no wonder we didn’t make it to Windmill Hill. But it was a most splendid birthday, follow by prosecco and chocolate cake back at the Old Forge.

More about these wondrous things from Neolithic times here, and for all things Roman, Saxon and Medieval here.

Space and splendour and Weston Super Mare

I know those adjectives don’t usually go together, but I stand by it. The first Saturday of February, there were no holiday hordes. There was almost no one there but for a couple of the beaches where absolutely everyone was out walking their dogs. That was quite glorious. But we walked past great mud flats and rickety ruined piers stretched out above the mud and the waves through woods and out past sand bay full of windswept grass with black feathered heads beyond which stand mysterious islands shrouded in the distant mist and a great city shining white on the far banks of the Severn (Cardiff). Out to Sand Point, the tail end of the Mendips forming sweeping coves and secluded rocky beaches. A defense installation, pill boxes, old boats beached high. Neolithic mounds. Walls built by prisoners of the Napoleonic war. The sky was blue above us scattered with clouds — except when it was all cloud, but this is England after all.

Above all there was room to expand, to breathe even as the wind did its best to take your breath away.

I have a new coat that actually keeps me warm. It has changed my life.

Not quite peaceful countryside: Ilford Manor and Farleigh Hungerford Castle

You can get the train to Freshford, I don’t know why we had never done this, for it looks like there are several lovely walks to be done from here. There is also a lovely pub with the best lemon crumble I have ever had in my life. It is, you know, redolent of rich people, but for a day that’s quite all right. And really, this walk was all about the violence hidden in the tranquility of the countryside, made possible by wealth inequality really.

You follow narrow lanes from the station to Ilford Manor — I didn’t think the gardens would be open but they were. A description from the website:

The Grade-1 listed gardens were designed by Harold Peto during his tenure at Iford from 1899-1933, and represent one of the finest examples of steeply terraced hillside gardening in the UK. They are characterised by colonnades, pools and steps, and offer magnificent rural views over the valley.

They are beautiful gardens though a bit small perhaps. I particularly loved the millstones set into the paving stones, the stairs up hillsides with their cascades of daisies, lovely borders, the smell of rosemary, wisteria everywhere. Quite a wonderful sculpture of a dog scratching itself.

Ilford Manor

But behind it you can see the sarcophagus — whose? There is a pond full of waterlilies, wisteria growing in bush form in a great circle around it which is quite beautiful — I haven’t seen it like that. And then suddenly you realise the statue of the old sage is actually holding what looks like a dog and the water pours from the wound in its breast.

Ilford Manor

There is a cloister, and likewise it is full of carvings of hawks and kestrels hunting hares and partridges, that moment of capture and cruel claws seen also in a lion holding a pig, and suddenly this beautiful garden felt quite a cruel place. Not least from the worry over the provenance of these old scraps of carving, columns and statuary collected from around the world…

From there we followed footpaths down the side of the River Frome to reach Farleigh Hungerford Castle. There is not much of it left, it is true, but more than would appear upon first glance. A quite incredible chapel, I am still not entirely sure how it fits within these ruins, approached as you might the center of a snail shell through a walled garden behind which rise the ruins.

Freshford Walk

Freshford Walk

There are burials here too, but at least you are quite sure that they belong here. The old, unexpected colours restored, but this families disappointing obsession with their own ancestry also on view.

Freshford Walk

Underneath a crypt, rather terrifying lead coffins. The kid who came down behind us legged it.

Freshford Walk

This family has only violence to make it stand out, really. It was built in the 1370s but Sir Thomas Hungerford, steward of John of Gaunt — I do appreciate that he was the first recorded speaker of the House of Commons. Yet he destroyed the local village to make way for the park alongside the castle. The family did well in the 100 years war, made a fortune through kidnapping Frenchmen and demanding ransom. The beautiful chapel had been a parish church, but became a private one when the walls were expanded around it. In 1523, Lady Agnes Hungerford was hanged with two of her servants for murdering her first husband, John Cottell. They waited to bring her to trial until her second husband Sir Edward Hungerford died (a natural death it seems, but his desire to marry Agnes was, of course, her motive). Given her first husband was strangled and burned within the walls of the castle itself — well.

The ‘Lady Tower’ here is so called because it was used to imprison Elizabeth Hungerford, wife of Sir Edward’s son, over a period of months. She also accused him of attempting to poison her. Sadly, this is not the reason he was executed. He was executed on charges of treason and ‘unnatural vice’ (almost makes you like him) after his patron Thomas Cromwell fell from grace with Henry VIII.

His grandson would go on to accuse his wife of adultery and an attempt to poison him. He lost the court case, refused to pay her costs and went to jail. The castle was lost to the family by Sir Edward ‘The Spendthrift’, who gambled and frivolised away the fortune under Charles II and was forced to sell it.

I don’t really know why anyone thought aristocracy a good idea. But someone here did own this lovely little thing created to tamp down tobacco in the bowl of a pipe:

Freshford Walk

I do also love ruins, probably because they are ruins and reminders that all tyranny must pass.

Freshford Walk

Though it felt good and fresh and clean to escape into the countryside, down along the other side of the river.

Freshford Walk

Freshford Walk

We also passed the site of an old priory where the lay brothers once lived attached to the Carthusian Priory of Hinton. Little remains but the practice of farming (pigs, bees, lovely vegetable gardens) and some of the old cottages (now with solar panels) and this sign showing what it once resembled:

Freshford Walk

And then back to Freshford. The countryside is so beautiful here, but sprinkled about with absurd mansions being too close to Bath for comfort.

Freshford Walk

Freshford Walk

But the Inn at Freshford, as I say… incredible cakes, ales, full of dogs and beautiful in itself.

Walk from Buxton — Axe Edge Moor

We started in Buxton — old spa town, regency architecture, mummers and dancers in fancy dress in a square (Mark murmured about the horror but I rather like them), lovely park suitably filled with follies and screaming children and people with money. It does have an old sacred well spilling out geothermal waters — St Anne’s.

Walk from Buxton

I was thinking about going to Poole’s Caverns, following in the tracks of Romantic poets and such, but you have to walk through a chintzy gift shop to get there — you don’t even get a cliff face and a gaping dark mouth to enter. It was full of people. We fled. We are getting old crabbit maybe, but that is hardly a good way to spend an afternoon. The woods just, however, are beautiful, despite being sandwiched between Go Ape and a caravan park.

Walk from Buxton

I wanted moors and wide open spaces and we found them, but really it was a bit grim. I don’t quite know why it feels so different on this edge of the Peak District. The day was grey, to be fair, but this was as good as it got really…

Walk from Buxton

The sheep, as always were amusing

Walk from Buxton

There were remnants of mining up here in the form of pitted ground, the earth peaty and carved away oddly by water

Walk from Buxton

Walk from Buxton

There was a lovely little area with three bridges and a confluence of streams, that also came with about 40 french kids and a number of other walkers so we fled that too. This tower might have, thus, been the highlight.

Walk from Buxton

Walk from Buxton

And this beautiful glowing in the sky, which I have never seen before

Walk from Buxton

Or this moment when we thought we were close to the promised land of the pub.

Walk from Buxton

Like so many of our walks, we had such high hopes but the Cat and Fiddle had been closed for years and we had to make our sad, cold, hungry way back to Buxton.

A Most Beautiful Place: In search of the Dolmen of Izas

An amazing walk, starting from La Estación de Canfranc and walking up and up. We stopped first at the Coll de Ladrones, hill of thieves — we had been staring at it the day before.

An amazing walk, starting from La Estación de Canfranc and walking up and up. We stopped first at the Coll de Ladrones, hill of thieves — we had been staring at it the day before.

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

The first fortifications were built here in the 16th century. But this incredible space is from the 18th Century, started after the war of independence and built to guard the valley against France. It sits amongst many more modern defenses built by Franco here beginning in 1944. None of them are as amazing as this. You walk up to the main gate, and it’s only then that you realise this hill is essentially moated:

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

You can’t get down there.

We continued up from there. Across rubble and through flowers.

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

Up to the fields

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

Absurdly beautiful.

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

We walked along this stream most of the way

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas
Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

This is as high as we got — we did not find the dolmen, and it seemed no one else was as keen on such things as me, so it was not seen on any of my maps nor marked after that first sign that sent us astray.

Looking up to the right

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

Back down the valley

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

More beautiful places. And cows, each with its bell.

Estación de Canfranc casi hasta la dolmen de Izas

De la Estación de Canfranc al Mirador del Epifanio: Pyrenees walk

We’re in Zaragoza! Mark is examining a PhD even now as I sit in relative luxury. We spent two(ish) days in the Pyrenees and they were amazing, this is our first short walk up to the casita blanca y el mirador del epifanio…I imagine these woods full of partisans, makes them as magical as they were beautiful. The Station itself has an amazing history, but more on that later…

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

La casita blanca is relatively recent, built as part of the work to reforest this hillside to control avalanaches and landslides.

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

A little higher is the ‘lookout’ over the Epifanio, a wide dam from which you can look down to La Estacion de Canfranc

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

And up to the peaks.

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

And if you look very closely you can see the group of chamois we saw drinking there. There was a whole large group of them, but almost invisible in the shade. They are almost in the photo’s center, on the rock just to the left of the stream.

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

And then back down again, to the welcome shade of the forest. It was very hot, the forest very beautiful.

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

Estacion de Canfranc -- Mirador del Epifanio

A terrible river walk: York’s Centenary Way

Poorly marked, terribly overgrown — we battled our way through nettles, brambles and thistles. We fought an array of insects and horseflies. It was hot and the air close. It was not particularly scenic nor was it particularly beautiful. Our grand finale was a golf course and the Stagecoach bus station. This was, possibly, the most shit walk ever, but it is in close competition with the now legendary 26-mile-because-we-got-lost ramble from Haye on Wye, or our first memorable encounter with horseflies on the Mersey estuary in a terrible walk from Hale. Still, it had a ruined priory so it comes in third.

The bus timetables were all wrong online, and this was was fatal given how the service to the moors is so limited. I’m finding this to be quite common, you have to download the damn app in every city you go to, to be sure you have the right bus schedule. Our original plan to get to the moors and the Hole of Horcum had to be switched, and this is no easy feat in unfamiliar territory. We took an absurdly expensive bus to Cambreck, which was once a reformatory school and is now residential. We took our lives in our hands and crossed the motorway. We walked along a pleasant path beside the river Derwent, only to find the clearly marked footpath on our Os map is no longer in existence. We backtracked, and that always hurts. We followed the path to Kirkham Priory, with a plan to end in Malton.

This was reasonably beautiful, and the highlight of the walk beyond doubt though the strange clouded day made photography difficult. An Augustinian priory founded in the 1120s, had a fairly uneventful, though wealthy, existence until Henry VIII. Winston Churchill was here among the ruins to watch vehicles practicing for the D-Day landing. It’s hard to imagine, it is a small river, a small space. There is not a lot left.

York -- The Terrible River Walk

York -- The Terrible River Walk

York -- The Terrible River Walk

York -- The Terrible River Walk

What followed was also pretty all right for a while. We walked through fields of wheat and potatoes — quite uncertainly, it must be said, but we were indeed on the right track

York -- The Terrible River Walk

And then the true purgatory began. It was lit up for a brief moment by an incredible small patch of wetland filled, absolutely filled with dragonflies. I have never seen so many. They were beautiful.

York -- The Terrible River Walk

But most of our track looked like this:

York -- The Terrible River Walk

We were both bleeding. Mark had great red welts across his calves from the cleggs — my bites didn’t come up until I was back at work annoying everyone else, and myself most of all, by scratching them. Splendid river view? Not so much:

York -- The Terrible River Walk

Irises though, we did also get to see irises close up.

York -- The Terrible River Walk

Oh look, the footpath continues:

York -- The Terrible River Walk

Finally we emerged all too briefly into some woodland, that faded all too quickly into gold course.

York -- The Terrible River Walk

We chose not to take this ‘footpath’ and walked down the fairly busy lane instead

York -- The Terrible River Walk

I know councils have limited funds and have made hard choices and I do blame the Tory government first and Stagecoach second but…damn it. What a terrible plan B.