The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
29. GREAT STONES WAY
Distance: 58 km (excluding optional trails)
Time: 3 days
To walk the Great Stones Way through the tranquil, rolling downs and chalk grasslands of Wiltshire is to walk through the Neolithic prehistory of England. For more than a millennium from 3,000 BCE to 2,000 BCE these fields were the scene of frenzied activity as henges, burial mounds and processional avenues were built to provide pathways to the afterlife and to help those who constructed them come to an understanding of the world in which they lived.
The trail owes its existence to the Friends of the Ridgeway, supporters of that ancient trail from Salisbury Plain to East Anglia considered by many to be Britain’s oldest road, who are keen to develop a single walking trail extending across southern England and whose efforts led to the trail’s opening in 2014.
GREAT STONES WAY
Photo: Geotrekker 72
The trail begins outside Swindon at Barbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort first occupied 2,500 years ago with two defensive ditches and ramparts, and made use of during the Roman occupation because of the extensive views it provides - on a clear day - from the Cotswolds to the River Severn. The trail passes through the heart of the fort and continues on a broad track to Hackpen Hill from which a small detour takes you to the Winterbourne Bassett White Horse, one of Wiltshire’s famous chalk horses, this one cut in 1838 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria. You now descend to Overton Hill, and through the Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve with its scattering of ancient sarsen stones used to construct the stone circles at Avebury, the three sets of which you’ll soon begin to see ahead of you and which includes the largest stone circle of its kind in Europe. You can either return to the trail the way you came, or better is to head south to see the prehistoric artificial chalk mound at Silbury Hill (part of the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage Site) which, at 98 ft in height, is Europe’s tallest prehistoric man-made mound, before crossing the River Kennet and rejoining the trail at East Kennet. Also be sure to walk over to West Kennet and see the West Kennet Long Barrow, constructed around 3,600 BCE, 400 years before Stonehenge, and have a look inside its accessible (though empty) chambered tomb, while nearby is The Sanctuary. Originally an arrangement of circular wooden posts, the unearthing of several human skeletons suggests the site had a ritualistic function.
A small ascent up Lurkeley Hill leads to the Wansdyke, a series of medieval defensive earthworks comprising a ditch and running embankment and the remains of the old Roman-built London to Bath road. Descend to the Lockeridge-Alton Barnes road and take an allowed path through a field to Walkers Hill and the Neolithic Adam’s Grave, a destroyed Neolithic long barrow. Pass through the villages of Alton Priors and Alton Barnes, with views out over the wonderfully undulating fields of the Vale of Pewsey, and make for the towpath of the Kennet and Avon Canal at Honeystreet, built between 1794 and 1810 and linking the Kennet and Avon rivers. Continue on the towpath for a serene 1.5 km then turn right towards Woodborough which takes you on a bridleway (and a few roads, though with little traffic and lovely views) before another bridleway leads to Combe Cottage and up on to the edge of Salisbury Plain. From here you have a fine view back to the Alton Barnes White Horse before following the edge of the plateau on to Casterley Camp, the site of a Romano-British enclosure with a single circuit of ramparts.
Walk along through open grassland past Field Barn towards the Ministry of Defence site at West Chisenbury Farm and along another grassy path past Compton Farm towards the A345. Cross the Avon at Coombe, enter the hamlet of Fifield, then pass a series of artificial lakes leading into the village of Netheravon. Stroll down its delightful High Street, and where the road forks, head left and over the Avon again to Choulston Farm.
Descending to the River Avon the trail passes through more villages before offering another optional loop, this time to Durrington Walls, a large Neolithic settlement which scholars suggest may have been for a brief period the largest settlement in northern Europe, and which very likely doubled as a ‘builder’s camp’ during the construction of Stonehenge. Close to Durrington Walls is Woodhenge, a timber circle first identified in 1925, containing 168 post holes (now marked with contemporary concrete posts) in six concentric oval rings. The timber posts that once stood here were likely free-standing, weighed up to five tons each, and are thought to have supported a ring-shaped building used for ceremonial and religious purposes.
You then walk along Stonehenge Avenue, part of the original route used to transport the dead to their final resting places at Stonehenge, one of the world’s most famous prehistoric monuments with its evocative remains of standing stones located at the centre of England’s largest concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age relics. The final stage of the trail leads to the impressive Iron Age fort at Old Sarum, later added to by the Normans who built a town - the remains of which have only recently been rediscovered - buried beneath the ground behind its massive earthwork defences.
Despite being created to highlight Wiltshire’s monuments, there is far more than just man-made history here. These grasslands support an abundance of flowering plants, butterflies and birdlife, including - if one is lucky - a sighting of the Great Bustard, the male of which is possibly the heaviest flying animal on earth. On Salisbury Plain you’ll find the burnt-tip orchid and the endangered mining bee, and everywhere you look there are ‘chalk downland specialists’ such as clustered bellflowers, and the purplish bells of autumn gentians.
Nowhere in England, however, does a trail pack so much history into such a short trail, and if you want to add a little ‘contemporary’ history to the trail you can carry on into Salisbury and end your walk at magnificent Salisbury Cathedral, the foundation stone of which was laid on 28 April 1220 - a bit of a latecomer, really, in this ancient and revered landscape.