A Walk on the Ridgeway

Nomi's youngest sister Maddy came to stay for the weekend. We spent a day doing typically Oxford things and took her to Catweazle where she played some of her extraordinary songs. She's only eighteen but already brimming with talent. Her music comes from exactly the right place.

And then we spent a day walking on the Ridgeway, the ancient prehistoric track that connects Goring to Avebury and which is riddled with ancient monuments along the way. We began at Kingston Lisle at the little known Blowing Stone, so called because you can play it like a trumpet. Kind of. This natural sarsen horn was supposed to have been used by King Alfred to rouse the English against the Vikings, but given that all we could muster was a soggy parp this doesn't seem very likely. Pity the neighbours.

And then up to the Ridgeway itself, which runs like a chalk stream across the downs, urging the feet ever onwards.

There are often strange things on the Ridgeway, like this dead toad, squished flat and dried to a crisp. In spite of the walkers and the cyclists and the trail-bikes and the horse-riders, it remains that kind of place.

We walked to the prehistoric longbarrow known as Wayland's Smithy. Ancient by the time the Anglo-Saxons named it in honour of their smith god, legend says that if you tether your horse there overnight, with a groat for payment, Wayland himself will shoe it for you. I've not yet put this to the test, though I did spend part of my stag night trussed and blindfolded in one of the barrow's chambers (a story that probably deserves some explanation, though I'll save it for another time).


We didn't find Wayland but a man trying to get the perfect photograph, a task made considerably harder by the fact that this was a busy summer Saturday. Families and walkers kept coming into view. It's interesting why we always want to capture our ancient monuments unpeopled - in reality they rarely are.

There's usually some graffiti on the stones and trees. No, I don't know what the images mean either, other than that people feel the need to let others know they were there (as I'm doing here). Chalk marks don't seem to leave any permanent damage so it's a curiosity not a problem. I rather like it.

Wayland's Smithy has a reputation for being an edgy sort of place, somewhere where you're likely to find bikers getting pissed on cider or people fumbling in the bushes or other nefarious goings on. I've never found it so. The spirit of the place is restful. There's always that hoped-for feeling of otherworldliness. The hairs on the back of the neck tingle obligingly. We ate sandwiches and lingered, waiting for the sun to come out again.

Then, back onto the Ridgeway, homewards. Uffington Castle looked glorious against the summer sky. It used to be thought that this and similar Iron Age earthworks were hillforts, defensive structures in an age of turmoil and war. The latest idea is that they were more like festival sites, the banks and ditches purely for show (why else would they be so poorly defended round the back?). I like this idea and am running with it.

By late afternoon the sun was hot but a cool wind was blowing in from the West. You could just catch the tang of salt, the smell of the sea. We found a shady spot and lingered again, unwilling to come off the downs and to drop back into the twenty-first century. In a summer of downpours and uncertain weather it proved the perfect summer's day. We squeezed out every last drop.


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