I have long felt that I have not explored enough of the curious collection of islands that is the UK. My map is being filled in bit by bit, though, partly by travelling to cities such as Liverpool or Birmingham with work and partly by trying to leave London a bit more under my own steam.
My latest such trip was organised on meetup.com, a site bringing together people for pretty much any activity you can think of. I was to join Madoc, who runs Secret Adventures on this platform: he organises evening events and short weekend trips in and around London for small groups of people who want to get away from the blinkered trudge that London life can sometimes become. As this is currently a new venture, he was keen to get some photographs of his trips to use in his promotional work: this was my main raison d’etre on this trip. While I am embarassed to admit that due to focus issues on my camera not many pictures – particularly of people – turned out well, I can only hope that I was not too much of a liability.
The plan was very simple: we would catch a train from Paddington to Pewsey, a village in the lush Wiltshire countryside, and walk north to the stone circle of Avebury. Here, we would find a good spot to camp, head to the pub for dinner and return home the next day.
Following a surprisingly short train ride, our little group of six wandered off along tiny country roads, marvelling at the birdsong and greenery surrounding us: rare pleasures for a Londoner! We were without proper maps and therefore not as prepared as you might think, but it is fairly hard to get seriously lost in the rolling, and almost fully enclosed, Wiltshire countryside. It was not long before we decided to leave the road and strike out in what we thought was a fairly straight line towards Avebury.
This being a half-day walk rather than a multi-day undertaking such as my hikes around Abel Tasman and Tongariro National Parks in New Zealand last year, I decided that cereal bars and some spicy crisps would be plentiful nourishment. Needless to say, I was particularly looking forward to a big pub dinner at our destination!
The walk towards Avebury turned out to lead over numerous gentle folds and rises in the land, rarely far from signs of human habitation. Maybe slightly predictably, we ended up getting a little lost – but this was nothing that could not be rectified. We got directions from a farmer flying model planes with his son, who must have taken us for the big-city optimists we were for setting off without a map. I found his accent almost completely unintelligible, more so than I had thought possible this far south in the country.
On our way, we came across numerous reminders of the long history, and prehistory, of Wiltshire. Just across the previous ridge, we had wandered past a giant chalk horse cut into the rock centuries ago – I had thought these were millenia old and just well-maintained, so I was a little disappointed to find on my return home that most white horses and other hill figures are just a few centuries old.
We reached Avebury after about 6 hours of relaxed walking over rolling country and navigating countless stiles and kissing gates. The village of Avebury is situated right in the middle of a stone circle far larger than Stonehenge – it takes about 20 minutes to circumambulate; a very different beast! An “avenue” of standing stones escorted us the last half-mile to Avebury, where we explored along the perimeter of the stones for a suitable campsite. A moat running the length of the circle seemed like an obvious choice – almost too obvious. We decided it was only reasonable to delay making a final choice until after dinner.
Avebury itself is a bizarre place – it is every bit as sleepy, quaint and idyllic as one might imagine a Wiltshire hamlet. It felt like the kind of place where anyone not seen in church of a Sunday can expect to be the topic of village gossip for the foreseeable future. However, this tranquil first impressionwas disturbed by the collection of huge stone-age monuments permeating the entire village – not far from the stone circle, Europe’s biggest man-made mound dominates the surrounding country. Add to this heavy, leaden skies and approaching dusk, and the village took on a more sinister cast, like something one might expect at the beginning of a horror film.
Undeterred, and spurred on now by thoughts of dinner and a good cold pint, we found the pub and rested our weary feet. Rik took the laurels by demolishing two full main courses and a pudding, a feat I could only watch with envy. Then again, I scored some bonus black pudding from Lyndsey’s meal to bolster my own, so I can’t complain.
Towards the end of the meal, conversation turned towards our quarters for the night. We were overheard by a local man sat at the bar, who mentioned to us one monument we had not yet discovered. West Kennet Long Barrow, he said, was a popular spot for wild campers to spend the night. Since it was raining, most of the party wanted to sleep in the barrow, and I found myself in a minority in refusing to sleep in a 5000-year old burial mound riddled with a multitude of corridors and tombs.
In the end, we compromised and decided to have a look at the barrow before making up our minds about sleeping inside. In the pitch blackness, the path took us to the top of a small rise, where our lights cast vast, flickering shadows on a row of boulders lined up like teeth guarding the entrance to the barrow. We had a little look inside, and this did nothing to persuade me to sleep in a pitch-black tomb: I’m not a fan of rain, but given the choice at the time there was no question! I’m not entirely sure of the source of my reluctance – I’m not overly scared of dark places in and of themselves, and my spirituality doesn’t extend very far at all. Still, somehow it didn’t feel right to wander into a monument built by others millenia ago to house their honoured dead and to light a fire and make a bed there.
In the end, we slept on the leeward side the barrow, which stretches along the top of the rise it occupies. While everyone else wrapped themselves up in their bivvy-bags, I had to pitch my tent to protect my camera kit from the driving rain. Once it was up, however, it proved too tempting not to protect myself in it as well, so I curled up in my relatively palatial abode for the night. In a strike of good fortune, my body’s usually questionable thermoregulation was flawless and I spent a wonderfully comfortable night in a tent by a barrow; who’d’ve thunk it?
I took all the following pictures the next morning, once the rain had abated. Hopefully they’ll convey a better impression of what the barrow really looks like by the light of day. The enormous stones looming over you in silence are still imposing – no doubt this was their exact purpose and they fulfil it admirably.
Following a night of surprisingly comfortable sleep, we packed up and made ready early – an unavoidable but not unpleasant aspect of sleeping outside. We were all quite aware of what a contrast it was walking down from the barrow to get on a bus to take us to Swindon and Reading and to ultimately board the train back into the metropolis. I feel like we got about as much of a culture shock as it is possible to get after only being away for 24 hours, and it was great to get out and walk and camp with likeminded people. I can but hope that Madoc derived some benefit from my presence, as well!