And so it was that last Tuesday morning I set off; rucksack, pop-up tent and as little as I thought I could get by with on my back and I made a start. I took a train just beyond Reading and walked the 4km along the road and up the flank of the Downs to reach the point where the Ridgeway crosses the road and my journey begins. It was a relief to get to the trackway, not only because the hill up to it is a pig to walk up, but also because the feel underfoot was totally different from tarmac; much more comfortable. I had a set of ‘prayer beads’ I had made in the preceding days in my pack so fished them out and hung them from my waistband as something to have to hand, make use of and in somehow mark this journey out as different and not for my own purposes.
I spent the next 3 days in that landscape; flanked by cow parsley, birdsong and for the larger part serenaded by skylarks and awed by views of mile upon mile of Downland and the Vale of the White Horse. I walked as far as the Uffington White Horse that first day and did it way faster than I would have expected, so I got to spend 3 hours before it started to darken sat atop that hill gazing across the reddening land, watching crows fly, red kites circle and just exist in a landscape of sunshine, bird and insect life and do so upon that spot where She was carved into the chalk. I spent the night in Uffington castle; the Iron Age fort atop the hill the horse is carved into. As I was putting up my tent (hurrah for pop-up tents) I saw what I think is the third hare of my life, making its way up to the summit of the hillside – the same hare I also saw the next morning when taking down my tent, as it made the same journey summitward. It wasn't the most comfortable night of sleep and I was up by 5am, pack on my back and again on the Ridgeway track headed towards Wayland’s Smithy.
This long barrow sits in a glade of beech trees and was cool, quiet and peaceful at 6am. It seemed appropriate to walk sun wise circuit of the glade before moving on again. The track from where I joined the Ridgeway, along to the horse and beyond Wayland’s Smithy that day was the part of the walk that felt the most exhilarating; swathed in cow parsley on either side and with a distinct white spine of chalk to walk upon – like walking along the back of Rigantona herself. At the end of day two the track changes; less chalk and more human activity, I had to cross more roads (admittedly little more than tarmacked lanes). It was on day two that the most unpleasant experience occurred; I had spent a few hours walking along a much more wooded part of the Ridgeway as it eventually meets – and crosses – the M4. Approaching and crossing over 6 lanes was horrific; the noise, the movement, the sudden return to civilisation. It was a blessing to get past it and head up the hill to Liddington castle. From there it was more field side walking and more chalky downland until Avebury.
I spent the following day at Avebury; walking down to Swallowhead spring and across the field between the stone circle and the monuments just South of it.
It is difficult to say if this journey was a spiritual experience; I had no grand revelations, didn't meet any gods (the only dream I recall from sleeping above the White Horse involved me and my current boss trying to fly a space shuttle and not doing very well). In terms of spending time alone, walking amongst greenery and the frothy white of late spring, being serenaded all day by sky larks or escorted by circling red kites; it was a spectacular experience which makes me want to go back out there and walk other parts of the Ridgeway. Spending time like this away from people and the buzz of life in London – is more important than a fortnight in the sun (although I had splendid weather and caught the sun a bit), it’s a tonic for the mind, body and soul.