Monday, March 02, 2009

The oldest road

During the academic year 1968-69, I lived with my young and growing family in London as I studied history of science at Imperial College. We owned a Volkswagen camper, in which we visited a prodigious number of places of historical or natural interest. One day near the village of Uffington in Oxfordshire, we climbed up through a hanging valley to view the famous White Horse of Uffington, carved into the chalk escarpment of the Berkshire Downs during the Bronze Age. At the top of the hill was a magnificent Iron Age hill fort, Uffington Castle, beside an ancient trackway called the Ridgeway. We walked along the track to Wayland's Smithy, an immense 5000-year old-chambered long barrow (burial site). The Ridgeway stretched out along the high ground in both directions, east and west, inviting visits to more ancient sites.

That magical place has been on my mind ever since. Now, 40 years later, I'm planning to walk the entire Ridgeway in late April, from Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon, 90 miles in six days. My sons Tom and Dan have asked to come along. Our air tickets are purchased, our overnight accommodations in place.

Half the fun is the anticipation. We have in hand the several published guides to what is now (since 1972) a nationally designated footpath. We have the 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps. Tom has marked our route on Google Earth -- we can zoom in at any scale.

The Ridgeway is the oldest known trackway in Britain. It connects megalithic monuments (starting at the Avebury stone circle), tombs, ditches and hill forts. Our walk will take us into deep time, back to the roots of Anglo-European civilization.

(The image above is from Google Earth, showing the White Horse and Uffington Castle. To give a sense of scale, the horse is longer than a football field (374 feet). Tom has marked the Ridgeway in red. Click to enlarge.)