Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Oldest Road

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And wither then? I cannot say.
I suppose I should write a few words about our 100-mile walk along England's Ridgeway, the oldest known trackway in Britain (and which I preface with a bit of Tolkien).

Dan, Tom and I flew into Heathrow on Saturday morning, where an arranged driver took us to the tiny village of East Kennett near Avebury. We spent the afternoon exploring the many antiquities of the area -- the impressive Avebury stone circle and avenue, the West Kennett Long Barrow, Silbury Hill, and the Overton complex of round barrows. Many other barrows in the area are now the base for stands of ancient trees, for the simple reason that they were never incorporated into fields. The entire area is permeated with a preoccupation with the afterlife.

Sunday morning we set out on the Ridgeway itself, on a dry track in perfect weather that endured all week. We came prepared for wet, and walked in shorts and tees. The first three days kept to the crest of the chalky Cretaceous escarpment looking out over the Vale of the White Horse, fields of yellow rape extending in every direction. Every high point had its hill fort, massive earthworks from the Iron Age, the most impressive of which were Barbury Castle and Uffington Castle, not castles in the usual sense of the word but broad summits protected by huge ditches and walls of earth. Whitehorse Hill above Uffington, with its fort and totemic White Horse carved into the chalk, was sun-drenched and glorious. This was where forty years ago I promised myself to someday come back and walk the entire track. We passed through an occasional village, invariably picturesque and graced with a ye olde pub where we indulged in a ye olde pint. In late afternoon we dropped down off the ridge to our accommodations, where our bags waited. Our B&B hosts were warm and welcoming without exception.

At the end of day 3 we reached the Thames, where our track now took us 4 or 5 miles along the river through grassy meadows and tiny villages. Then east again along Grim's Ditch, a long, straight Iron Age earthwork of uncertain purpose reaching from the river to the Chiltern hills. "Ditch" here does not mean a depression, but a ridge, and like the round barrows it is now crowned with ancient woods carpeted with bluebells (see pic below; click to enlarge). Then back to the uplands as the trail turned north toward its termination on Ivinghoe Beacon, an outlier of the Chilterns with splendid 360 views over central England. Our last two nights were spent in the cozy comfort of a B&B presided over by Sandra Crannage, a grandmother who is herself an enthusiastic walker. Our accommodations were only a few dozens of yards from our "Prancing Pony," the Valiant Trooper pub in Aldbury where we were soon adopted as regulars.

All in all, a perfect walk in the congenial company of two fine young men. We can warmly recommend Contours, an outfit that made long-distance walking a piece of cake without intruding on our privacy. We had the Ridgeway pretty much all to ourselves.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And wither then? I cannot say.