Running through the Wiltshire countryside from near Swindon to Stonehenge, the Great Stones Way is one of England’s newer hiking trails. Sarah Baxter, travel writer and author of A History of the World in 500 Walks, set off in the footsteps of our ancestors.
Neolithic man didn’t have a motorcar. No, if you wanted to get anywhere in the third millennium BC, you got there on foot – perhaps in a pair of animal-skin shoes, fur-side out for extra gripping. My boots were a little more sophisticated, a little less furry, but still: walking seemed the most authentic way to explore the ancient Wiltshire countryside.
Which is how I came to be setting off along the Great Stones Way, a relatively new hiking trail over extremely old ground. It runs from Barbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort just south of Swindon, to Old Sarum, the Iron Age/Roman/Norman mound just north of Salisbury. It is 36 miles/58km long (or 53 miles/85km with detours) and offers authentic access to some of England’s best bits.
Stonehenge’s Neolithic Landscape
Our final stage on the Way was the perfect example. Having already passed white horses, grassy tumuli and the stone circle/thatched-village mash-up that is Avebury over the preceding two days, we set off on that last morning, bound for the apogee of English Neolithic architecture.
But Stonehenge isn’t simply a ring of sarsens – it’s a whole landscape, and one that’s celebrating 30 years of UNESCO World Heritage status in November 2016. As we walked along a busy road and via an ugly roundabout to reach the outer rim of Durrington Walls, that sense of a wider area of importance became abundantly apparent.
The millennia have stolen some of Durrington’s grandeur; sheep now nibble within its time-worn banks. But we could still clearly see the ramparts rising up from the chalk bedrock, still appreciate the huge scale and human effort that must have gone into their creation – the circumference of this henge, on the banks of the River Avon, measures almost a mile.
Once, some 4,500 years ago, it’s thought thousands of people lived inside this capacious henge. And it’s thought that these people might have performed rituals at Woodhenge, a smaller circle to Durrington’s south, now marked out by timber posts.
It’s also thought that the residents of Durrington might, on special occasions, have traipsed a little west across the fields – as we did now.
We swished through the grassland, via the fallen Cuckoo Stone (a big, out-of-place sarsen) and grazing sheep, and soon the view opened up. To our left, a line of 200-year-old beech trees, doing their best to conceal a far older line of burial mounds. Right ahead, we could make out the curious Cursus, stretching for 3km across Salisbury Plain for purposes unknown. And, between the two, our first glimpses of Stonehenge, peeking up in the distance like Duplo blocks.
There were no other people here. We surveyed this outdoor museum quite alone, and slowly, peacefully made our way via the bulging barrows and happy cows, eventually picking up the faint traces of the Avenue. You could virtually hear the earth talking as we followed this ancient processional route, once used to access Stonehenge. It is aligned with the solstice axis, and may well have been tramped by hundreds (thousands?) of pilgrims on these auspicious days.
Today it brought us back to civilisation. Inside the perimeter fence, people ambled near the stones in awe. Standing metres from these mysterious rocks, you feel dwarfed and humbled and suddenly aware of your moment in time.
But there’s also nothing quite like arriving and leaving such a site on foot. After visiting the circle itself, we continued south on our Great Stones Way. As the blocks of Stonehenge receding behind, we ploughed straight into fields where more tumuli rose in bulbous fashion, where you start to question every lump and bump in the landscape, and where you can’t help wondering who might have trodden here before…
Sarah Baxter is the author of A History of the World in 500 Walks (Aurum, £20), out now.
Explore Wiltshire’s Ancient Landscape
Stonehenge is open from 9:30-19:00, 7 days a week, until 15 October, and from 9:30-17:00 until 31 March.
- Ticket prices (without Gift Aid) for non-members are: Adult: £15.50, Concession: £13.90, Child: £9.30, Family: £40.30.
- Audio guides are available for £3
- Stone Circle access visits take place outside of our normal general admission opening hours and are subject to very limited availability. Request a visit here.
Old Sarum is open from 10:00-18:00, 7 days a week, until 30 September, from 10:00-17:00 throughout October, and 10:00-16:00 over the winter.
- Ticket prices for non-members are: Adult: £15, Concession: £13.50, Child: £9, Family: £39.
Entry to both sites is free for English Heritage members, however we’d strongly recommend booking your timed tickets in advance when planning a visit to Stonehenge.
More information on walking the Great Stones Way from the Long Distance Walkers Association
Editor’s note: this post originally referred to the 3rd century BC rather than 3rd millennium BC in the first sentence. We’ve amended the post to correct this.