The Hard Way

By Susannah Walker

An absorbing nature memoir that uncovers the lives of women walking away from home.

Wednesday, 19 July 2023


One of my first walks took me from Avebury - the Sanctuary to be precise - to Pewsey.  I was going to say "one of the first walks I did for the book", but in fact this was before I had any thought of a book, or of where women belonged in the landscape and its history and art, or in nature writing.  Or indeed anything very much.  I just wanted to go back the person I had been before, someone who walked out fearlessly on my own.

So I set out for a whole day.  The route I chose was one I'd never walked before, following the Ridgeway past East Kennet Long Barrow and over the Wansdyke down into the Vale of Pewsey.  

The first bit was quite straightforward, because ancient paths find it quite easy to persist on hills; we are less inclined these days to seek out these high places, never mind to walk along them.  But their routes are much harder to trace when they have to cross valleys, and they probably took many different routes over the years, depending on season and climate and the vagaries of river paths.  The Vale of Pewsey is particularly inscrutable because it became a Victorian super-highway, used by both the Kennet and Avon Canal and the railways heading west.  If you take the train from Westbury to Pewsey, it's easy to see where the track cuts several wide and enticing pathways in two, ending them as useful routes.  The Ordnance Survey and other sources pretty much give up on the Ridgeway where the canal cuts the Ridgeway at Honey Street.  The path only gets a name again right on the other side of the valley, when it's already climbed back up onto the chalk of Salisbury Plain.

However, there are clues.  To start with there's a great big henge in the middle of the Vale of Pewsey, Marden, which once had a barrow big enough to rival Silbury Hill.  So plenty of people were coming here during the Neolithic, one way or another.  And before the Ridgeway disappears from the map, it passes between two churches really close to each other in Alton Barnes, one each side of the track.  I've heard it suggested that these are here to guide travellers.  I walked straight past them the first time because I had seventeen miles to do in a day and something to prove to myself by doing them.

This turns out to have been a mistake.  I was told that one of the churches contains other, older signs as well.  So I retraced my steps to go and have a look.

All Saints in Alton Barnes is now disused, and looked after by a charity.  It's a wonderful plain, whitewashed space and it contains the most peculiar thing I have ever seen in a C of E church.  In two places, the floor has been boxed in, and if you lift the lid of each, what you find is a sarsen stone.

I have so many questions.  Not so much who saved them and built a church around them - there are many places across Europe where a church has taken advantage of previously sacred space - although that's interesting enough.  What really fascinates me is who, much later on, decided that they needed to be seen.  But not too seen.

And also why they need air holes as though they are living creatures

The stones are intriguing.  But they are also another clue - because they may originally have been signposts for the Ridgeway.  Like everything else to do with ancient trackways this is completely unprovable, but further along the Ridgeway where it comes down from Salisbury Plain to cross the valley of the Wylye River, barrows and monuments line the route, looking for all the world like waymarkers for the difficult part of the route.  There may even be another henge there, but that's a story for another day, or perhaps when you get the book...

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