© 2021 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: 5th May 2019; updated 17th February 2021.
Length: ~2,000 words
For Beltane last year I did a day-long walk in West Oxfordshire to document its prehistoric sites. This year the idea is slightly more protracted: a wild camp for four days across the Wessex Downs. I take a train to Swindon, then bus to Devizes, which I leave, on this first day, to follow the escarpment of the west end of the North Wessex Downs towards Avebury.
Just over five months ago I went blind; or rather, one eye lost sight while the other ‘went AWOL’ in sympathy and refused to work. Then followed ten weeks face-down on the bed. In that time I went walking many times… in my head.
I also went backpacking to some of my favourite places around Britain, and I realised how much I missed not the camping element of backpacking, but the different ‘vision’ of the landscape you can engage in when travelling that way. Everything I’ve done in the past three months, getting my fitness back after 2½ months of almost complete stillness, has been leading to this point.
Everything I need to travel four days cross country is on my back; except water which I’ll need to refill twice (for which I’m carrying five one-litre bottles); weight, 25 kilos. Add to that another 4 kilos of camera equipment, paperwork and a tripod; 29 kilos in total – though strictly speaking I’m going to ‘lose’ at least 3 kilos of food and 4 kilos of water by then end of the walk.
While most people would be rather overwhelmed by the idea of walking 40 miles with 29 kilos, I’m positively skipping with glee as I walk away from the bus stop in Devizes.
It’s been so long since I’ve done a really good backpack. I walk all the time, but most of the camping in the last few years has been when travelling to work at festivals during the Summer. Lately I’ve been walking with ever-greater loads in order to prepare for this little trip.
The reality of day-walking is that you always have to “be somewhere”; by a certain time you have to catch a bus or a train back to reality, or ultimately by sunset, when further travel gets difficult. That always influences how your day is framed, and certainly how fast you go or how often you can stop.
With everything on my back I’m not restricted by ‘time’, or sunset: I stop when I like; I go when I like; five litres of water will last me two days, but it’s only a day-and-a-half to my first watering hole so I don’t have to hurry; I’m planning a four-day walk, though I could probably pad-out the food I have for five days, especially if I forage.
My snail-like burden isn’t a dead-weight; it’s a liberation from ‘time’.
Being free of ‘time’ is interesting here since this whole walk is a study in ‘deep time’. I’m out to document some of the wonderful sights around Avebury which are NOT Avebury – that is, the tourist trail around the village and the henge. I want to see the less well-known and harder to find sites.
I’m also doing some ‘practical’ research while I’m out here, around the theme of low impact/low carbon camping, which is why I’m having to haul so much equipment.
I first came camping here thirty-five years ago when, inspired by a love of the outdoors and a lovely public information film, I walked here from Buckinghamshire on The Ridgeway (and again, five years later). I’ve also camped around this area when doing long distance cycle rides towards the Dorset coast. In all that time though I never had the freedom to get off the main ‘tourist’ routes and explore the depths of the local landscape; until now.
Leaving Devizes on Quaker Walk I’m surprised by just how much new development is here. There’s new housing almost to Roundway, where I climb the escarpment and leave pretty much all urbanisation behind me for the rest of the day. The landscape hereabout is largely ‘empty’, the result of 18th Century land inclosure – though that process had been ongoing since Medieval times following the boom in sheep grazing.
It’s another reason to carry so much. Not only will I pass through no villages today, but these days most local villages don’t have shops or pubs – which means, compared to 30-odd years ago, provisioning for along walk across the lowlands is similar to walking for a few days across the most deserted parts of Caithness. I learned that to my cost a few years ago when I ran out of water in the Vale of York because the village pub, open only week or two before, had closed.
Panorama west from Oliver’s Castle, Roundway Hill
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Quite apart from the hill fort and its round barrows, the site is covered in interesting plants, and there are various types of butterfly skipping around. When I finally get up and start walking again, before rejoining the byway, I come across a field with lots of early purple orchids. A passing horse rider, coming up from the plain below, looks at me with a quizzical expression as, large rucksack on my back, I lay belly-down on the ground to take photos of them.
The next hill over is Beacon Hill. I camped there when on my bike some years ago, and for some reason the landscape seemed very familiar. It was a few months later, when watching the film Nineteen Eighty-Four, that I realised they’d used Roundway Down and Oliver’s Castle for the countryside location shoot.
It’s hot today, though the wind across the ridge is helping me to stay cool. Feeling refreshed after lunch I continue on the undulating lanes and byways towards my next stop at Morgan’s Hill, where, beyond the large pimple-like round barrow that sits on its side, I come to Wansdyke. You might have heard of Offa’s Dyke. Essentially Wansdyke is the same, except we have little evidence of who built it, when it was built, or what it was for.
Irrespective of history, today it’s a lovely quiet spot to take a break and look at the view, and make a brew. As a ‘convenient extravagance’ I’ve bought not only my fire grate but also my small Kelly Kettle (yes, it adds 0.4 kilos, but it’s so much more efficient for boiling water).
On the map the next byway passes through a scrubby piece of woodland. In anticipation, when packing up after my Wansdyke stop, I’d removed a small bag from my rucksack to carry to this point. I wasn’t disappointed. The ground is littered with twigs that have fallen from the trees above. Not only that, but passing farm vehicles have already snapped them into short lengths of just the right size. I quickly collect a bag full of snapped twigs, which will keep me in fuel for my cook fires for the rest of the journey – and stowed in this waterproof bag on the back of my rucksack, even if it rains I’ll still have dry sticks for the fire.
Since I took off my pack and put it on again at Wansdyke it’s developed a funny squeaky-creaky noise. Unfortunately its rhythmn is just like Spike Milligan’s raspberry-blowing from a strange “Q” sketch, and I just can’t get the thing out of my head. Hopefully the annoying noise will stop when I repack tomorrow morning and put a slightly different tension on the bag.
The sun is now arcing towards the horizon, and turning very yellow. Cherhill Hill dominates the view as I slowly wander along the byway, Spike Milligan still plaguing my consciousness.
Panorama across Cherhill Hill from Bishops Canning Barrows
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Eventually I arrive at my ’site of the day’, Bishops Cannings Barrows. I’ve seen these so many times passing on the A361 below and I’ve always wanted to visit. Two long straight lines of barrows, strewn across the ridge, having a weird symmetry despite their different shapes and sizes. With a long barrow at one end, and ring-ditched round barrows at the other, this site may have been in use for 1,500 years during the Stone Age and into the Bronze Age.
The fields around them are access land; what’s more extraordinary is that it’s a solid carpet of cowslips, glowing in the low-angle yellow sunlight. Normally I try not to walk on cowslips; here it’s impossible not to.
I take a rest at the barrows because next I’ve a 90-metre ascension to the 262-metre summit of Cherhill Hill. Though the sun is beating down from well above the horizon, there’s also a bank of cloud moving in below it that restricts the light, accentuating the folds and grooves of the surrounding landscape. It’s a slow, but beautiful walk to the top, with Oldbury Round Barrow and the rather austere Lansdowne Monument coming ever-closer as I climb.
I have a quick look around Oldbury hill fort and the white horse, but I need to move on. The sun is setting, and I have to think about where I stop tonight. I had considered the trackway at the top of Cherhill Hill, with its commanding views of the landscape around, as the first in a string of possible camp sites for today. Instead, buoyed by the cooling air as the sun sets and the clouds move in, I continue downhill towards Knoll Down.
Along the spine of the long ridge of Knoll Down runs an earthwork, called Old Bath Road, that is reputedly Roman in origin. It was the route of the Roman road, but also served some sort of defensive purpose too. The best part of the earthwork near to the top of the hill, where it is breached by a farm track and ploughed fields, is where I decide to camp for the night.
I throw my pack on the ground and remove the external bags. All that I need to make camp – the tent, tarps and cooking utensils – is stowed on the outside of the pack to make them easier to access (especialy in driving rain).
I get a small stick fire going and put some oats and lentils on to stew. While that cooks I can get the tent up and lay out my bedroll for the night – after unpacking the inside of my pack directly into the tent (again, a good thing to learn for when there’s driving rain).
The sun has set now and while I eat my stew, garnished with some hawthorn petals and chickweed from the earthwork, the birds are singing evensong. A mist is rising, which will probably make for a rather interesting dawn. I settle down in my sleeping bag and, with an immense feeling of openness and space and fresh air, quickly drop-off to sleep.