Banburyshire Rambles Photo-Journal:

‘A Beltane Backpack’ –
Day 3, Berwick Bassett Down to Marlborough

A wander around a neolithic quarry before descending across the downs into the Kennet valley

Thursday 2nd May 2019
Route: Berwick Bassett Dewpond, The Ridgeway, Fyfield Down & NNR, Clatford Down, Clatford Bottom, Manton, Marlborough.
Metrics: Distance, 12.7km/8 miles; ascension 105m/340ft; duration, 5 hours.

Go to the Banburyshire Rambles ‘Permanent Collection’

A Beltane Backpack: Main Index Day 1 Day 2 Day 3

The third (and unexpectedly final) day starts very bright and, at dawn, sunny; though before I can complete breakfast the clouds are gathering in the northwest. The first half of today is mostly downhill. I wander around a neolithic quarry before descending across the downs into the Kennet valley. All begins well, but then the rucksack issues develop as the morning wears on. By late morning I have to make a big decision before I get to Marlborough to re-stock.

I had the most wonderful night’s sleep (no road noise or low flying military helicopters!). I awake to the dawn chorus, and shortly thereafter a dazzlingly bright sunrise through the dew-drop speckled fabric of the tent. I stretch; my body is still there, and seemingly intact, although my left shoulder is feeling a little annoyed this morning. I stick my head out of the tent; crisp air, blue sky, bright sun. Then I realise, I camped by a dew pond; the outside of the tent is drenched in dew! I decide to cook breakfast while, hopefully, the warming sunshine dries some of it off.

Breakfast today is sweet porridge with pestle-and-mortared hazelnuts, with a little salt and yeast flakes for flavour. Finishing breakfast I see that the dew on the tent hasn’t changed at all. More importantly there’s a front-like bank of cloud moving quickly in from the west that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the day. I pack away my rucksack, remove the inner half of the tent, and then drop the flysheet. I pick it up and give it a good shake – and get doused in spray. Clearly dew ponds are a clever way to capture all this atmospheric moisture… hence perhaps not the best campsite? (last time I camped here it was Winter, so no dew to speak of)

While packing the tent on the outside of my bag a farmer drives past in the field with a huge spraying machine. He stops work while I finish packing, and I give him an appreciative wave.

I take a photo of my camp site before I leave. Perfect! Hardly a blade of grass damaged; and despite two stick-fire cooked meals you can’t even see any coals or scorch marks.

People criticise me for ‘wild camping’ – stopping anywhere I like and just putting up my tent on "private property".

I disagree.

The reality is that ‘trespass’ is a civil matter based within an assessment of ‘damages’; and in the way that I camp I take great satisfaction in leaving no damage. Though the reason I do no damage is not out of respect for property rights, it’s out of respect for the land itself {For the record, given I’m on The Ridgeway itself, there’s an argument that I do have a legal right to camp by historic precedent}

I set off down hill. After a mile or so I take a left into my first objective for the day, Fyfield Down. I’m going to take a tour around the whole of the National Nature Reserve because, like the Avebury complex yesterday, I’ve been past here so many times but I’ve never taken the time to stop and look.

I begin by getting out my lensatic compass. I want to find a particular sarsen stone called The Polisher – reputedly bearing the marks of where Neolithic people manufactured hand axes by grinding them on rocks. Unlike the rather hit-and-miss of an ordinary walking compass, lensatic compasses have a magnifying glass over the scale that allows you to plot a bearing within a degree, while simultaenously sighting on a specific object of interest.

I’ve got an exact grid reference and I’ve already plotted the bearing from the gate on The Ridgeway to the stone. I sight on a large mass of gorse and walk towards it. Setting-off I set a second bearing on my compass so that, theoretically, when my present bearing lines-up with a straight line-of-sight to the fence corner in the next field, I should be stood within a few metres of the point I want. I almost get there and… the stone I want appears to be buried in the gorse! I can see it, but not well enough for a picture.

No matter; I’ve a whole landscape of naturally sculpted rocks to explore:

Panorama over Fyfield Down’s "greyweathers"

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Sarsens are really interesting because they’re not ordinary ‘erratic’ stones that have been relocated by glaciers. They’re small ‘blobs’ of cemented sandstone created long ago, some by the mineralisation of the sand surrounding plant remains – hence the holes and pits you find in them where roots once ran. When the uncemented sands around them were eroded over millennia of weathering, these hard lumps dropped down to lie on the surface of the landscape and were polished smooth by time. Every one is individual, both in the way weathering has shaped it, but also how they are painted over the centuries by the patterning of plants, mosses and lichens.

I probably spend three-quarters of an hour wandering around Fyfield Down’s ‘greyweathers’. Then I head off towards the woods at the top of the site. There I find hazel, bracken, stichworts, bluebells, and another lovely pond. Beyond the woods, and back across the route of The Herepath, I start to head gently downward off the top of the downs. Here the land is crossed by gallops and horse breeding estates.

I’ve come here to see a standing stone called ‘Long Tom’. This probably isn’t an ancient standing stone. Given it lines up with a similar stone within Fyfield Down, and another I find just downhill, it’s more than likely to be a boundary stone – erected centuries ago, before land inclosure, to demarcate one plot of land from another.

I leave the byway and take a right-turn across the fields. I meet an old couple out walking their dog. The old man looks at the pack on my back:

"If you go downhill now you’ll only have to climb back up again", he says.

We talk about some of the local routes, and what there is to see, and then I continue on down to Clatford Bottom.

Today I’m having ‘second breakfast’ at the Devil’s Den. It’s rather an oddity compared to the last few days of ancient sites because it's a classic dolmen. I’m used to seeing these in the remote Celtic landscapes of West Wales and Scotland, not in Southern England. Probably encased in soil, over time the soil has eroded to leave the stone chamber exposed above ground level.

I drop my bag on the ground next to the dolmen and roll out my tarp to sit on. Apart from the larks, all is quiet. I eat an apple and a lembas scone and take time to have a long drink. While I do I begin to inspect my pack. All morning it's been causing problems: Too much weight on one shoulder; straps stretched too tight around the other to try and remedy that problem.

In the top half around where the shoulder straps fasten to the pack, enclosed within the inner and outer layer of the nylon bag, there’s a (presumably plastic) board which stiffens the area around the shoulders. Somewhere inside must be some sort of webbing that transfers the load from the base of the bag to that board, and then to the shoulder straps – and somewhere on the left-arm side of that the internal webbing has come loose.

Decision time: I’ve a needle and twine, so I could pick-open my pack and try and fix it. The problem being that it might make the whole thing worse as I’ll loose the strength in the nylon body of the pack. I could carry on regardless, but apart from the ache developing in one shoulder, I’m about to go on the remotest section of the walk along Wansdyke and Tan Hill. If the strap fails completely, I’m going to have to drag it a long way to find a bus.

My previous pack lasted 12 years. I’ve only had this one for five or six, and most of that use has just been working at festivals. It shouldn’t really be worn-out yet, but I’m beginning to accept the reality that this might be our last ‘heavy’ journey together. In the end I try re-adjusting the shoulder, back and waistband to see if I can redistribute some load. Then I pack away and set off once more.

I cross the noisy A4 for the last time. Now I’m in the Kennet valley, passing through the little villages that fringe the valley sides, and the ‘Georgian bling’ mansions along the London Road that once supported them. Back into the seemingly humdrum surroundings of executive housing and tarmac roads my legs involuntarily speed up.

I’m down to my last litre of water, and I’ve consumed about half of my food. That makes me about five to six kilos lighter than when I set out. The plan was to restock in Marlborough, with water and apples, which would put about four kilos of weight back on again. Then trek south-west out of town for the rest of the day, ending with a 330 metre/1,000 foot undulating climb through West Woods, to stop the night on Tan Hill beyond overlooking the Vale of Pewsey and Salisbury Plain – and finish back in Devizes tomorrow.

Passing Manton and then Marlborough School, it’s clear that the pack isn’t getting any better, even before I add another four kilos to it. As I approach ‘civilisation’ in Marlborough there’s only one sensible decision; time to go home. I can always come back another day for Wansdyke – perhaps combining it with another walk through Savernake Forest down into Bedwyn.

I follow a stream of schoolkids into the town centre across the River Kennet. The footpath disgorges the stream of kids directly into the front door of a Greggs. Shall I enter and partake of their well-known vegan sausage roll? Absolutely not! (I’m out of apples but I’ve still plenty of lembas scones left!)

I wander up the market place towards the iconic town hall, past the extremely exotic shops and boutiques frequented by coiffered adults and their uniformed children. I find the bus stop outside the bank; ten minutes to the next bus. A while later, bouncing along the main road towards Swindon in a torrential rain storm, past where The Ridgeway path crosses the main road, I hear the deep, dark Germanic tones of Arnold Schwarzenegger in my head; "I’ll be back!"