Time travel in Wiltshire

Weekend walk: from standing stones to Roman road, Hamish Scott on a route around Avebury

Avebury is astonishing - a complex of enormous earthworks and strange, misshapen standing stones straddling the main road between Swindon and Devizes. A street of pretty cottages winds through the centre of the Neolithic shrine, sheep graze quietly beneath the megaliths, and the village pub stands on a site that has been a ritual meeting-place for the best part of 5,000 years. And that's just the start of it, for the tracks that lead out of the village follow prehistoric routes through one of England's most extraordinary landscapes. A six-mile walk here is a journey back through time.

Across the main road from the pub, Green Street is a quiet lane that climbs steadily out of the village to degenerate into an unpaved track that is still known by its Saxon name, the Herepath. From high up on the downs, the empty, rolling landscape stretches to infinity beneath enormous skies, with horizons marked by lines of tumuli where Bronze Age chieftains lie beneath the beech trees, with wheeling flights of rooks guarding their graves. The village far below is camouflaged in greenery, so that virtually no sign of modern life is visible.

On the summit of the crest, the Herepath meets a still more ancient track, the Ridgeway, a safe and dry, high-level route from the North Sea to the English Channel that was probably in use before the last ice age. Across the way, Fifield Down is scattered with the humps of sarsen stones. Known as "grey wethers" for their likeness to a flock of rather dirty sheep grazing on the turf, these hard and heavy boulders of silica and sandstone were employed as building blocks for Avebury and Stonehenge. Following the Ridgeway down into the Kennet Valley, it's alarming to imagine 40- ton megaliths being inched along this same highway on wooden rollers on their 20-mile journey to Salisbury Plain, 4,000 years ago.

Crossing the A4, the Ridgeway passes by another prehistoric shrine known as the Sanctuary, once linked to Avebury by an avenue of stones. Then, just before a little bridge across the infant river Kennet, an unsigned footpath leads off to the right, through a gate into the fields. Over on the far side of the stream lie a manor house and old farm buildings, an idyllic scene complete with sound effects provided by children in the playground of East Kennet's village school. This, in contrast to the haunted empty downs, is a landscape of the living.

Signposting of the public footpaths is a touch erratic in these parts, a cross between a paperchase and mystery tour. The stream is crossed by turning left along a Tarmac lane towards the village, but then the track off to the right beside a pumping station is unmarked. About 100 yards further on, a note pinned to a tree indicates another path off to the right, running between hedgerows to a stile into the fields. Then it's just a case of following the valley towards the high, distinctive pyramid of Silbury Hill and turning right along the Tarmac path from the A4 to West Kennet's chambered tomb.

The tomb, a superbly built stone gallery, is well worth visiting, but the way to Avebury is in the opposite direction, across the busy road. Silbury Hill looms up to the left across the stream bed of a winterbourne that sometimes floods in spring to reflect the contours of the hill, Europe's largest prehistoric monument. On this last stage of the walk, every feature of the landscape assumes a tantalising, strange significance, as a key to solving some great riddle. Back amongst the stones, it's time to sit down with a pint of beer to ponder on ancestral mysteries.

The Red Lion would hardly be exceptional were it not for its extraordinary setting. There is something odd about sitting in a bar in the middle of a prehistoric henge where Wiltshire farmers mingle with a passing trade of dowsers, fringe archaeologists, and tourists from around the world. This is England's answer to The X Files and one half-expects to see a flying saucer in the car park. It's a perfect place to meet the lads for a chat about earth-goddesses, but the food is rather less exotic than the clientele. Lunch time meals are pub-traditional, quite adequate but somehow uninspiring.

Across the way, near the museum, there's another place to eat that is somehow more in keeping with the setting. Stones Restaurant is a vegetarian cafe, with exotic, home-made dishes and a range of good organic beers. There are tables outside in the sun and a pretty little pond to contemplate whilst eating. This being Avebury, it is probably a sacred spring.

The Red Lion 01672 539266; Stones Restaurant 01672 539514

Directions

Avebury lies one mile north of the A4, eight miles west of Marlborough. From the Red Lion, cross the main road into Green Street and continue out of village.

Turn right on to the Ridgeway. Cross the A4 and follow the track towards East Kennet. Just before the footbridge, turn right through a gateway on to the footpath through the field.

Turn left on to the lane and cross the bridge. At the pumping station, turn right along the track.

At the intersection, turn right down a path between hedges. Cross the stile and continue through fields, crossing the track to West Kennet Farm.

At the path to West Kennet barrow, turn right and cross the A4.

Cross the stile on to the footpath, and return to Avebury.

Maps

Ordnance Survey Pathfinder series 1169 and 1185

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