This feels like a winter’s day in the ninth century. No cars, no roads for the past two hours. I’m following ancient paths recorded in the Domesday Book and I’ve just nosed around two Saxon churches, one hunched under the branches of an ageless yew tree.
I’m in deepest Wiltshire and the Marlborough Downs, on a walk that takes in one of the region’s iconic white horses (there are eight); some lovely views from ridgewalks; and a serene amble along the Kennet & Avon Canal. This is a beautiful spot, but with a clear blue sky and a light dusting of snow frosting the grass, it is simply magical. The winter sun deepens the tone of the chalk hills and half-hides those white horses.
This circular route begins in the village of Honeystreet, overlooked by the Alton Barnes white horse, prancing in perpetuity across Pewsey Downs. Just north of here, I explored those Saxon churches, tiny St Mary’s in Alton Barnes and lonely AllSaints in Alton Priors. You climb sharply up to Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve, where grassy flanks lead to the huge longbarrow of Adam’s Grave. Following the contours round the flanks west, I pass above the white horse, whose shape is not discernable so close up – but the views across the hills and the Vale of Pewsey get the pulse racing. The folded fields below seem to roll northwards like waves, crashing into the base of the downs.
I was struggling to recall a time when I had walked for so long without meeting a road. All sorts of paths criss-cross the area: the Mid-Wilts Way which, no surprise, connects points of interest in the heart of the county; the White Horse Way, which knits together the eight horses; and the Wansdyke, built by ancient Britons in a vain effort to keep marauding Saxons at bay. You could just about follow the Wansdyke along the 40 miles to Bristol, but here, to the west of Pewsey Downs, it becomes phenomenally atmospheric: the ditch, lying at the base of a 50ft slope, is on the north side of an embankment. In November, when daylight casts no beams into its depths, it becomes a bone-cold, petrified place. You can almost hear the clanking ghosts of those ancient British warriors.
More sweeping views emerge as I head north, including Silbury Hill, an enigmatic mound rising from flatlands, and Avebury, which you can just about pick out with binoculars. Then there’s the stubble of endless cropfields. These aren’t just any wheat fields: this is the heart of the crop circle universe, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of the height of the fervour when artists – or, if you must, aliens – really got stuck into their craft. The nearby twin peaks of Milk Hill and Tan Hill saw several visitations.
The route heads south along a farm track between pitted and corrugated hills, then skips across a broken stile and a brick bridge. I enter another world, following the towpath of the Kennet & Avon for the final two miles.
Journey’s end is the Barge Inn at Honeystreet. This pub at the foot of the downs enjoys a clear view of the white horse, but it had seemed destined to join the ranks of declining rural inns until a determined community campaign recently raised funds to buy the lease, refresh the menu and bring it back into the centre of local life. Basking in the winter sunshine, it was easy to raise a glass to that prospect.
Distance: Nine miles
Time: Four hours
OS map: Explorer 157 Marlborough & Savernake Forest
How to get there
Contact Traveline (08457 090899) for details about buses from Honeystreet to Pewsey. The canal path also goes from Honeystreet to Pewsey – it’s an easy, flat, six-mile walk – and the mainline railway station (firstgreat western.co.uk), with services to London and Reading. Mark Rowe stayed at Well Cottage (01672 851577; well-cottage.org.uk) which offers B&B from £65 per room.
Visit Wiltshire (visitwiltshire.co.uk).
From the sawmill lay-by in Honeystreet, head to Alton Barnes. Turn right, signposted for St Mary’s, and then follow the paths to All Saints. Turn left along the lane and dog-leg across the road and up the bridleway. Where the bridleway ends, turn left, downhill, along the road for 200m. Turn sharp right up the path to Pewsey Downs. Follow tracks over Adam’s Grave and west above the white horse. Pick up the fence line and head north, following signs for the Mid Wiltshire Way. Leave Pewsey Downs through a gate, turn left along a track, go over a stile and follow the Wansdyke for 2.5km. At a meeting of several paths pass through a gate and keep west to a cattle grid. Follow the paved track south to Allington. Turn left along the lane and pick up the field track to the left of the telephone box. Follow the field edge to a stile, cross the bridge and follow the towpath back to Honeystreet.