A WARM AND SUNNY late May afternoon and we had already walked more than ten miles in the day. My feet were hot and increasingly sore, and what this morning had been a minor ache beneath the straps of my rucksack had grown and spread, joining up into a more generalised muscular complaint throughout my body. A sign next to the footpath told us there was an ancient monument in the small clump of trees, and warned against camping and lighting fires.
It was a place called Wayland’s Smithy, an ancient burial mound thought to date back at least five thousand years. A long low, wedge-shaped mound lay in shadow beneath a marquee of trees. There was a dark opening at one end flanked by sentinel stones. It was cool and dark under the trees, and very easy to imagine what it might have been like thousands of years ago, when ancient Britons hauled their dead leaders or relatives up here to bury them. We dropped our packs a few yards from the mound and lay down to rest. Within minutes the sudden silence and welcome cool after the hot sun of the trail carried me away into a confused dream of ancient people dragging stones up from the valley below, burying their dead beneath fresh earth under slate grey skies.
“Excuse me,” a female voice broke into my dream from close by. “You don’t happen to have corkscrew in your pack do you?” I didn’t.
I recently spent four days walking the western Ridgeway, in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. Fifty miles, west to east, from the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury to the swan-dappled river Thames at Goring. Three things struck me during the trip, all about time. The first was most obvious; the Ridgeway really is old. It seems to have been some kind of Stone Age motorway, a broad, flat track running along the top of the line of hills that, with a few gaps, meanders from the edge of Salisbury Plain up to Ivinghoe Beacon to the north of London. In ancient Britain the plains and valleys were thickly wooded, and travel would have been slow and dangerous down there, what with the vegetation, the frequent bogs and streams, and the wildlife. So our ancestors took to the hilltops, and the northern edge of the North Wessex Downs provides a wide and open thoroughfare, travelling mostly over well-drained chalk hills. Consequently, the Ridgeway path, particularly in its western half, runs through terrain that bears the unmistakable signs of habitation back through thousands of years. when we left the pub at Avebury we were among groups of tourists taking pictures of each other in front of the standing stones. As we hiked away up the gentle slope to the Ridgeway proper, barrow mounds – ancient burial sites – pimpled the fields around us. At Uffington, the path passed close to the famous White Horse, which has probably decorated the chalk of the hilltop for 3,000 years.
So the first thing that struck me was that a walk on the Ridgeway is a walk back into an earlier time. The second was something about the nature of time itself. We left London on a busy summer Saturday, going from train to overcrowded tube station, to taxi and back to train again; everything rushed and hasty as London so often is. But time immediately assumed a different rhythm on the walk. Within a few minutes of leaving Avebury’s tourists we were into a slow and regular pace that wouldn’t change for the next three days; a dogged plod that you could easily feel was getting you nowhere, but which as the hours passed spooled a slowly unfolding countryside around us, until with a faint shiver of surprise you found you were coming down off the hill and into the village where you planned to spend the night, and the low sun lit up the pub ahead in an amber glow that promised a well-earned beer.
Without really noticing it happen, that jittery urban consciousness faded away, replaced by something slower and more intense. You find yourself listening to a bird somewhere nearby, realising that you have been hearing it for some time, wondering in your pathetic cityboy way whether it’s a blackbird or a pigeon or whatever. Back in London, the idea of being stuck for five minutes on a train without a book to read would fill me with a horror of boredom. Out here, by the third day, I found that I was walking for half an hour at a time with no sense of time passing, my mind adrift on a stream of elusive and half-formed thoughts, watching the shape of the hill ahead slowly change as my position altered. London time was a memory. I was on Ridgeway time.
The last thing I noticed was the effect of time on me and the country I live in. We first walked this path over thirty years ago. We’ve changed, and so has Britain. Back then there were no frills; we simply set off with a tent, barely any money, and no plan. We walked each day until we’d had enough and then pitched the tent and slept where we could. The first day we carried with us a four-pint can of beer – what in those days we called a ‘party four’. As the sun went down we ate beans and drank the beer in a cowfield, before spending the evening in a village pub before drunkenly erecting our tent in the dark.
Thirty years ago there was a pub in every village, and usually shops too. The pubs served indifferent beer and little food beyond nuts and pork scratchings. They were smoky, dirty and unfriendly. Now there are rarely any shops in the dormitory villages of the Ridgeway and many fewer pubs, but those that remain are cleaner and better-run, with good food and usually decent real ales. And these days money and maturity mean we don’t bother with a tent and chance for our accommodation, but instead book ahead and every evening enjoy beer, good food and a room with a bathroom.
We didn’t, as it happens, carry a corkscrew. But maybe that young woman at Waylands Smithy had spotted something about us that we weren’t aware of ourselves.
(P.S. One other odd thing about time and the Ridgeway. Thirty-odd years ago I remember I walked along with a then-current pop song lodged in my head. It was ‘Miss You’ by the Rolling Stones, which was in the charts at the time. This time, without having heard that song in years, I found that at various points it ran through my head. It was as if the music had become fused in my memory with the landscape so that walking the same way all these years later dislodged the song, and there it was, as if I had listened to it only last week. )