Currently, if you travel along the Wessex Ridgeway on the northern ridge of the central area of Salisbury Plain, you’ll eventually begin to head south before finding a sign that directs you off the Plain. The sign says “Ridgeway Route”, and points along a track that takes you above Compton and down to the main road between Upavon and Netheravon.
And if you’re minded to wonder about these things, you might think — how on earth does this connect with the more famous stretch of Ridgeway from Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon? All Ordnance Survey (OS) maps of this area show the Ridgeway/Icknield Way heading over Walker’s Hill and then on towards East Kennet.
How would we get from the sign-posted route without doubling back on ourselves? To get to the Ridgeway at Avebury with least effort, we really need to head off the Plain long before the sign, a mile or so back, before we begin heading south, past all the other tracks that lead into the Vale of Pewsey. The extant footpaths, bridleways and byways leading from the Ridgeway into the Vale are indicated in the image below. Any of these would make more sense than the signposted route.
The other day I was heading through the Vale of Pewsey, along the road beneath the ridge between Rushall and Urchfont, and wondered which of the tracks I was passing would offer the best route between the ridge and Walker’s Hill. A byway from the Plain that met the road and carried on as a byway to the small hamlet of Wilsford caught my eye. On my return journey I travelled along the Ridgeway so I could check where the track I had noted met the ridge. The photo at the head of this post shows that track heading north into the Vale.
When I arrived home I consulted Ancient Trackways of Wessex by Timperley and Brill which I had bought a couple of years back for just this sort of research. The authors appeared to agree that it was this track that the Ridgeway used to descend from the Plain. On older OS maps (from around 1900-ish), the Ridgeway does indeed appear to exit the Plain on this very track; moreover, the Ridgeway — at least the Wessex portion of it — seems to terminate at this point.
The following photograph, taken a hundred or metres along the track, shows the ruts of what is perhaps a prehistoric route heading down into the vale, towards Walker’s Hill, East Kennet and Avebury. The byway to Wilsford is visible in the valley as the green lane heading towards the houses in the middle ground of the photo, and Walker’s Hill is visible through the haze in the top left corner.
As it crosses the Vale, the route needs to head slightly west of north to get to Walker’s Hill on the Pewsey Downs. And the longer I stood there, looking at the tracks, and the Vale, and distant Walker’s Hill, I didn’t like the kink; I didn’t like that you had to turn back on yourself a little to get to Walker’s Hill. It might be that further upstream on the Avon — the river that flows through the valley — the land becomes boggy, and thus this route provides a better, drier, less marly course. But when I looked at the maps, I also didn’t like the fact that the track into the vale that heads on into Wilsford stops in the hamlet. And although you can get around the hamlet using the roads, the track doesn’t have a direct route into and out of the village as I’d expect if the path was very old. What’s more, Timperley and Brill’s book was originally written in 1965, and much more is now known about Marden henge, a large, recently excavated prehistoric monument in an extensive ancient landscape. Isn’t it possible a road descending from the Plain would head towards this henge, possibly one of the most important focal points in the valley?
Perhaps the kink isn’t so important. A glance at an old OS map reassures me a little. The route looks more northerly than I’d originally thought. But, again, when you travel along the Ridgeway and look across the Vale to the Pewsey Downs, Walker’s Hill catches the eye long before you reach the track in the photo above. Rather than following the Ridgeway as shown on the OS map and suddenly taking a hard right, might it not have made more sense to head off the Plain on one of the many earlier tracks, one perhaps angling down the slopes, a gentler incline heading towards Marden henge, a place to rest before the slog across the vale and then up Walker’s Hill?
This topic is something I will return to. I have some ideas…