The Ridgeway: Overton Hill to Barbury Castle

I cut across three counties. Hampshire, Berkshire, into Wiltshire. The road is quiet. Early by anyone’s standard on a Sunday. Rachael and I had talked, if not twice then more, about walking The Ridgeway.  The National Trail that sort of runs between where we each live. The first time we met independently of other people was in a car park on the Ridgeway, somewhere near Wantage. I might recognise it when our journey eventually takes us through again. We finally made a plan to start. We’d meet at our end point for the day, at Barbury Castle Country Park, where we could leave a car. Then, one of us would drive to Overton Hill, to the official start of this long distance route. The toilet block in the Barbury Castle car park is closed, quoting issues with the water quality. We both wonder if this means people have been drinking it. The lack of infrastructure,  of resources, will likely go on like this.  We jump in the car, I set Google to navigate and we take an immediate wrong turn. Beyond Barbury Castle the farm road turns to dirt track. What might count as pot holes on any normal road are more like trenches. My old Vauxhall Corsa is not up for this. We turn around and follow a longer route, passing through Avebury and all the stones.

I don’t know what I was expecting of the start. A little more atmosphere? Maybe just a bigger carpark? A small map at the far end is the only notice that The Ridgeway begins here. The hardest part is already over. We’ve begun! Boots stomping along the trail. A kestrel in the wind, skylarks and kites take flight overhead. We climb steadily, rolling with the chalk hills across the countryside. This fair green isle still seems mostly desolate to me. Vast fields of nothing spread out in all directions. A few hedgerows. A handful of trees. I don’t feel especially inspired. A symptom of having been spoiled. Rachael and I talk about our weeks at work until we reach a bench facing out across the western rolls of England. Decompressing. Releasing. Walking anywhere is good for this. I pull out the thermos, our mugs. Last time I tried this, our tea had a distinctly mushroom flavour. This time I’d made more of an effort to scrub the thermos clean. The first mug tastes mostly of tea. We continue on to the first White Horse. Not The White Horse, another one. One of another eight in fact. Smaller, harder to find. Rachael stops to play with two ponies in a field. We follow an unmarked path down the slope until we find the chalk marks of a horse’s ears. I drop further down the hill hoping to see it looking back. The raised ridges of turf block the view. I suspect the whole thing is probably only visible from space. Uffington White Horse, The White Horse, is said to be over 3000 years old. I assumed they all would be. Hackpen White Horse, where we are now, is maybe 200 at most. The best guess suggests it was carved in to the chalky downs to commemorate the Coronation of Queen Victoria.

Already we’re nearly done for the day. We cross Ufcott Down, over a road and up the hill to Banbury Castle. Or at least what’s left of the double moated Iron Age fort. Not a lot. We have little sit down on the defences. I pour out another cup of tea, this one decidedly less like tea than the first. The milk seems to have disappeared. We’re left with a hot brown liquid, whether the appearance adds to the hint of mushroom I can’t tell. From the castle we leave via the car park. Collecting Rachael’s car, readying to return to mine. The original plan was to stop in at a pub for lunch but we’ve hardly worked up a hunger. The one near my car is closed, probably permanently. Instead we decide why not extend our stay and stop at Avebury for a look around the stones. On the return from Barbury castle I keep half an eye posted on the side of the chalk hills. The Hackpen White Horse is out there somewhere. A grey-white smudge on a hill of green. Visible from here, the end of the road some miles away. To be fair, you probably can’t see it from space. It isn’t big enough.

We find a place to park and walk the perimeter. What are the stones for, why are they here? Which idiot thought it would a good idea to build a village in the middle of them? There is a distinct lack of speculative historical information boards around the stones. Probably because we haven’t paid whatever extortionate fee English Heritage are trying to charge to get in to the outside. Or maybe they’ve accepted that nobody is alive today who was then, and anything we come up with is at best unfounded speculation. There is a stone circle here. There is a man made hill not far away. An avenue of stones leads towards the Sanctuary, across the road from the Ridgeway’s terminus. These are all of the facts. We slip in to the toilet. We look at the entry prices, which seem to be only for the nearby manor. £5 to pop your head in a barn with some tools from the last couple of decades. No thank you. It’s time to go. Rachael drops me off in the car and we circle past each other through Marlborough. I consider a game of fuel-light bingo in the week and decide against it. I’ve got to go home past Sainsbury’s anyway. After I’ve filled up I notice the pool of brown liquid rushing towards my feet, coming from under my car. Not like this. Not like this. I pop the bonnet in the hope it’s obvious. I think it’s just water, gushing out of the radiator. It’s a five minute drive home. I should be fine? I should be fine. The temperature gauge creeps up and I avoid putting my foot down where ever possible, as if this might make a difference. The first time I’ve really used the car, made plans to need the car, the car calls it a day. Not before I get home though. Parked up I watching the last of the coolant run down the road. That’s a problem for tomorrow now.

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