Sarah enjoys the Great Stones Way
Cicerone's Sarah Spencer leaps at the chance to go and check out The Great Stones Way, the 36 mile long distance walk that passes some of England's important prehistoric sites including Avebury and Stonehenge. It's perfect for an energetic long weekend or a leisurely week, with good transport links at each end.
Cicerone is fortunate to receive a large number of proposals for new inspiring guidebooks on a regular basis. The ideas that flow in through the door cover some amazing walks, treks and bike rides, not just here in the UK, but to places around the world that make us reach for the large Atlas to figure out just where exactly that spectacular mountain range is.
Each and every proposal we receive is looked at, and we have regular meetings to chat through the ideas pile and determine which will make it through and become part of our extensive range.
During one such meeting, we’d already discussed a number of projects when Jonathan said ‘and here’s a proposal for the Great Stones Way’. Even without knowing any more about the book, I rather forcefully said ‘yes’. The rest of the room went quiet and looked in my direction.
I like big stones – there, I said it out loud.
Standing stones, stone circles, whatever, they just do it for me – maybe it’s something to do with my Welsh Celtic background.
Six months or so later, the manuscript was finished and on its way to the printers. I grabbed a copy, booked a few days off work and caught the train to that great walking capital, Swindon!
The Great Stones Way is a route using existing paths through the Wiltshire Downs, starting just south of Swindon and ending up at Old Sarum, on the outskirts of Salisbury. As long-distance trails go, this one is quite short, making it perfect for an energetic long weekend, or for more leisurely exploration over a week.
With my rucksack loaded up with tent, sleeping bag and a few other essentials needed for a three-day walk, I set off with a big grin in the glorious sunshine.
The first day of the Great Stones Way follows the Ridgeway National Trail from the lofty heights of Barbury Castle southwards to Overton Hill. The book describes a number of optional detours along the way, so I took the Avebury loop and arrived there starving hungry at lunchtime.
After a filling pub lunch, I explored the stones and earthworks that make up this impressive World Heritage Site. Avebury was wonderful to visit, and I wish I’d allowed more time to fully take it all in. But, with still a way to walk that afternoon, reluctantly off I went.
After a short distance the 40m-high Silbury Hill appears to the right of the trail. It’s the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, and as with many of these ancient sites, no one really knows why it was built. I stood for a while just staring at it in silence, trying to figure out why it was there, and what may be inside?
There are a surprising number of White Horses carved into the hillsides along the way. I’d always thought they were an ancient part of our landscape, so I was surprised to read that many of them were created in the last 300 years or so. Wiltshire and the Thames Valley is full of them, and the Alton Barnes White Horse was the favourite of my trip. I couldn’t stop turning around to admire it as I dropped down into the Vale of Pewsey, arriving at the Kennet and Avon Canal.
After a sound night’s sleep in my little tent (which may have had something to do with the great local beer), I spent the next two days walking through the rolling Wiltshire countryside.
Day two started with a lovely peaceful section alongside the canal before heading to Casterley Camp, high up on Salisbury Plain. There is a choice of three equally interesting routes to Casterley Camp, and it will come as no surprise that my preference was for the White Horse Trail.
The sun was shining as I headed up a stretch of quiet road, with the Peter Gabriel song Solsbury Hill going round and round my head (and before you write in, yes I know that song is about a hill in Somerset, but I just couldn’t stop myself!), before dropping down to the more tranquil surroundings of the River Avon.
Early on in my trip planning, I’d make the decision that I was going to take the variant route to Stonehenge – why come all this way and not see the unmistakable sight of this iconic structure? What I hadn’t decided on was paying the large fee to get into the enclosure. That, I’d planned, was going to be a wait-and-see decision.
The footpath leads you to within striking distance of the stones, and just the other side of the fence from the paying visitors. I sat quietly and ate my packed lunch, looking not just at the stones, but also at the masses of people just a few metres away from me. Decision made, I wasn’t going in, but round the outside and over the busy A303 in the direction of Salisbury. It seems a bit unfair for me to say that I was disappointed with Stonehenge, and that I thought it would be bigger. I don’t think the busy road whizzing by within a short distance does anything to help create the same quiet atmosphere I’d experienced at Avebury.
From Stonehenge the final section of my walk continued south to the impressive earthworks of Old Sarum. These massive ramparts were a great finale to my route, and after a short exploration I strode into Salisbury city centre, grinning from ear to ear.
It wasn’t the longest trip I’ve done, and in no way the hardest, but I loved every minute of it. A few days off work, no flights to catch and ancient sites around every corner give you all the ingredients you need for a perfect mini-adventure.
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