England is an old land where you can drink in the same pubs as the Crusaders did and watch a play in a Roman theater, so it’s a rare treat to touch or experience anything that can legitimately boast of being the “oldest.”
The Ridgeway Trail in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in southern England just might have the claim of being the country’s oldest road. The 87-mile route runs along a chalk ridge from the fantastic megalithic complex of Avebury northeast to the River Thames. People were using this as a road all the way back in the Neolithic 6,000 years ago and perhaps even earlier. Various tribes left their mark in the form of megalithic ruins, forts, and enigmatic chalk figures. There were many of these “ridgeway” routes in prehistoric Europe, allowing travelers to bypass the thick woods and primeval swamps that covered much of lowland Europe at that time.
While not as scenic or rugged as other National Trails such as the one that runs along Hadrian’s Wall, the Ridgeway still makes for a pleasant ramble. B&Bs and campgrounds dot the route so you’ll never have to worry about where to stay, as long as you reserve ahead of time in the peak season. Another big plus is that you can see the trail’s two greatest prehistoric sights, Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse of Uffington (pictured here) in a long day hike.
The day hike starts in the pretty little village of Bishopstone, a short taxi ride from the railway stop at Swindon. Signs point you up the steep hill overlooking town and onto a broad field that narrows and ascends to the Ridgeway proper. From there head east, and it’s easy sailing from then on. There are no great changes in elevation, just some gentle swells.
Once you’re on the Ridgeway, it’s only five miles to the White Horse, but two miles along there’s a road heading south that takes you to the old stately home of Ashdown House and its grounds. Hidden in the forest is Alfred’s Castle, attributed in local folklore to King Alfred the Great, who defeated the Vikings nearby in 871. In fact it’s a hill fort dating to the about the 6th century BC. Hill forts were settlements or refuges enclosed by ditches and earth palisades. They tended to be on high spots to make them easier to defend. There’s not much to see of the old earthworks here, but the birds tweeting in the branches makes this place a good spot for a picnic. The detour is two miles each way plus another mile or so of wandering through the woods.
%Gallery-84894%Back on the Ridgeway, it’s not long before you reach Wayland’s Smithy. This megalithic tomb was built about 5,500 years ago in the Neolithic, the last phase of the Stone Age. A low, narrow passageway of stone slabs leads to three burial chambers set inside a long earthen mound. Archaeologists believe it was the burial place for an important chief and his family. It’s similar to West Kennet Long Barrow at Avebury. Like West Kennet, Wayland’s Smithy is completely open and you can explore the entire tomb, as well as pick up trash left by less respectful visitors. The place is named after Wayland, an old Germanic blacksmith god a bit like the Roman Vulcan. Local folklore says if you need your horse shod, you can leave it and a silver coin here overnight and the god will do the job for you!
After Wayland’s Smithy the ridge becomes more exposed and you get broad views of the lowlands to the north. Soon you’ll come across Uffington Castle, a hill fort that’s much easier to see than Alfred’s Castle because it stands on a high, treeless promontory. On the hillside nearby is one of England’s most famous monuments–the White Horse of Uffington. This horse, drawn in the Celtic style, was made by cutting off the topsoil to reveal the white chalk underneath. Nobody knows exactly how old it is or its original form since it’s been recut numerous times over the centuries, but most archaeologists agree that it dates to the same time as the hill fort, the 7th or 8th century BC. A recent excavation, however, suggests the horse may be a few centuries older.
The White Horse is fascinating to see up close, but there’s no good way to see it in its entirety. The photo attached to this article is an aerial shot for a reason! Only when you walk down the ridge and towards to village of Uffington to take a bus back to Swindon will you see the horse as it was meant to be seen–from the valley with Uffington Castle next to it. Back in the day it must have been a powerful symbol of the local tribe’s dominance over the region.
The entire walk from Bishopstone up to and along the Ridgeway and down to the village of Uffington is about seven miles, plus another five or so for the Alfred’s Castle detour.
Three points to remember. The path can get gooey in parts if there’s been a recent rain, so be prepared. Also, sources of water are scarce along much of the trail so bring a full day’s supply. Finally, rural bus service tends to be poor in England. Plan ahead with the schedules. I got to the village of White Horse at 4:10 PM, just in time to miss the last bus for the day, so I ended up having to hike another five miles to Faringdon to catch another bus. My legs weren’t happy, but it did give me a chance to see the White Horse from a distance.