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The Ridgeway is said to have originally crossed the country from Dorset to Norfolk and is described as the country’s oldest, continually used trackway; so old that it cannot be accurately dated. It has been travelled by the people of this land for thousands of years.
Long before we had roads and motorways to traverse the country, people, food, goods and armies had to travel on foot or by horseback using tracks and pathways. The country looked very different to the way it does today; most of the land was covered by deep forests and the valleys were wet and marshy so people chose to travel along the high ridges on the tops of the hills. A journey that would take only hours by car or lorry today would have taken weeks and been dangerous and difficult and, unlike today when we have motorway service stations and picnic parks, there were no places to shelter or buy food.
Nowadays only 85 miles of the ancient road make up the National
Trail that wends its way north east from Overton Hill within the
Avebury World Heritage Site in Wiltshire
(www.avebury-stones.co.uk) where you can see Neolithic and
Bronze Age stone circles and and Silbury Hill, which is within easy
walking distance, to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. On the
Trail in Wiltshire you may even get a view of the phenomenal crop
circles which appear mysteriously in early summer (YouTube has
some good clips). The Ridgeway route is rich in archaeology and
also lies close to many fascinating places such as the village of
East Ilsley in Berkshire; host to the second largest sheep fair in
the country during the 13th century - the track would have been
a very important route for farmers driving their animals to market.
Walking on The Ridgeway is spectacular. Along the route and very close to where you live there are lots of interesting, exciting and some might even say spooky, places to visit. So, if for starters you would like to check out a massive white horse that can, for some strange reason, only be viewed in its entirety from above (www.wiltshirewhitehorses.org.uk); visit an ancient burial chamber (www.berkshirehistory.com/legends/smithy01.html); see the place where St George is said to have fought the dragon (www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk); marvel at a massive man made hill tell your parents or group leaders all about it then pack your lunch, put on your outdoor clothes and walk along The Ridgeway together.
Don’t worry you don’t have to walk it all at once! The Ridgeway is very accessible along its length and there are lots of things to see and discover, even on short trips. It crosses some of the wildest and highest parts of your area offering fantastic views and sightings of many different birds, animals, wild flowers, butterflies etc, season by season. But to experience this you have to leave the car behind and get on the Trail so why not get up, get out there and get walking – with every step you will be walking on history! All of this is almost on your doorstep and what’s more, it is free! Oh, and please do tell us about your Ridgeway trips and send us your favourite photographs which may then be included in the next edition of the JRE page.
If you are interested in any of the sites mentioned above you can visit any or all of the links on this page and of course there are many other web sites which may be of interest. There are also many books about The Ridgeway which you can borrow from the library or buy from local bookshops together with lots of information available on maps, display boards and at visitor centres along the way.
Watch this space for the latest developments of the proposed Great Stones Way which will link the World Heritage Sites of Avebury and Stonehenge.
Most of the ancient sites on or close to The Ridgeway have interesting legends attached to them and Wayland’s Smithy is no exception; it dates back to the discovery by Saxon settlers of a Neolithic long barrow near Uffington which they attributed to Wayland the Smith.
Wayland, according to legend, was one of three sons of Wade, King of the Finns. He became a renowned metalworker and fashioned many swords (one of which was said to be for Merlin) and beautiful pieces of jewellery which were very much sought after. But fame did not interest him, he only wished to be allowed to continue his work in peace. However, the King of Sweden wished the pieces Wayland made to be exclusively for his royal family and so had him captured, imprisoned and put to work on a nearby island. His brother Egil was also captured and made to work in the royal household.
Wayland was determined to escape and had Egil make him a pair of wings with which he took flight and escaped flying far away until he came to rest on the Berkshire downs where he came across the ancient burial chamber which became his home and we now know as Wayland’s Smithy.
The amazing White Horse, set into the chalk nearby was said to have been shod by Wayland for Sigurd, a Norse hero, and every hundred years, so it is told, it leaves the hillside and gallops across the sky to Wayland’s Smithy to be re-shod. This may be where the story of leaving one’s horse and a small silver coin whilst one goes for a walk originates: the horse will be re-shod before your return but Wayland is never seen.
Things To Look Out For on the Ridgeway in Summer
During the summer The Ridgeway is a great Trail to walk if you are interested in wildlife. Buzzards and red kites are seen all year round but whenever you see them they are a joy to watch with their beautiful plumage so easily enjoyed as they wheel above our heads in their search for food.
Skylarks are also visible all year round but we seem to notice them more at this time - these small, brown-ish coloured birds rise spiralling vertically, singing constantly as they reach great heights above us as we walk. Sadly they are apparently a declining species.
The sound of summer is often thought of as the call of the cuckoo which seems to be heard less and less nowadays but you may be lucky enough to hear one until the end June.
And of course the summer months are wonderful for butterfly spotting; the small blue and marbled white are both chalk grassland lovers so look out for these alighting on the verges as you walk.
Also, don’t forget to look out for hares, rabbits and deer.