(An article by Maurice Mendoza, first Chairman of the Friends, reprinted from Aspects of The Ridgeway)
I was first enchanted by the Ridgeway over forty years ago. I had just started as a clerk in what was then the Ancient Monuments Secretariat of the Office of Records. I had begun straight from my grammar school in the East End of London . Like many a young man in those days before the war I was innocent, impressionable and very open to romantic influences.
My chief, Dr Frederick Raby, an outstanding scholar and accomplished Latinist — he afterwards edited the Oxford Book of Mediaeval Latin Verse — took me with him on a visit to Alexander Keiller, then engaged on his great work of preserving Avebury and restoring the prehistoric stone circles. While the two great men had luncheon, I walked to Overton Down and ate my sandwiches on the Ridgeway.
Even now, forty-five years later, I can still feel the profound emotion stirred in me by that empty, peaceful landscape — all sheep pasture then — so filled with the handiwork of prehistoric man. While I write this, far away from the Downs, I have a map of the area open in front of me. The sight of all those evocative names — Wansdyke, Adam’s Grave, The Sanctuary — bring back that wonderful mixture of nearness to nature and to history that I had the good fortune to experience at the age of seventeen.
Since that first, magical experience I have walked on the Ridgeway many times. It remains an enjoyable walk at all times of the year. In summer there is vicarious enjoyment to be got from the families and young children engaged in recreative walks and happy scampers. But the favourite time for me is in the winter when I can have the loneliness to myself. Then, I feel nearer to the countless thousands of our ancestors who have trod this way: the makers of Avebury and Stonehenge, the Roman soldiers on their way to bathe in the hot springs of Aquae Sulis, and the farmers and drovers of the last thousand years. Of course I regret the passing of the springy sheep pastures with their carpets of downland flowers; barley prairies are so boring by comparison. But the landscape remains marvellously uncluttered, and the ever changing wide and open sky is as recreative as ever.
I was lucky enough to end my career in the public service — after doing many other jobs — by heading the Directorate where I had started as a young clerk so many years before. The task had become a good deal larger and included responsibility for Royal Palaces and Royal Parks as well as historic buildings and ancient monuments throughout England. For all that, it was a most romantic homecoming. On my first free day I celebrated by making a sentimental and private journey to Avebury and walking up to the Ridgeway, as I had done forty years before. The breathing was a bit more laboured, but the emotion was much the same.