(reprinted from Aspects of the Ridgeway)
From the hills south of Oxford, from Boars Hill and Wytham, the dark line of the Downs marks the horizon. Between it and the river lies the ancient borderland between Wessex and Mercia.
The way that runs along the ridge of the downs between Avebury and Streatley has kept its name unaltered since Saxon times. Some names and boundaries provide evidence older than the literary evidence of Chronicles and early histories: the Ridgeway was already ancient when Alfred was born at Wantage in 849 A.D. and the name of the Icknield Way is pre–English. Our ancestors seem to have assumed that earthworks whose origins were unknown to them should be ascribed to Woden, Grim (a Norse god) or the Devil; these ditches and dykes were probably boundary marks rather than communication routes. We can deduce from dated charters that sections of ancient roads were recognisably in existence in the time of Alfred and later.
The Life of Alfred was written by a contemporary Welsh cleric, Asser, and is our chief source of knowledge. He tells us that the whole line of the Downs was known as Ashdown. They may have been named after an ash tree, as Berkshire got its name from “berrow” meaning boxwood. This rather vague name for the downs lasted into the eighteenth century and its vagueness makes it impossible to identify exactly where the battle of Ashdown took place. Asser himself is very precise in his description, if not in location. He had seen the battlefield with his own eyes and had observed “a rather small and solitary thorn tree” around which he says “the opposing armies clashed violently”.
Hard though it may be to place this scene, the description fits well with the scene we would expect when walking along the Ridgeway on a winter day. The battle of Ashdown was fought by Alfred while his brother Ethelred was still king, and was a famous victory over the Danish invaders. The Danes had crossed the country from East Anglia in mid–winter and dug themselves in at Reading between the two rivers. Alfred attacked them and then they followed his force across the Downs, turning upwards from the Thames perhaps at Cholsey towards Scutchamer Knob. The results of the victory were short–lasting, and it was only after long tribulation that Alfred defeated them again, decisively at Ethandun (Edington) in 878 A.D. This was again on the Downs but further south, near Battlesbury Camp on the Edge of Salisbury Plain.
The battles described so dramatically by Asser are also simply recorded in the Anglo–Saxon Chronicle, the first piece of English historical writing.
More evidence on place names comes from early charters which have survived as permanent written records largely because the great early monasteries such as Abingdon and Winchester needed to record their land holdings. Some of these places can still be checked against survey landmarks. A charter of 944 from Abingdon preserves the grant of land at Blewbury to Aelfric Bishop of Ramsbury, and refers to a white hollow way that ascends the hill to the Downs as far as the Fair Mile. The Downs of Blewburton (named after the hill fort) are defined by “the tall thorn tree at the Icknield Way”, the heathen burial place on Lowbury Hill and by the Ridgeway itself. A reference to the “herepath” or warpath of Anglo Saxon soldiers reminds us that below the line of the Ridge another route was used for military purposes, and as such, clearly defined and recognised.
Two famous places near the Ridgeway, Uffington and Woolstone by the White Horse, take their names from Uffa and Wulfric, though previously they had been part of a larger estate known as Ashbury. The same charter that describes their boundaries mentions also the bare–topped Dragons Hill. The Manger is also referred to, but described more simply as “the ring ”
Many of the associations with Alfred are legendary rather than historical, but it would be hard to dislodge the tales like the burning of the cakes from our folk memories. Where an earlier age ascribed massive earthworks to Grim, the Victorians, more historically conscious, were determined to link places with great men and great heroes. We do, however, have hard documentary evidence about Alfred including the charters and his Will in which his wife received his private estates at Lambourn, Wantage and Eddington, and his daughter received Ashton Keynes and Chippenham. It is remarkable that Alfred was born in border territory at Wantage: perhaps his father was simply holding newly–won territory.
By the time of Alfred’s death, and after the fearful invasions of the 970s, the Danes were held back by a system of fortified burghs (whose outlines are visible at, for instance, Wallingford) and by a clever use of sea power. It was, however, Alfred’s grandson Athelstan, born in 895 and crowned at Kingston in 925, who sealed the union of Mercia and Wessex. Athelstan took the offensive against the Welsh and against Cornwall, and re–fortified Oxford and Wallingford. He chose to be buried at Malmesbury near St Aldhelm the famous Anglo–Saxon abbot and chronicler. His conquests were larger and his victories greater than those of his grandfather, but he did not leave behind so vivid a memory.
The Ridgeway area was not always a border, though it has some of the character of the Offa’s Dyke territory. It was not even a major route of communication, though it was used as such by the Danes in their incursions across England. But as the site of battles, meetings and places associated with Alfred’s victories and later recorded in his Will, it plays a large part in the earliest period of English recorded history.