It’s both a blessing and rather unfortunate that The Ridgeway National Trail should start at Avebury World Heritage Site, one of the most remarkable places in the United Kingdom. You have been waiting anxiously for the moment when you can put your first feet on The Ridgeway. And yet here we are, right at the start, suggesting you slow down, take a moment (well, 2-3 hours actually), and delay your start
Had Avebury World Heritage Site appeared mid-way along the route, perhaps you would have planned a rest day as there is so much to see. However, most walkers will aim to stop at Ogbourne St George for their first night, a distance of just 9 miles. So, really, you have no excuse. You can have your cake and eat it!
So, what’s so special about Avebury? Built during neolithic times, it is the largest stone circle anywhere in the world. Constructed onwards from around 3000 BC, it comprises a large circle with two inner circles. The large circle is set around a ditch, or “henge”, 30 feet deep and 20 feet wide. The northern inner circle is centered around a 100 ton stone known as “The Cove”. The stones are mostly local and known as Sarson stones. Like many of the neolithic sites it’s very difficult to appreciate its enormity unless you view it from above, something those who designed it could never to. It would have taken hundreds of years to construct. So the manpower required is quite extraordinary. Estimates have been made and they think it would have taken more than a million man hours to construct. The marking for the circles; the digging of the henges with stone and/or antler horns; the dragging of stones possibly from up on Fyfield Hill above you; the placing of the stones into the ground. When construction began, there was never any prospect of it being finished in the lifetime of those who started it.
And all for what?
Historian Neil Oliver, in his podcast, suggests that it was to mark a place for people to meet at certain times of the year. It was a “celestial calendar”. Like cathedrals in later centuries, it was a magnet for people to meet. And consider the point that, for many months of the year, farmers had little to do: during spring and summer between sowing and reaping; and again autumn and winter between reaping and sowing.
But that’s not all. There’s more! An avenue of stones leads to Silbury Hill: a mound roughly the size of any of the Egyptian pyramids. It was probably completed around 2400 BC, so a few centuries after Avebury. If you thought Avebury was big, consider the fact that Silbury Hill probably required four million man hours of work, four times the estimate for Avebury!
Close by Silbury Hill is the burial mound of West Kennet Long Barrow. Although slightly off The Ridgeway this is a neolithic burial chamber. The partial remains of nearly fifty people have been discovered here. It’s perfectly possible to walk up to the Long Barrow and even venture into the first few feet of the chamber itself.
But we’re still not finished. Just across the road from the start of The Ridgeway lies The Sanctuary, originally a series of concentric stone and timber circles. Much has been removed and the original position of the circles is now marked by either timber or concrete blocks
So, how to combine this with your Ridgeway walk. The Avebury circle can be circumnavigated courtesy of the National Trust. From Avebury, a public footpath takes you to the A4 with views of Silbury Hill to your right.
The Path crosses the A4and turns west. At the turn, a path will take you to Long Barrow at the top of a hill. Although not a public right of way, it’s often used.
Return to the public footpath which will take you towards the village of East Kennet. A footpath takes you back up the hill towards the A4 at Overton Hill which marks the start of The Ridgeway.
We believe the OS map have it wrong. They seem to suggest that The Ridgeway starts at the bottom of the hill a few hundred yards south of the A4.
The total distance, including circumnavigating Avebury Circle, is 3.5 miles from the centre of Avebury to the start of The Ridgeway at Overton Hill. Combined with a walk to Ogbourne St George, this makes a nice day of just 12.5 miles!