The Old Road

To my horror it is some four months since I promised to write something of the Old Road to Marlborough.  Fain would I blame the poor weather for my tardiness, yet I cannot believe in that time there were no fine days and must instead blame dullness of limb and the demands of my publisher who now presses for completion of the revisions to Acts of the Servant.

But all work and no play makes for a dull day and it has not escaped even my notice that we have enjoyed some two weeks of fine unbroken sunshine. If not now, then when? was my father’s motto and so wearing my favourite Tweed jacket against the ever-present breeze upon the downs, and a thermos of tea, camera and notebook in my rucksack, I leave Avebury by the eastern gateway, or pythen, as it is called in the local dialect, and head for the downs.

Near Manor FarmLong before it became the road between Marlborough and Bath this track had other uses and other names, two of which have come down to modern times. One of these is the Herepath, a Saxon word referring to the military roads or tracks used in the 9th century when Saxon fought with Dane, and serving much the same purpose as Napoleon’s Les Grand Routiers did in France. The meaning of the other name, Green Street, is now lost to us, however the track is far older even than the Saxons for it was along here that the builders of Avebury brought the great sarsen stones for the circle.

Beyond Manor farm (where I noticed Nancy Curlew had stopped her Japanese Shogun to pass the time of day with milkman Abel Samwise) the metalled road ends and we are on the bare chalk of the downs. In parts, the chalk is deeply rutted, both by Abel Samwise’s tractor and by countless generations of travellers over the downs. It makes for difficult and sometimes precarious walking and part way I nearly turn my ankle. Pausing while the pain subsides, I photograph the way I have come to show Manor farm and the ramparts of the henge at Avebury. I am already warm and suspect my Tweed jacket may have been unnecessary, but too late for there is no turning back.  

Looking back to AveburyWith my ankle better, I continue toward a skyline decorated with clumps of beech trees planted some two centuries ago. Alas, that we live in a land filled with the delights left by our ancestors should persuade us so little to leave something of delight for our own children’s children. Instead, we seem content only to leave them our problems and our debts.  But I should not protest too much: my son is convinced I shall leave him nothing but poems and unfinished novels.

I digress: Impassable now to all but tractors and four-wheel drives, what tales this road must have of swearing, sweating coachmen and sweating straining horse sinew! In the wet, the chalk is greasy and in the dry it is hard as fired clay and bruising to the foot. For many horses this climb must have proved too much and perhaps their remains still lie beneath the roadside sod. With the horse and the rattle of the coach now gone, the Old Road is quiet. Only walkers disturb the quiet and even they pass by with no more than a nod of the head and murmured greetings. I should come here more often. The heat reminds me, contrarily, that I climbed here once in a fit of midwinter madness with the snow a yard deep and following in the tracks of Abel Samwise’s tractor. My son thought me quite mad but at least it cured me of the wintertime glums!

There is no rain or snow today and in the sunlight the track is a vivid white scar. I have seen a barn owl perched upon the fence posts and watched rooks pursue a buzzard.

The top of the climb, for now at least, is marked by the crossing of the Herepath with that more ancient track, the Ridgeway which has wound its way across our southern uplands for some five millennia. Beyond is a broad pasture where one hears the brilliant and dancing song of the skylark and it is here we see the first of the sarsen stones, the building material of Avebury’s ancient circle, and, in its many years as an open quarry, much else besides.

After a few outliers we find ourselves at the head of a dry valley where ancient floods have deposited the stones, as though upon the tide’s edge. In truth, we must suppose their numbers much diminished by the hand of man and we cannot tell how many more lie beneath the downland earth, but this valley for its antiquity and its rich flora is now protected in law and undisturbed save for the sheep who keep the invading gorse and hawthorn at bay.  

The clump of trees at top left is another of the beech circles decorating the downs. Inside such a circle it is delightfully shaded and although the trees are only some two centuries old they appear older, ancient even. Perhaps their gnarled limbs remind us of ourselves in old age.  Besides the beech circle is a small eighteenth century cottage or lodge, now abandoned but once the meeting place for shooting parties, “with (according to a 1906 sale catalogue) a capital sitting room used for luncheon parties.” Presumably the beech circle commemorated some event but whether it was some battle overseas or something of a more personal nature I cannot discover. The dilapidated lodge is the only clear sign that there was ever human occupancy of the downs.  A well provided water for the lodge but whether it ever did so for the coaching traffic upon the road is unknown as it may have post-dated the road’s falling from use. Nevertheless, it is a curious thought that even in this apparently dry place, there is water only a few feet below the surface.

Alas, I cannot remain in the shade but must be on my way. Even on a warm summer’s day – and I am now thinking my heavy jacket completely unnecessary – the downs has an atmosphere that is not quite of this world. Leaving the old road for a few minutes I find a vantage point to try and capture as much of this strange and melancholy place as I can in one image. I tried my best but fear my ability with a camera cannot do it justice.

If one is wondering at the mention of sheep and their apparent lack in the above picture, I think they are suffering even more than I from the heat and have taken refuge in what little shade the downs affords.

I, alas, will have precious little shade until I reach Marlborough and have not done with climbing as the Herepath takes me yet eastwards. I confess that my jacket has proved quite unnecessary as there is scarce a breath of wind. My concern was too much focused on the possibility of inclement weather and gave no thought to the danger of too much clemency! Iced water in my thermos would be preferable to hot tea. To increase my torture I soon pass a reservoir, wholly enclosed within a great bunker and protected by a high fence and security cameras. I had not thought water so expensive it needs such guarding, but it seems the powers that be think otherwise. I suck on a boiled sweet and look forward to the inn at Marlborough.

It is hard to believe on this hot and peaceful day that once this was a major road between Bath and Marlborough. Laden wagons, horsemen, stagecoaches, men and trade. Samuel Pepys took this road on the 15th of June 1668 when he rode all day “with some trouble, for fear of being out of our way, over the Downes, where the life of the shepherds is, in fair weather only, pretty”. The road has been quiet now some two-hundred and fifty years since the building of a turnpike a few miles south left it to the shepherds and the skylarks… Fortunately for me, the track now descends and I at last find a shady respite beneath a clump of beech trees where I sit and drink a cup of tea. 

I am not the first to break his thirst upon the downs, as an old engraving places a roadside inn somewhere on the Marlborough Downs, though exactly where is no longer known. We can at least guess at its name for the sign quite clearly shows a swan.

That clump of trees marked the end of the loneliest part of the old road. Beyond it we are now on the eastern slope of the downs, still very much in the open, but now the old road is joined by a gallops, a broad stretch of grassland used for exercising horses. High above are the skylarks and nearer at hand the gentle rasp of the grasshoppers. The track is no longer smooth chalk, but gravelled with loose stones, making for unpleasant walking and I prefer to walk upon the grass. The darker line besides the trees is simply due to the way the grass is mown and not, alas, shade.

From here to Marlborough, the walk is, if truth be told, something of an anticlimax. The distant views remain pretty, but the walking becomes a chore and it was something of a relief to arrive at the junction where the old road meets the highway between Marlborough and Swindon.

Beyond the slight crest in the road lies the Marlborough golf club and spying the gentlemen’s buggy I confess to a desire to steal it and make the remainder of my journey a little easier. The hard chalk road had bruised my feet and left me a little lame. Alas, they were four in number and well-armed. At least the horse chestnuts beside the road provided me with shade and the way was now downhill.

The golf club gives way to fine houses and then to a few shops before a turn in the road brings you to Marlborough’s High Street. Reputed to be one of the widest in the country it naturally now serves as a car park and has lost much of its former charm.

I am exceedingly warm and my jacket has left a damp patch where it hangs over my shoulder and I am parched. As any traveller in older times having arrived upon the high road, I am for the tavern to break my thirst. Later I shall accomplish by bus in some twenty minutes what has taken me three hours by foot. Though I fear what we have gained in speed and convenience has cost us a great deal of romance and adventure my feet shall enjoy the rest.

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