I awoke to a bright cold morning. A fresh breeze blew from the north, rustling the folds of my bivouac. The early sun shone through the closely-woven fabric, painting my sleeping bag in shades of mysterious green. I poked my head out and looked down the slope in the direction of Silbury Hill. Across the valley a crop circle had sprung up. I did not remember it being there the night before.
I packed and dropped down to the stream. At the bottom of the field was a shallow pool, which seemed a good place to take a bath. Clad in a pair of shorts and armed with a bar of soap I waded out into the water. An unpleasant shock! The swirling stream was bitterly cold. It felt like the snow melt from some alpine glacier. I washed as quickly as possible, then scrambled out shivering. The sun seemed to have lost all warmth, and the wind picked up noticeably. I dug out a change of clothes; then, clean and fresh once more, walked back to Avebury.
Nothing stirred as I walked through the village that morning. On the main road a petrol station was just opening. I stocked up on chocolate and biscuits, then headed out past Manor Farm and up onto the Ridgeway. As I neared the top I looked back at the great henge, half hidden among the trees. From here, four thousand years ago, pilgrims coming from the east would first have seen the sacred site, not green and overgrown but chalk-white, a dazzling scar on the landscape. I could make out the banks of the monument, and beyond it the low rise of Windmill Hill. From on high the broad plateau, backed by a wide sweep of hills, seemed almost theatrical. It looked like a stage, where once had been enacted the great dramas of life and death.
The Ridgeway leads north for several miles, before heading off along the escarpment of the Thames valley. After the Iron Age fort of Barbury Castle the line of the path is cut by a deep gap running north south. The official route, and the best, particularly if you happen to be thirsty, turns south-east and descends a long grass slope to Ogbourne St. George, passing the pub before clambering up the other side to rejoin the ridge near Liddington Castle. A slightly more direct route starts from the road, just below the cafe at Ridgeway Farm, and runs due east. Alternatively, you can take the track that slopes down to the left of the hill fort itself. That is the ancient line of the Ridgeway, and that way I went.
As I reached the level ground it was starting to get warm. The path became an untidy track through pasture land. It was foul and muddy underfoot, the deeper holes roughly patched with dumps of building rubbish. The hedges were tall and unkempt, and thick beds of nettles choked the ditches. I hurried along, flapping at the flies that hung in a black cloud above my head, wishing that I had not left the freedom of the downs for this miserable country. Finally I found a lane that ran through open fields, rolling and dipping over the undulating chalk. After some miles, it came up with the Ridgeway, not far from the pub called the Shepherd's Rest.
The pub is almost exactly half way between Avebury and Streatley. It is also the only one actually on the route. Further on there are a number of inns in the villages at the foot of the ridge, but reaching them involves a descent of several hundred feet and an extra couple of miles. The Shepherd is not my favourite pub; it seems rather a car-driving, Sunday lunch sort of place; but, being where it is, at least they are aware that walkers exist. There is a public bar, and a garden too, if you prefer to dine in a more informal atmosphere.
After lunch I set out once more. The next few miles, until you are close to Wayland's Smithy, are not wildly exciting. The path keeps back from the crest of the ridge, and there is little to be seen out to the north. It was pleasant enough going, however, and I ambled along for four or five miles. It was a hazy, sticky sort of day and, though the light was bright, there was a hint of rain to come. At Wayland's Smithy I stopped to see the Neolithic long barrow. Nobody else was about, so I rested while on the grass by a clump of beeches, listening to the faint hiss of the breeze stirring the tree-tops. After the hot and dusty hills the cool shade was beguiling. I lay there indolently, watching the afternoon sunshine filtering down through the green canopy. Then a party arrived, and the spell was broken - perhaps not before time, for I was half-asleep. I got to my feet and moved off.
From Uffington Castle you are close to the edge of the escarpment, and the views out across the wide expanse of the Vale of the White Horse are more extensive. The path ran on up ahead, straight for the most part, heading east. As I walked the sun started to sink behind me into thickening clouds. Long shadows lay on the ground, and the twilight song of the birds faltered and fell silent. I pressed on through the evening hush, looking for a place to camp. The night was likely to be wet, and I was anxious to find a place where there was a degree of shelter. There seemed nowhere suitable; every spot was either exposed to the elements or visible from the track. There was a wood marked on the map, just past the monument on Ridgeway Down, which looked as though it might offer possibilities. I reached it in the half-light, only to find two police officers inspecting a burnt-out vehicle. I was a little apprehensive, as I had no desire to explain what I was doing there at that hour, but they just wished me a friendly good evening. I concealed myself behind a distant bush until they drove off, then walked back to the wood.
It was a fir plantation, with rows of trees evenly spaced. I forced my way through the outer branches, and found two convenient trees. There I strung up my bivouac and, unrolling my sleeping bag, settled down on a soft carpet of needles. Too tired to eat, I drifted into sleep.
Late at night I was awakened by a series of explosions close at hand. I rolled over in the darkness, staring in the direction of the noise. My first thought was that I had settled down in the middle of a pheasant shoot, and I was wondering what were the chances of becoming the next target, when they stopped. Afterwards I realized that they were probably firecrackers, set in the nearby fields to protect the crops from pests, perhaps deer. They did not make for a particularly restful night.