Fortunately it did not rain during the night. I had pitched the tent with the door facing away from the wind, and in spite of the cold I slept deeply. I woke at dawn and looked out. The sun shone red on the barrow and a pale moon hung low over the fields. Long shadows lay on the grass; the leaves beneath the trees were white with hoar frost. It was invigorating weather and I wanted to be walking. A mug of hot strong coffee and I was away.
How quickly things change. The events of the day before were no more than a distant memory. They might have happened to someone else. That bright morning I had the world pretty much to myself; in four miles I saw one girl on horseback. I kept up a fine pace, marching along cheerfully sustained by chocolate and great draughts of tonic air. Most of the track from Wayland's Smithy to Fox Hill is well maintained, and I crunched over a smooth surface of cinders. It was still early as I descended the slope to the Shepherd's Rest.
A mile or so after the pub the Ridgeway crosses the M4 and climbs away, passing to the south of Liddington Castle. I had travelled this way often but never visited the fort. It is slightly off the line of the path, and well worth the diversion. That day I lay in the lee of the ramparts, looking west across the Ogbourne Gap while breakfast-in-the-bag bubbled in the saucepan by my side. An unusual compound of lamb stew and treacle pudding, which I would not have touched at home; but it tasted wonderful up there on the hill! Then on along the ridge, with tremendous vistas of rolling country falling away on either side.
I reached Ogbourne St. George at ten o'clock, too early to obtain refreshment at the pub. The weather was changing once more, the bright sky marred by dark cloud. The rain began to fall before I was out of the village, so I stopped off at the little church. It was locked, but the porch offered sanctury to a weary walker. The churchyard was quiet with a quietness that is so much a part of the downs. The soothing sound of rooks, and the wind in the trees. Damp stone and the smell of cut grass. Long chalk slopes rising above the village. Silence. The fretful cares of life seemed far away in the peace of that stolen hour.
For the walker travelling from east to west the smooth grassy slope of Smeathe's Ridge forms the last obstacle. Once on top you traverse the last great headland of chalk before begining the long descent to the Sanctuary. As I climbed that morning I was assailed by another downpour. A bitter rain swept from the hill. I passed a flock of sheep huddled together, tails to the wind. It seemed the right approach, so I sat by the path facing south-east until the shower blew over. Looking back, it is hard to believe that the photo here was taken just a few minutes after it ended. Near the top I met up with an Irish walker coming from Avebury. I hope he had better weather than I did!
At the cafe by Ridgeway Farm they sell coffee and simple meals, and though there is no shelter as such it is pleasant to rest for a while in the tree-shaded garden. The place is a refuge for small birds in that wide expanse of barren chalk. I sat on a very wet bench, amused by the acrobatics of some blue tits as they clustered around a feeder in the branches overhead. A bright-eyed chaffinch hopped cautiously across the smooth slippery table, looking at me inquiringly. In the hedge a blackbird chuckled.
As I crossed the open interior of Barbury Castle it grew dark once more. Sleet this time. I tried to find sanctary in the lee of the ramparts, but the wind swirled and eddied as it swept through the ditch. At last the storm eased. As I dropped down to the road some construction workers emerged from the warm interior of a van, grinning derisively. I trudged on along the rutted path to Hackpen Hill, trying to look superior. I don't think I succeeded.
The home stretch. In a few miles the Ridgeway swung southward, the last of its many wanderings. Among the trees far away to my right I caught the first glimpse of Avebury, the end of the road. Downhill all the way now. Nothing to it! Hurrying along while trying to take in the view I slipped and narrowly avoided sliding into the largest puddle in Wiltshire. After that I was more cautious. I picked my way down the rutted track until I reached the signpost to the village. The official path comes to an end on the A4, a mile further on, but for me it finishes at the door of the Red Lion. I turned off in that direction, head down against the bitter wind from the north.
Soon the track became a country lane, passing through the bank of the monument. As I reached Avebury a violent hail storm blew in. Ice fell from the sky; the courtyard and thatched roof of the pub disappeared beneath a white blanket. A quick sprint, a rattle of the latch and I stood dripping at the bar. It seemed suddenly very quiet after the fury of the wind. Through the narrow window I watched as tourists caught in the open scurried for cover.
I didn't think I was hungry until I smelt the rich aroma of good cooking. In fact I was not hungry, I was famished! To sit at a table in a warm room, to eat with clean utensils food that did not contain beans seemed the height of luxury. The barmaid looked with some amusement at my rapidly-emptying plate. Then I stretched out my aching legs, tired but contented; until the bus came down the long white road, out of the gathering night, and drew to a halt in front of the inn.