It is dark. It has been raining, and the air is chilled. A Gurkha waves us in to park. We are early, and reception is just being set up, but I check in and pin my number to my pack. I venture over to get a view of Stonehenge in the mist. A world heritage site, with, "the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world," (as stated in my trek guide), but my way is blocked. A statuesque paramilitary guard, of Eastern European origin, possibly stazi, firmly tells me that at this hour access is only granted by prearrangement.
What does he think I will do? Steal a stone?
I grumble back to the check in, mumbling about fascist restrictions on the world heritage of henges, cursing Cameron and his cronies, feeling a very pre-dawn blackness despite my charitable intentions.
But it passes. The check-in gazebos are buzzing, and the throng begins to champ. A thick mist clings to the ground but the sky lightens.
A bank of clouds hides the dawn until the sun suddenly gleams over the brink and we are allowed to move onto the starting grid for the safety briefing.
Behind us now a Spinal Tap version of Stonehenge emerges from the mists, teasing us, but looking decidedly unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
To the side of the track a resolute protester has parked his van and is airing his dog. "Free Access to Stonehenge!" is emblazoned on his door.
Right on Bro!
But we have to go.
The essential instructions and encouragements are declared, the bunting drops, and we head off, the sunlight striking boldly across the glistening path.
The air quickly warms as we skirt the sleeping garrison of Larkhill, which must be used to the tramp of feet.
And in seemingly no time (actually an hour and a half) we drop down to the first check point, at six miles. Snacks and drinks are available, but there is little time to pause.
Twenty miles to go!
This part of Salisbury Plain is principally MOD property, and has been for a very long time. Serious training went on here in WWII, and since then troops have been prepared for Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Afghanistan in the undulating folds of the landscape. Deserted villages stand in for dangerous townships; the open spaces allow for tank and gunnery practice.
In this light, on a quiet Saturday, it is calmly beautiful, but there are reminders everywhere of the violent world it would be nice to forget.
The road rolls on into the distance. It becomes almost monotonous, though the sense of purpose behind this walk makes it worthwhile.
And every so often there are reminders of the agricultural past, in the strip lynchets, and present, in the herds of cattle, that seem to coexist peacefully with the military.
Meanwhile, the walk toils on, spread out now over some distance, under a brilliant sky, but tempered by a gentle breeze, tugging at the grasses and cooling our sweat.
Eventually, admired by a flock of sheep, we turn towards the Avon valley, and distant hills in the East.
And then we drop down to the second check point at eleven and a half miles (at Charlton St Peter). It is now just after ten; the sun is high but mercifully it is still not hot, as it might have been a couple of weeks ago. Just time to drink some squash and munch an apple, and then, zapping the feet through the electronic monitor, we are off again, to cross the Avon at North Newnton.
Having been on the heathen plateau all morning (Salisbury Plain covers some 300 square miles with very little habitation) it is a contrast to meet with civilisation. A dog barks in a proprietorial way to ensure no one attempts to enter his garden gate.
And I pause for a moment to enter the thirteenth century church of St James. The first church on this site existed over a thousand years ago, and it was one of the earliest churches to be built in England, but the tower you see is fifteenth century. Inside, for a moment, I sense a timeless peace. Just time to remember my mother, for whom I set out on this walk, and the many others suffering from dementia of one kind or another, for whom the Alzheimer's Society exists.
And then on again, across the infant river, through the damp meadows full of Equisetum (Horse Tails) and nettles, and on through the Manningfords (Manningford Bohune - which takes its name from the 12th century Humphrey de Bohun - and Manningford Bruce - named after William de Breuse in 1275 ).
It seems to be the Land of Cockaigne, with fruits ripening on the trees, and cottages basking in the sun.
Though this dazzling clump of 'Lords and Ladies' hint that, as in Cockaigne, all might not be quite as pleasant as it seems.
And then we slip down to the Kennet and Avon canal, following the White Horse Trail. This 87 mile waterway effectively links London to Bristol, passing through the heart of England, and stopping for a while in Bath. The central 57 mile canal section was constructed at the end of the eighteenth century. With the age of the railway it fell into disuse and was virtually unnavigable by 1960, but a Trust was set up and it has been reclaimed for leisure boats, fishing and walking.
We leave the canal at Honeystreet and stop for sandwiches at Alton Barnes Village Hall, within sight of the eponymous White Horse. I for one am beginning to feel the miles in my feet and thighs, and worry that sitting down for a rest may be the last thing I do. But, restored by tuna and rocket, and a tumbler of squash, I stir myself with the thought that we only have eight miles to go, and it is only about one o'clock, so the prospect of a gentle afternoon stroll over some of Wiltshire's finest hills does not seem impossible.
Trouble is, the next bit is up..... rising 160 metres from Alton Priors to Milk Hill, the highest spot on the Wiltshire Downs overlooking the Vale of Pewsey. The White Horse, originally cut in 1812, is the third largest in Wiltshire (which may mean it is the smallest, depending on how you like your statistics!)
And, generally, up hurts, though having just had a break, and invigorated by gentle breezes and fabulous views, it doesn't seem too bad.
And before too long we are a bit like the Grand Old Duke's chaps - UP!
And looking down. It may only be 160 metres, but it feels like the top of the world. This bit is known as Walkers Hill, which just about sums it up, and it is topped by a neolithic long barrow known as Adam's Grave, which suggests we are not so far from Avebury, as the prehistoric landscape begins to unravel.
However, my age is beginning to tell, and I am passed by a 707 - which I guess is no disgrace?
And then, wishing I had a paraglider, we start to descend. In the dip here (roughly where the trees are in the centre of the picture) is part of Wansdyke, a major earthwork (originally named Woden's Dyke), which was probably excavated after the fall of the Roman Empire as an East-West defensive line between Romano Britons and the Anglo Saxons. In places the bank is up to 4 metres high and the ditch 2.5 metres deep.
And down we go. My knees begin to complain. My feet ache. The track is rough and my pack begins to weigh a ton.
But the end is in sight! Seemingly tiny, in the middle of this picture rises Silbury Hill, the largest (and most mysterious) man-made hill in Europe, and that is only a step away from Avebury!
Two miles to go. Getting over the stile is something of an effort. But two miles is nothing.....
What I hadn't bargained for was that there is another hill between Silbury and Avebury! This is where carrying a two-ton back pack and having no physical strength or stamina begin to look like disadvantages....
But the amazing feat of constructing this extraordinary mound, about four thousand seven hundred and fifty years ago, makes my discomfort seem pathetic. It is forty metres high, covers five acres, and consists of 248,000 cubic metres of chalk and clay. It has been calculated that it took 18 million man hours to complete. Which rather puts my seven and a half hour walk in the shade!
As I stagger toward the finish line youthful enthusiasm explodes past me in a quite unseemly fit of excitement. But, hey! Why should I worry. I have made it.
We have made it!
I am grateful for the welcome. It is a privilege to have been a participant. And it is wonderful to admire these massive standing stones. No restrictions. No imperturbable bouncers here to stop me leaning on a megalith.
Stonehenge! Pah! This is the home of the gods! And this is the end of the road. For now. The Alzheimer's and Discover Adventure staff are there to greet us. I blip my anklet through the electronic checkpoint, ignore the eager press, and stagger into the clubhouse. Those youthful stars who made it before me are already there (including 707) lining up for massages, or scoffing cakes. I make do with a pint of druidic beer, and a gradual fade into lethe. I've traversed the heart and soul of England.
But what about the mind?
Thank you to the organisers. Thank you to all who sponsored me (so far 65 fantastic friends) for a total of over £1,700. It was a great experience, and worth every minute, every ache and pain.
|Anna Gibbs, Sunday 8th September 2013