Smeathe\'s Ridge, the Malbourough Downs.

Smeathe's Ridge, the Malbourough Downs.Mark Horrell / Flickr

Since the Neolithic period, inhabitants of Wiltshire have trekked this pathway across the Marlborough Downs and through thousands of years of England's history.

Less than two hours west of London via the modern M4 motorway, the oldest road in Europe wanders along empty, open ridges over Wiltshire's Marlborough Downs. Fifteen centuries ago invading Saxons gave this ancient track its present name, 'The Ridgeway', but even then it was old beyond all memory. Fifty centuries earlier, Stone Age traders probably followed this track to barter stone axe heads with farmer folk in the valleys.

These Neolithic merchants picked up The Ridgeway at the Thames River ford at Goring, then followed it westward and southward along the crest of the Downs, into what would become the counties of Berkshire and Wiltshire in the times of the Wessex kings. Since those first Neolithic peddlers, 200 generations have found their own good reasons to tramp along The Ridgeway track.

The Ridgeway neither looks nor acts like a modern road. None of it is paved or even graveled. Any given section tends to look like a farm track, a wide lane between fields for tractors and animals. Today, that is one of its main uses: a simple track from road to barn. But normal farm tracks wander aimlessly to disappear in isolated fields or farmyards while The Ridgeway marches for 60 miles in broad sweeps across the North Wessex Downs. The Ridgeway is a track with a purpose.

The Ridgeway's other modern use is recreation. The Countryside Commission, the English agency responsible for recreational access in the countryside, has designated The Ridgeway as one of England's National Trails (formerly known as 'Long Distance Footpaths'). Although they have waymarked it with their characteristic acorn blazes, the Commission did not create something new. The Ridgeway track has always been a public right-of-way, one of the straightest and longest of the maze of footpaths and byways in England and Wales. When the Countryside Commission waymarked The Ridgeway, they were simply acknowledging its ancient claims and making it easy for all to follow.

The Wiltshire sections of the Ridgeway follow the Marlborough Downs, a range of dry hills formed on deep layers of chalk. In the Stone Age, dense forests, thick brambles, and treacherous swamps choked the valleys. But on the Downs, traders could walk more easily through grasslands and light forests, keeping their bearing by following the steep escarpment that forms their northern and western edge. The Ridgeway still follows that escarpment to its termination near the north edge of the Vale of Pewsey; its spectacular views, a guide to the early traders, are an inspiration to the modern walker.

Archaeologists speculate that farming folk entered the Marlborough Downs about 4200 BC. Over the next two centuries they probably hacked out family farms of one to two square miles, clearing valley forests with flint axes and building rectangular log houses in the centre of their lands. Marriage and kinship would bind neighbouring families into a clan or tribe, and these clans would meet and mingle at great annual fairs. These fairs may have allowed families and clans to trade, settle disputes, and arrange marriages. The largest of the fairs were held in special camps built for that purpose, in which a bank and ditch protected the fair and proclaimed the power of the clan. One such Neolithic camp survives at Knap Hill, near the southern end of the trail. These fairs probably attracted traders who transported their wares along the ancient trackway.

By 3600 BC, each family compound had its own long barrow. These houses for the dead were rectangular, like farmhouses, but much larger. Powerful families fronted their barrows with forecourts of multi-ton sandstone blocks, using the 'sarcen stones' (named later from a medieval word for devil) that naturally litter the surface of the Downs. A number of long barrows still exist along The Ridgeway, possibly indicating that families intentionally placed these structures within the site of heavily traveled paths. Two barrows are especially notable. At the northern end of the Marlborough Downs, near the village of Ashbury, sits the huge barrow the Saxons called Wayland's Smithy, the smithy of Odin. Flanked by sarcen stones the size of upended lorries, it faces The Ridgeway as a declaration of family territory and power. And just a short distance beyond the southern boundary of the National Trail, across from Knap Hill, sits Adam's Grave, commanding wide views over the Vale of Pewsey. A third long barrow, West Kennet Long Barrow, sits a short distance off The Ridgeway on a small hillock a mile south of Avebury. The stacks of bones in its open crypt paint a vivid picture of the ancient rites once performed in this sacred place.

Around 2900 BC the people of the Marlborough Downs entered a golden age of wealth and power that lasted eight centuries. During this period they built the greatest Neolithic ceremonial complex in Europe, stretching for a mile and a half from The Ridgeway at Overton Hill to the modern village of Avebury. Much of the Avebury complex still exists. The complex begins at the remains of a stone circle destroyed by a farmer in the 1710s. Cement posts now indicate where the original stones once stood. Within sight of this stone circle rises Silbury Hill, a massive 12-story-high artificial hill, built like a wedding cake of seven drum-shaped chalk structures covered with turf. Kennet Avenue, a ceremonial avenue of eight-ton sarcens originally 11Ž2 miles long, links Silbury Hill with the great stone circles at Avebury. At Avebury, two of what would have been the largest stone circles in Europe are dwarfed by a third massive stone circle inside a giant bank and ditch that completely encloses the original two circles and a great part of the village as well. A dozen of the Avebury sarcens still stand, each weighing about 50 tons. The village itself is a bit of old England set incongruously amidst the great pagan stones. It has a Norman church, medieval tithe barn (housing a fine museum), Elizabethan manor, and handsome 18th-century cottages. These cottages contain most of the missing sarcens, broken into the building blocks that make up their well-trimmed walls.

The Avebury Complex, completed around 2300 BC, marked a high point of The Ridgeway's history as an important road. By the year 2000 BC Avebury was in decline and farmers had placed their field walls across the Kennet Avenue. Then, 15 centuries later, the local Celts built hill forts along The Ridgeway to command both the trackway and the valleys below. These were not simple camps. They were great military fortifications, with deep ditches placed outside high banks for maximum defensibility.

Three of these great Celtic hill forts still guard the Ridgeway. To the east of Wiltshire, the path runs beneath the high banks of Uffington Castle. Beneath this Celtic fort lies the great White Horse, a huge tribal totem cut into the chalk. Seven miles further on, the ancient road passes under the triple ramparts of Liddington Castle. Another four miles and the historic Ridgeway passes beneath Barbury Castle, enclosing more than 11 acres behind high double banks. Both Barbury Castle and Uffington Castle are easy to visit, having developed facilities for tourists. However, Liddington Castle offers a more authentic experience. The hillfort is an easy one-mile walk from the B4192 north of Aldbourne, up a gentle slope, waymarked all the way. The path skirts a field's edge, then crosses the castle's great rampart. Along the path lies a monument to writer Richard Jeffries and local poet Alfred Williams.

The Ridgeway also figured prominently in the post-Roman era, when the great military conflicts of the Dark Ages played out along its length. Liddington Castle and the nearby hilltop village of Baydon may have been the site of the great battle of Mons Badonicus, where King Arthur reversed the Saxon invasion of the late 400s AD. During the Arthurian era, someone (no one knows who) erected the mysterious Wansdyke, a high bank, and ditch that marks a military frontier between forgotten kingdoms. The dyke intersected the ancient road south of where the designated National Trail now ends. Sixty or so years later, the West Saxons followed the Ridgeway across the Wansdyke to Barbury Castle, where they fought the decisive battle that destroyed Celtic British power in what is now England. Three centuries after that, the soldiers of Wessex under Alfred defeated the invading Danes on the Ridgeway at 'Ashdown', somewhere between Uffington Castle and Liddington Castle. The Battle of Ashdown marked the beginning of the nation of England and the end of the Dark Ages. After Ashdown, The Ridgeway went back to sleep.

In the medieval period, villages grew up in a line beneath The Ridgeway, where spring water emerged from the hillside. Each village controlled a long strip of land extending up and down the slope. Eight of these villages lie in the seven-mile stretch from Uffington Castle to Liddington Castle: Woolstone, Knighton, Ashbury, Idstone, Bishopstone, Hinton Parva, Wanborough, and Liddington. While each of these quaint old villages is worth a detour off the Ridgeway, the walk to Bishopstone is particularly rewarding. It passes a remarkable series of 'lynchets', the impressively large remains of medieval terrace farming conducted at the height of medieval agriculture. From the lynchets the path descends to Bishopstone, a collection of thatched half-timbered cottages gathered around a duck pond and two old pubs, The Royal Oak and The True Heart.

During the Middle Ages, The Ridgeway served as a drover's track. In an era when roads were axle-breaking ruts or muddy quagmires, wagons were seldom used for long-distance hauls. Farmers delivered livestock to markets on the hoof, driving pigs and cattle great distances to the markets in London and elsewhere. The Ridgeway was perfect for this sort of trade, passing over open grasslands with ready grazing while avoiding the difficulties and tolls of settled lands. A remnant of the drovers' era still survives at the Shepherd's Rest, a friendly old drovers' pub on The Ridgeway at Wanborough.

The drovers' era of The Ridgeway ended with the coming of modern transport --first canals, then the railroads. Four miles north of The Ridgeway, Swindon became one of England's great rail towns as the repair yard for the Great Western Railway. Today, the Great Western Railway Museum recalls those days. After the coming of the railroad, quiet descended upon The Ridgeway. With the drovers gone, The Ridgeway became the long, purposeful farm track, lonely and evocative, praised by writers and walkers since the late 19th century.

Today, walkers do well to venture on past the end of the National Trail into the Vale of Pewsey, to the tiny twin village of Alton Priors and Alton Barnes, at a red phone box by a country lane. Past the medieval chapel and the Saxon church lie traces of a track--the last faint signs of the ancient Ridgeway. A hundred yards further a footbridge crosses the restored Kennet and Avon Canal to a pleasant towpath walk. A short distance west is the local pub, The Barge, built for the bargemen two centuries ago--a good place to end a walk through time.

* Originally published in the April / May 1998 issue of British Heritage Travel magazine.