Geraldine Brennan visits Avebury before setting off across the downs.
Walks. The Ridgeway. Circular walk from Windmill Hill Distance 13 or 17 miles OS Map Landranger 173Swindon, Devizes and surrounding area Avebury Tourist Office 01672 539425
Windmill Hill above Avebury could have been the neolithic farmers' IKEA where they acquired unfinished flint axeheads to polish at their leisure. Another archaeological school of thought suggests that it was more of a Conran Shop with rare, ready-finished pieces brought from the Lake District or Devon for ceremonial exchange.
Either way, the hill is the oldest landmark on this tour of ancient sites, dating back to 3800 bc. Excavation in the 1920s revealed a causewayed camp where a well-heeled farming community fought off intruders, burying its leaders at West Kennett long barrow. You can't see the long barrow from the top, but the summer-pudding shape of Silbury Hill can be picked out. Both will be seen close up later on the walk.
Leave the Windmill Hill enclosure by the kissing gate in the south-east corner and turn left to walk down the lane to Avebury Trusloe. After a quarter of a mile, turn left on to a public footpath. This cuts off a corner of the approach to Avebury. Turn left again on to a lane into the village.
First stop should be the attractively organised, compact Alexander Keiller Museum, named after the Dundee marmalade magnate who restored the Avebury megaliths in the 1930s. This will put the walk in context (Devizes Museum also has a large collection of artefacts). Allow at least two hours to visit the Avebury museum and explore the stone circles (500 years older than Stonehenge) and stone avenue.
Avebury gets very crowded in the summer, especially at weekends, and you may prefer to carry on with the walk and return to the stones in the evening. In the meantime, settle for a return trip along the avenue with its pairs of "male and female" stones. Some of the males have been defaced by vandals and are currently shrouded in neolithic condoms - covered with sacking over a coat of graffiti remover.
To continue on the route after exploring Avebury, cross the A361 by the National Trust car park and follow the path alongside the Winterbourne stream (it only flows until June as the name suggests) to Silbury Hill, a chalk mound built between 2700 and 2200 bc. You will pass Silbury on your right before you reach the A4. Don't encourage erosion by climbing to the top, but you can explore the impressive ditch if you cross the A4, turn right and follow the footpath until you see a gap in the embankment on the Silbury side, then cross back over. The path to West Kennett long barrow starts opposite your original crossing point, at a kissing gate just before some thatched cottages. Walk along the ridge on top of the long barrow for a view of Windmill Hill behind Silbury.
After exploring the impressive dry-stone-walled burial chambers inside the barrow (you may need a torch), retrace your path to a stile on your right by an oak tree. Follow a series of stiles through fields, keeping to the top edge, then follow a short track uphill to emerge into a minor road with a pumping station on your left.
Turn right to walk into East Kennett village, take the West Overton turning on the left and almost immediately turn left again to follow a track on to a short stretch of the Ridgeway link path. Stop at the Overton Hill Sanctuary (site of another stone circle linked to Avebury by the stone avenue) before crossing the A4 for the start of the Ridgeway proper.
This stretch of the walk can last as long as you like - the Countryside Commission has waymarked 83 miles of the prehistoric long-distance track, which predates all the sites visited earlier. With sweeping views of downland, the walk is a much more bracing experience than the earlier detours and diversions, interesting as these are.
To finish at around 12 miles, follow the Ridgeway for just under two miles - uphill but fairly gentle after a steep beginning - then take the clear left-hand track (marked as a byway) back into Avebury. The right-hand track leads into the nature reserve on Fyfield Down.
For a longer option, take the next but one path on the right. After a steep descent with a row of tumuli on your right, the path turns into a farm track leading down to the A361. Cross to follow the minor road opposite into Winterbourne Monkton, which has a handy pub. The footpath back to Avebury starts behind the church. Go back for another look at the stones, or turn right after half a mile for Windmill Hill and your starting point.