In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.
‘The farewell was beautiful.’
These are the first words of Trouble With Lichen, John Wyndham’s 1960 novel about an antidote to old age. I’ve brought it with me to read on the journey – twenty miles further to the edge of the North Wessex Downs. John, my grandfather, was a keen reader of science fiction, and we bonded over this shared love in recent years. He had a soft spot for authors from the Golden Age: Asimov, Christopher, Clarke. Wyndham was a favourite, and as I address this gap in my knowledge on the morning of the walk, I think I can see why: the rigorous attention to scientific detail, the careful, complex female characters, the disconcerting ring of truth.
I’m thinking of immortality as we step onto the Ridgeway. The path carries us in a curve around Ogbourne St. George – a place unrecognisable since we were last here. The air is heavy with blossom and birdsong, lambs bleating in a nearby field. Green tangles of cleaver, nettle and fern spill off the banks. Everywhere the trees are fluorescent and full. We’ve left winter behind us, somewhere among the sarsens of Fyefield and Avebury. My father and I pick a couple of the young beech leaves – a food that sustained the partisans of Yugoslavia as they resisted the Germans during the Second World War. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a partisan. This was his relationship to the land: survival. The taste of the leaf is strong but not unpleasant, a grassiness giving way to the tang of green apple.
We cross over the clear waters of the Og. A dozen swifts dart high above the water, feeding, or playing, or simply celebrating their homecoming after a long journey back from Africa. Their movements are sharp and delicate, like paper aeroplanes brought to life. The trail cuts through a thatch of cottages, and over an A-road, until finally the path grows steeper and we’re climbing free from civilisation. Seams of chalk appear in the earth as we ascend onto the ridge, blending with the white of the blackthorn.
It’s good to be on the old road again, so high above the world. As we find our stride, I have to relearn the landscape, vernal now – budding, noisy and bright. Linnets kiss behind clumps of gorse. Larks shout down from the clouds. Rapeseed ignites the fields and fills the air with musk. We even pass through wooded sections this time, where bluebells colour the ground beneath canopies of luminous green.
I walk a few paces with closed eyes and held breath: nothing but nature.
The path takes us north through wheat fields to Liddington Hill. We make a short detour off the path to our second Iron Age hillfort. Liddington Castle feels more compact than the one at Barbury, and more formidable. It looms on the very edge of the downs’ northern escarpment, with dominating views across the valley: the M4 meandering below, Swindon’s hospital and wind farm rendered miniature.
In 1884, Richard Jefferies put the final touches on what would become one of his last works. The nature writer and novelist had been suffering from tuberculosis for years, and was near destitute after paying for a number of unsuccessful surgeries. His life during this period was hellish. Delirious, starving and in constant agony, he could barely sit up to write. Yet somehow, three years before his death, he managed to get his late masterpiece on paper: a post-apocalyptic vision of the aftermath of an unnamed disaster that causes the country to ‘relapse into barbarism.’ In After London, Jefferies poured his love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside, and his suspicion of the city to describe a world reverted to medievalism. ‘It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended,’ he writes, ‘so that all the country looked alike.’ Forest once again covers the land. An enormous lake forms in the country’s centre. Where there once was a metropolis, there exists only a vast swamp exuding ‘so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it.’ London has become a nature-less nightmare: ‘There are no fishes, neither can eels exist in the mud, nor even newts. It is dead.’
Jefferies was born within sight of these hills, in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Coate, now part of Swindon. He wrote extensively about the surrounding area, and would often walk up to Liddington Castle in the heat of summer to lie on the embankments and observe the behaviour of skylarks. Standing here now, on top of ancient earthworks, it’s easy to understand the genesis of Jefferies’ pioneering novel – imagining people alone so long ago, young and unencumbered, looking out at a landscape free from rape fields and power stations. Making my way back to the trail, I wonder if John had a copy of After London in his collection, dog-eared and yellowed, tucked on a bookshelf beside The Day of the Triffids.
Nearby is another fortification, but from a time far more recent. Marauded by multicolours of graffiti and lichen, a concrete bunker squats beneath Liddington Clump, on the hill’s eastern summit. It’s a control bunker from a Second World War ‘Starfish’ site – elaborate systems of light and fire designed with the help of film industry technicians to look like blitzed cities from above, devised after the decimation of Coventry in 1940. This one controlled a simulated Swindon, triggering nighttime blazes to divert the wrath of the Luftwaffe. The bunker demonstrates the Ridgeway’s power and pull – its quiet ability to whisk you between eras, usher you quickly through time.
From here, the path leads us down the hill to join a main road and cross over the M4. It’s a strange stretch, with no clear way for walking, and we flinch as cars speed by. I stop on the overpass and look down at the galloping machines. It’s a shock to the system, but I’m glad the road is part of our journey – it’s one that has run through my life for as long as I can remember. It was one of the first seams, by which everything else was joined. It connects almost all the places I’ve ever lived.
We are obsessed by roads. They have a way of getting under the skin, tunnelling close to the heart. We have a strange capacity to love them – a propensity to personify them, bestow them with mythical qualities. About roads, we sing, and write and reminisce. They represent the torment of our innate desire for freedom.
At last, we’re climbing to the hush of the hills, the trail becoming a level section leading us out of Wiltshire and into Oxfordshire, the second of the Ridgeway’s five counties. New shoots tinge a ploughed field with otherworldly green. Podgy bullfinches crowd the path past Idstone, their plaintive whistles following us from every tree. Above, the sky gathers and threatens to fall, but something holds it at bay. The world is suspended in a paradox of gold and grey, dark clouds hanging over irradiant rape, cowslips, gorse.
The next day is littered with landmarks. They huddle above Uffington, mystifying. We pass Wayland’s Smithy first, a long barrow nestled in beech and encircled by sarsens. Named by the Saxons around 4,000 years after it was first built, the barrow was believed to have been the home of the eponymous god of metalworking – maker of wings and magic swords. I climb inside. It’s quiet under the earth, the hill dampening the bustle of spring. The chamber smells of mud and root. The previous day’s walk has inflamed a tendon in my ankle, and I find myself communing with age-old powers. Legend has it Wayland reshoes horses tethered here overnight. I beseech the barrow to restore me.
Onwards a while and I’m faltering up another earthwork: the ramparts of Uffington Castle. As always, sheep graze along the embankments, and the wind seeks to bear me aloft. The Iron Age hillfort feels like the highest point so far, towering above the Vale of White Horse, and commanding a 360-degree panorama: the wind turbines of Swindon, the hazy outline of the Cotswolds beyond; patchwork fields leading eastward to Wittenham Clumps and the hyperboloid cooling towers of Didcot Power Station; the Chilterns in the distance.
Lifting my hood against the wind, I descend to one of the country’s most recognisable landmarks, carved into this hillside over 3,000 years ago. Like so many things along the Ridgeway, the purpose of its existence has long been forgotten. From where I’m standing it’s no more than a few abstract lines. But from the villages down in the Vale, these curves become an enormous chalk horse – so vivid and prominent that at the same time a counterfeit Swindon was being built on Liddington Hill, and resistance fighters were eating beech leaves half a world away, the creature had to be concealed with turf and hedge trimmings to prevent it from being seen by enemy aircraft. It lies on its flank across the northern escarpment of the downs, aged and weary.
Escarpment. Scarp. These are the scars from wounds inflicted on the land millions of years ago. The chalk that gleams in every gash is made from the shells of coccolithophores – minute plankton that dwelt in the Cretaceous seas once covering Britain. As the African and Eurasian plates collided, a tremendous storm of earthquakes altered sea levels and heaved the strata into high hills and mountains. Gradually, ice, wind and rain whittled these down to their smooth and familiar contours. This same tectonic movement forced into existence the ranges along the Alpide belt – including the Atlas, Alps, Himalayas and Pyrenees – and still continues today. As I stand on the very edge of the escarpment, on the remnants of prehistoric sea creatures, I try to sense the earth shifting beneath me, raising me into the sky.
I turn my back on the horse, the castle and Dragon Hill – the site where Saint George supposedly slew the beast. The weight of this place is almost too much to bear, and it’s a relief to once again feel the road beneath my boots, the home stretch somewhere ahead of me.
We make tracks along the ridge and past the stables of Lambourn: racehorse country. The way is high and open, the view across the Vale following us for miles. Three kites tumble above one of the trig points that dot the landscape, the whiteness of their underwings flashing against the sky. The downy leaves of silverweed glint beneath us. Roman soldiers used this plant to soothe their feet on long marches – I consider stopping to stuff my boots, but the sky is growing ever heavier, a few drops starting to fall. We quicken our pace, heads angled against a northerly wind.
Slowly, we leave Swindon behind, the forests beginning to thicken in the valley below. The next stage will take us out of the Berkshire Downs to the wooded doorstep of the Chilterns. Thirty miles covered, now – a third of the way to the Beacon.
We stumble back to the car windburnt, with cracked lips.
And finally, as we join the M4 heading east, the heavens open.
Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.