Walking Wiltshire's Great Stones Way

A three-day hike through prehistoric Wiltshire takes in Saxon dykes, Bronze Age barrows, Neolithic menhirs, Victorian White Horses and the standing stones of Avebury and Stonehenge.

6th April 2019 | Words by Sarah Baxter

Is it wrong to relieve oneself on a medieval ruin?

This was my quandary as I stared, cross-legged and desperate, at the largely forgotten Wansdyke, an earthwork that has cut a dash across England’s West Country for around 1,500 years.

On one hand, peeing here felt like a desecration. On the other, it was very tempting: this deep ditch seemed dug for purpose, screened from passers-by, sheltered from breezes, soft with long grass and cow parsley.

Wansdyke, Wiltshire

I decided to go for it. Spying a nettle-free spot, I readied to expose myself to Mother Nature. At which point a flock of paragliders swooped overhead. Defences breached! Neither I, nor those medieval architects, had banked on attacks from above.

At almost any point on this route, you might fall into Saxon dykes, trip over Bronze Age barrows, hit Neolithic menhirs or straddle Victorian White Horses.

This was day two of my three-day microadventure along Wiltshire’s Great Stones Way, and such unexpected and historical encounters had become par for the course. At almost any point on this route, you might fall into Saxon dykes, trip over Bronze Age barrows, hit Neolithic menhirs or straddle Victorian White Horses. It was a lot of time travel for one long weekend: three days, 85 km, 6,000 years.

The Great Stones Way begins near Swindon and heads south to Salisbury. Swindon isn’t the most glorious of trailheads, but the boyfriend and I soon escaped into a landscape rippled with hills and farmers’ furrows, the roar of the M4 replaced by the mewing of buzzards.

Hackpen Hill White Horse, Wiltshire

Barbary Castle provided the first history hit. It isn’t very ‘castle-y’, but these Iron Age ramparts atop Marlborough Downs offered a far-reaching vantage, and set us time-travellers on our way.

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Then things got weird. Intrigued when a motley crew of ramblers disappeared into a field, we followed. When they started chanting amid the trampled wheat, we decided to leave. Crop circles have a tendency to, er, crop up in this area of Wiltshire (because of ley-lines, aliens or vandals with sticks – who knows?). Crop circles also tend to draw all manner of people. We chose to move on to some Victorian ‘graffiti’ instead, eating our picnic by Hackpen Hill White Horse, created in 1838 to celebrate the coronation of the new Queen.

Circular stones of Avebury, Wiltshire
The circular stones of Avebury, originally erected 4,500 years ago, is the largest stone circle in the world.

The afternoon was an unfurling of fields and wildflowers, bulbous tumuli and easy walking along the Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest track. Eventually we reached Avebury, where the country’s biggest stone circle – erected 4,500 years ago – now chops right through the comely village. Hugging the sarsens is positively encouraged here; we had a quick fondle, then a cream tea at Avebury’s Tudor mansion before continuing across this ancient landscape.

Footbridge in front of Silbury Hill, Wiltshire
An old footbridge over the River Kennet in front of Silbury Hill. The man-made hill is over 5,000 years old.

We passed the unnatural hump of Silbury Hill – at 30 m high, the largest manmade mound in Europe. And we ducked into the dark chambers of West Kennet Long Barrow, the hill-top burial mound that predates Avebury’s stone circle by 1,000 years. As we left, two wafty-skirted hippy types skipped past, singing softy to the breeze.

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This being a microadventure – involving few but mile-heavy days – we'd chosen to travel light in order to keep the walking more comfortable. So it was, after a night in a lovely B&B, we repacked our tiny backpacks, tucked into smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, and set off refreshed for day two.

West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire
The West Kennet Long Barrow burial chamber was built in 3000 B.C., pre-dating Stonehenge. It was used for 1,000 years before it was deliberately sealed with large sarsen stones.

Being devoid of any big, obvious stone circles, the chunk of Wiltshire between Avebury and Stonehenge is comparatively ill-studied and, it seemed, walked even less. We saw no one as we cut through this bucolic countryside – no one, that is, until those paragliders interrupted my toilet stop.

However, we did see more Neolithic barrows, another White Horse, Pewsey Downs nature reserve pink-purple with wildflowers, two medieval churches, a Georgian canal and a pub-cum-crop circle HQ. That’s not to mention walking through the country’s least-known superhenge (though little remains of Marden Henge now) and edging Salisbury Plain, the interior of which popped with MOD activity. We could still hear faint war-like rumblings as we headed down into the Avon valley, where a glass of something chilled and a pub-with-rooms lay in wait.

Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire
The eastern end of the Vale of Pewsey from the site of Martinsell Hill Fort, built during the Iron Age. Running left to right in the foreground is the remains of one of the defensive ditches that enclose the 37 acre vale.

Day three dawned dreary, though a breakfast that included vodka and tomato juice for make-your-own Bloody Mary’s lifted dampened spirits. We squished alongside the river and, before too long, came to Durrington Walls. In around 2500 BC, it’s thought 4,000 people may have lived within this massive banked enclosure. Today, Durrington is bisected by an A-road; a little imagination is required to picture what might have briefly been one of the biggest villages in northern Europe.

Likewise, as we strode the 3 km from here to Stonehenge, we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of Neolithic man, whose sandals probably slapped this way: it’s thought the builders of Stonehenge may have lived at Durrington while working on the site.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire

We were totally alone when we got out first view of Stonehenge, poking up in the distance like little Lego bricks. We hugged a path by the Old King Barrows, seven Bronze Age burial mounds hiding in a copse of trees, before picking up the Avenue. This ancient processional route, now barely perceptible, links the River Avon and Stonehenge; it may have been used on the solstices, when our forebears trouped to the circle for purposes unknown.

Following this faint trail, dipping down into the valley, the stones briefly disappeared from view, only reappearing as we climbed closer. It was like a grand reveal – a Neolithic ‘ta-da!’. Those 4,500-year-old architects obviously had a sense of drama.

Inside the fence, Stonehenge thronged. So, we left it to the tourists, continuing on our merry way, via burial mounds and bird reserves, a 16th-century lake house (owned by Sting) and a riverside beer garden that could have happily swallowed our whole afternoon.

Old Sarum, Wiltshire

Finally, Old Sarum loomed into sight. This mighty mound, once topped with an Iron Age fort, a Roman settlement and a Norman castle, is the official terminus of the Great Stones Way, and sits amid the fields like a fat full stop. It was huge; impregnable-looking. We walked up onto its beefy ramparts, and roamed amid the old Norman castle and cathedral foundations. The views stretched on and on; standing here, at the end of our adventure, we could see around for miles and back for millennia.

Key Info
Season Best in spring and summer, when the weather is warmest, and fields and flowers are in full bloom. Crop circles peak July-August.
Type of hiking Easy: gently undulating; few significant climbs; mostly wide, level paths. However, squeezing it into three days requires a decent level of fitness – you’ll be covering 30 km a day.
Where to stay
  • The Old Forge in East Kennet is a characterful B&B, within a mile of Silbury Hill; doubles from £75.
  • Splurge at Troutbeck Lodge in East Chisenbury (1.5 km off route), which has five stylish rooms, and is run by the nearby Michelin-starred
    Red Lion Freehouse; B&B doubles from £150.
  • Salisbury has many options. A double room with four-poster bed in a central 15th-century townhouse costs from £50 via AirBnb.
Average costs
  • In pubs, expect to pay £10-15 for a main meal; £3-4 for a pint of ale.
  • Avebury stone circle is free to enter; Avebury Manor (£9.50) is run by the National Trust. Stonehenge (£15.50) and Old Sarum (£4.50) are run by English Heritage.
  • The Great Stones Way guidebook (Cicerone, 2016; £9.95) is essential for route finding.
Getting there
  • Swindon is the closest train station to the trailhead. Salisbury also has a train station.
  • Buses run from Swindon to Coate Water, which is a seven mile walk from the official start at Barbury Castle.
  • The X5 Bus runs between Swindon and Salisbury.

Sarah is a writer and editor, and author of A History of the World in 500 Walks (Aurum, 2016).

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Images: 1: Claudio Accheti/Flickr; 2: Nick/Flickr; 3: Neil Setchfield/Alamy; 4: caeccles/Adobe; 5, 6, 8: Neil Howard/Flickr; 7: Gillie Rhodes/Flickr; 9: Charles D P Miller/Flickr

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