The Downs were some of my favourite walking. I made a gentle semi-circle around Marlborough, walking from the White Horse of Uffington, down the Ridgeway to Avebury, and from Avebury past Silsbury Hill to the southern edge of the Downs, and along the ridge of the Wansdyke to Adam’s Grave, a long barrow, to the town of Pewsey.
Avebury Henge is Stonehenge’s less famous cousin. Curiously, both of these megaliths look like they should be in the middle of nowhere — and to an extent, Stonehenge at least is — but both of them have strong evidence of later human presence, too. Two highways run directly past Stonehenge, while the village of Avebury literally intersects with the henge.
I wandered around a bit, went to the Avebury Manor museum, which was very cool. The manor itself is reasonably ordinary (for something in England: built in the Tudor period, with modifications in every century since), but it’s how it’s presented now that’s neat. The BBC approached the National Trust a few years ago about restoring the manor for a television production, where they did each room in a different period. They provided props — either actual pieces or very good reproductions — and, what’s more, when they finished filming, left them there. The museum is now a hands-on place, where you are strongly encouraged to touch, sit on the furniture, bounce a little on the beds (with one’s shoes off, naturally), open the drawers, peek inside the cupboards.
It amazed me how difficult it was to get over the ingrained “NO TOUCHING” feeling. There were many signs and many volunteers there to encourage visitors to get over that hump. It reminded me strongly of a conversation I’d had the week previously with my friends in Oxford. We’d gone to the Ashmolean, and my friend mentioned that almost no one knew that there were further exhibits in the drawers underneath the displays. (Coins, small objects, maps, that sort of thing.) She’d been to a talk (if I recall correctly) where the speaker bemoaned this.
I have the slight guilty pleasure that I touched the Rosetta Stone before they put it behind glass. I would never touch fabric or painting, but stone . . . well, when I was eleven . . . I cared, but I’m also glad I did. There is nothing like picking up a 100, 000 year old stone axe (as I did, this time with permission, in a special display of the British Museum on another trip) to connect you with history.
Of course, one can wander around Avebury and touch the stones all one wants.
From Avebury I continued along the downs towards the vale of Pewsey, passing first the pudding basin mound of Silsbury Hill.
Silsbury Hill is very, very big. You can just see the two people standing at its base in the next picture:
After Silsbury Hill I took a brief detour off the path to see the Avenue of stones leading back to Avebury,
Along the way I saw a tree decorated with ribbons, reminding me of the ones I’d seen in Ireland with my Dad, but multicoloured instead of white.
I stopped for lunch on the southern side of the downs, looking to the south, hoping for a glimpse of the sea (which was not in evidence). And there, eating my leftovers with the wind at my back and the sun in my face, I had one of the most magical experiences of my entire trip.
Let me set the scene. To my left, the downs I had been walking across, grassy fields for the most part. Straight ahead, a low rise of grass to the edge of a field (ploughed earth). To my right, the hill falling aside into a dry valley, steep-sided, grassy, with ridges from generations of grazing sheep.
First of all a kestrel flew over, shot done to my left, came back across to my right, and was chased off by some crows. I was delighted and kept eating, stretching out my legs, wishing it were slightly warmer on the rock I was sitting on but otherwise very content. A large flock of crows came up in a cloud from the valley, cawing loudly, and then disappeared again.
Then a flock of starlings — several hundred birds — boiled up out of the same valley, rose up in a spiral, and disappeared down again. I thought, how amazing is that! I’ve always loved watching starlings, how they move in flocks. Each of them follows its neighbours, and the whole mass — the murmuration, as I later discovered it is called — moves like one being.
Neither the crows nor the kestrels reappeared, but several minutes later the murmuration of starlings did. This time they shot up out of the valley, flew at an angle, and disappeared down below my eyesight in the field ahead of me. This time I tried, unsuccessfully, to take pictures. I’m not very good at motion shots, I’m afraid, and kept missing them. They rose up and down a few times as things startled them, like watching waves over the edge of something. It’s always a bit odd to be sitting below the horizon; I was facing that direction so the wind would be at my back.
And then, when I was just about ready to pack up and keep going, the murmuration returned. It seemed to have grown larger, perhaps ingathering some other starlings from the field, and swooped up and down a few times before rushing past me, a bare twenty yards away, so close I could hear all their feathers moving. And then they were gone, leaving me exhilirated and heart-pounding as if I’d been the one running, though all it was was a beautiful day and a sudden rush of beauty.
As so often, my thoughts turned to Gerald Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty.
I smiled and said over Pied Beauty as I continued along the edge of the downs, looking south to the Vale of Pewsey, in that fine fresh wind and the sun, past cows and sheep and crows and ancient monuments, laughing at the wind and the day. It was superb, and when I reached the village of Pewsey I came to the Avon River, which would take me at last to the sea.