Ogbourne St George and The Ridgeway

September 9th, 2012 § 3 comments

Ogbourne St George and The Ridgeway

 


Route:  Ogbourne St. George – Barbury Castle – Hackpen Hill – Rockley – Ogbourne St. George 

Length: 12½ miles.

The best map is OS Explorer 157.

 

The Ridgeway is designated a national trail, even a national treasure in some people’s view. Don’t be put off by the sheer number of walkers setting out to ‘do’ the Ridgeway in six days or whatever—this is as near to an authentic dip into the Ancient Past as you are likely to find. It is the oldest surviving long distance path in England, stretching more than eighty miles from Overton Hill near Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon in the Hertfordshire Chilterns. As you walk along the ridge, you will feel you are travelling in time as well as distance and you may be urgently asking yourself what it was for, or perhaps who was it for.

The starting point of the walk is Ogbourne St. George. Not only is the car parking free (in a side street) and they serve real ale in the pub but it is also a good place to ask the very profound question: what is the Ridgeway’s relationship to the Michael Line?  Ogbourne St. George, named for England’s patron dragon-slayer, is on the Michael Line and virtually on the Ridgeway. In fact Ogbourne St. George is the only village that has an intimate relationship to this strategic route that otherwise makes a point of avoiding human settlement. As you begin your walk, picture yourself droving animals and decide why Ogbourne St. George looms so large in your journey.

Follow the main road past the sign pointing to the church till you reach a sharp bend with a signpost on the left to ‘The Ridgeway and Liddington Castle’ which you ignore.  A few yards up the road also on the left you will see a second signpost to ‘The Ridgeway and Barbury Castle’. This is where you get access to the Ridgeway via a tree-lined path up from the valley. Within a few minutes the downs are all around.  This section is called Smeathe’s Ridge and offers panoramic views to north and south but, looking west, note the cone-shaped hill straight ahead. In the prime megalithic territory that is Wiltshire, it is best to assume that things that look as though they might be man-made probably are. The Ridgeway is right up on the windswept high ground but there is a perfectly good route further down the valley, so it would appear that the Ridgeway was meant to be separate. The terrain itself, a wide grassy track, looks as if it has been specifically designed as an animal thru-way for flocks of sheep and long strings of pack animals. The name of this stretch, Smeathe’s Ridge, suggests a smithy might have been established here, conveniently close to the only village served by the Ridgeway. A smithy is invariably associated with the Iron Age but this is not necessarily the case since animals en masse require quite a lot of specialist care and were being driven over long distances since the Neolithic.

Even after recent rain the ground is bone dry, unlike clay soil where deep ruts are made by farmer’s tractors and four-by-fours. It was just the same then. Chalk downland is pretty much the only kind of landscape that is guaranteed to be easily negotiable 365 days a year so, maybe, this explains chalk downland. As you walk, compare the going with other terrain you are familiar with; if it is the work of Mother Nature as everyone seems to assume, why do we have to create National Park Bureaucracies just to keep the whole chalk downland eco-niche going? You might come to the conclusion that the Megalithics had more to do with it than nature. This is a question that needs to be constantly in your mind wherever you choose to walk, tramping some godforsaken heath should prompt you to ask whether godforsaken heaths appear in nature. Britons have been despoiling their surroundings for thousands of years, it’s a proud tradition. But the contrary is also true—the pretty bits didn’t just appear by magic, they are the result of thousands of years of British intervention too.

Following the Ridgeway westwards, in a little under three miles you arrive at a junction with Barbury Castle straight ahead.  Its outline, easily seen from the ridge, disappears where the path dips but a row of trees on the skyline remains constantly in view.  When walking megalithically, you should always be aware of features dipping in and out of view while other features seem to make a point of staying in sight even when your path dips. This dichotomous principle, of things ‘bouncing’ along a ridge or remaining in plain sight, was widely employed by the Megalithics. Once you know the principle, you will often come across it and thereby appreciate what an excellent directional device it is.

Upper Herdswick[1] Farm stands at the crossroads with a café a few yards further up the lane; carry on straight ahead through a gate opposite the farm and past a car park which has public toilets and picnic benches at the far end.  Barbury Castle, described as an Iron Age hill-fort (aren’t they all?), is now in a country park and managed by Swindon Borough Council. Could you get into the habit of welcoming such modern intrusions into the Ancient Landscape by remembering how many thousands of people have been brought to this spot by Swindon Borough Council rather than English Heritage? It takes all sorts and you’re not the only sort. You will then be able to devote your mind to considering what progress travellers in the past would have made had Swindon Megalithic Council not provided amenities such as Barbury Castle. It is after all a condition of all long distance travel that the more you have to bring with you the less is your payload. And there are other considerations: where are you going to water the animals? How are you going to keep them from straying? Protect them overnight?  Whenever you come across the term ‘hillfort’, just say to yourself  “I wonder what it really is”.

Look west towards Avebury, eight miles away, eleven if you count the detour to Ogbourne. The well-being and physical capacity of livestock must take priority in long distance travel and since animals cannot be driven more than about twelve miles in a day this might explain why the ‘hillforts’ along the Ridgeway are roughly ten miles apart.

 Approach To Barbury Castle

Approaching Barbury Castle from the west (map ref. SU149762)

Barbury Castle is at the junction of two routes, the Ridgeway and the path leading south to Rockley. From here the outlines of Liddington Castle and Uffington Castle are visible to the east. Barbury soon hoves into view going westwards along the Ridgeway from Ogbourne St. George; the cleft on the skyline is even more obvious in the opposite direction. Its centre is as level as a playing field in contrast to the surrounding embankments and ditches. The only means of access is from the Ridgeway; like a walled medieval market, or a modern one for that matter, where visitors are charged an entry fee. It would also be difficult to pass through this “hillfort” without paying.

 

If you go round Barbury’s extensive perimeter and climb the ramparts, you will rapidly work out how many soldiers (thousands!) it would take to man them. You would have to conclude that as a defensive fort it is hopeless. On the other hand the ditches are perfect for herding animals and keeping them fenced in. But this raises the question of how you would provide water whether for soldiers or animals in this waterless outpost. You could start off by looking for evidence of dew-ponds—shallow depressions lined with impermeable clay mixed with lime or soot (to deter burrowing beetles). This ensures the pond is watertight and, once it is filled up, the water will never completely evaporate. However, water in dew-ponds is ‘dead’ or chalky and tastes quite unpleasant, more suited to livestock than soldiers, so wherever evidence of a dew-pond is found, it would seem that the needs of animals rather than humans are being catered for[2].

 

 

Part of the outer ditch of Barbury Castle, looking towards the north-east corner.

The V-shaped outline is more distinctive looking west-to-east but it is the copse rather than the ramparts that is most visible from the Ridgeway. Apart from their usefulness as landmarks, it is probable that copses played a part in water retention systems. Woods have always had multiple uses, including wood.

 

The large clump of trees to the north-east of Barbury Castle could be significant. Trees stand out in the landscape so collectively they can be used as waymarkers. Also clumps of trees, especially in otherwise bare chalk, can be used environmentally. Let your mind encompass the possibilities: do copses help dewponds fight evaporation? Do tree-roots on hilltops prevent those hilltops being washed away?

A copse, that is a ‘coppice-wood’, is self-evidently serving at least one purpose since cutting down trees at regular intervals, between seven and twenty years, for firewood or poles is the oldest form of wood management. Evidence of coppicing has been discovered in ‘handrails’ of straight, uniformly sized poles used to construct wooden tracks five thousand and more years ago.[3]

The approach to Barbury Castle from the east is almost level, you hardly notice how high it is until you reach the middle from where you can admire the view or, conversely, shelter from the prevailing wind in one of the ditches. The Ridgeway passes across the middle of the double ditches to the western end of Barbury Castle and heads down a steep hill at the bottom of which it turns right and then carries straight on.  The track now becomes stony and narrower though still wide enough for drovers and easier to pick out from a distance than the indeterminate turf-covered path on the downs. It rises to Hackpen Hill where a white horse is etched into the hillside. Before you get too excited, it was made in 1837 to celebrate Victoria’s coronation. A hack is a kind of horse and a pen is a…a…kind of a pen so Hackpen Hill was probably….but place-name theorists always discount the obvious (otherwise anybody could do it). Hack is also another word for cut and pen is Welsh for hill so Hackpen could equally well mean ‘a shaped hill’ which would be pleasingly megalithic since Hackpen Hill is one of the few places on the Ridgeway at a road intersection. As the White Horse Trail also crosses here, there must presumably have been a marker to indicate such a locally significant hub.

 

Hackpen Hill White Horse (looking south towards the Ridgeway)

The best place to view the white horse is below, from the road, as it cannot be seen from the Ridgeway itself. Though a Victorian creation, the Hackpen horse is modelled on the far older Uffington White Horse close to Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic long barrow. The Hackpen horse looks a bit unbalanced, partly because one of the legs and the tail have almost disappeared but white horses always look slightly odd, possibly because they were originally dragons.

 

After Hackpen Hill the views are less dramatic, partially obstructed by wispy hedges on either side. Whether these were planted as windbreaks or intended to dissuade drovers’ flocks from straying off the route is hard to tell. A couple of miles on you may notice a small group of sarsen stones, or ‘grey wethers’ (an old word for sheep which they resemble when viewed from a distance), almost buried in the undergrowth on the left. They are the only indication of a bridlepath easily missed, there being no sign post. Then as now.

 

Sarsens beside the Ridgeway

The path forks just past the sarsens at a point on the Ridgeway close to Fyfield Down, a main source of sarsen stone. Avebury is only a couple of miles away. More sarsens are marked on the map further along; there may have been a circle of stones or a cairn at the junction, whose remnants are now barely visible in the undergrowth. Forks in a road naturally require ‘signposts’.

 

The earliest use of ‘sarsen’ is 1644 claims the Oxford English Dictionary, adding “var. of Saracen” in brackets. Our esteemed OED has typically provided an unfounded historical connection in order to explain the similarity between two words. Consider the likelihood of English countryfolk adopting a name for their ancient landmarks which would appear to imply that they thought some contemporary Middle Easterners had popped over and erected them when nobody was looking. On the other hand if ‘Saracen’ refers to a different bunch of Phoenicians, the ones of the Bronze Age who might have set up the original system, then that would make a great deal of sense[4]. To Cornish tinners the term Saracen just meant ‘foreigner’, someone prohibited by law from advancing inland. Never forget there is tin at the end of the Ridgeway.

A few yards on from the sarsen stones you arrive at a crossroads where the Ridgeway goes straight ahead towards Avebury. This is the half-way stage where you abandon the Ridgeway and opt to go down the left-hand fork. In less than half a mile you come to a footpath on the left that goes through a gate and eastwards across a field, marked ‘Grey Wethers’ on the map. If you cannot see any wethers immediately it is because they are embedded in the ground in the middle of a field with clumps of nettles growing all around. The stone stumps are lying in a straight line and it is impossible to tell how high they would have been; maybe it was just part of a sheep-pen since the line is too short to have been a wall. In general sarsen stones are not left lying in the middle of fields, they have long since been used for building or simply removed.

The path leads to the gate on the far side of the field and carries on as a grassy straight track. On the right you can see a solitary stone approximately four feet high in the middle of a field.  Ignore any paths to right or left, our own path continues in a straight line eastwards past a turning on the right to Temple Farm, our first brush with this enigmatic cult who are so curiously widespread in this area and indeed throughout Britain. The fact that so much of the English countryside has been rebranded with ‘Megalithic’ Christian church names must mean that in some form The System continued through the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman occupations. One doesn’t want to be too conspiratorial about this (well, one does) but alongside the overground history something else appears to be bumping along in the deep countryside. For example, soon after the Norman Conquest, in around 1100 AD, there is a sudden inrush of oddities—Cistercians, Green Men, Gothic cathedrals, Knights Templar, masons—and the part they play in the megalithic countryside, British history and this book will slowly emerge.

Meanwhile keep on the path heading east going downhill fairly steeply to Temple Bottom past a gracefully proportioned manor house backing directly onto the hillside and overlooking one of the most peaceful secluded valleys imaginable. This jewel once belonged to the Knights Templar. The house is unofficially a Templar museum but it has a shuttered, brooding air that is faintly disturbing.  At the bottom of the hill the path ends at a small metalled road leading straight to Rockley, an enclave that was also part of the former Templar holdings. Rockley’s name derives from rooks rather than rocks, the Ridgeway being studded with rookeries in those copses you have been passing. A local legend has it that the manor at Rockley will fall if the rooks leave, as per the ravens at the Tower of London. This is a familiar motif of folkloric history, for instance the entire British Empire depends on the apes staying at Gibraltar, so fingers crossed.

Carry on a short distance, past a sarsen stone by the entrance to the manor’s driveway on the right-hand side, to the end of the lane where a grassy triangle forms a T-junction with a minor road linking Marlborough and Swindon; a few yards to the right a former inn, The Old Eagle, is marked on the map.  The site of the Old Eagle, thought to be a Bronze Age mound, is the point where the track branches northwards to Barbury Castle and westwards to Avebury. Another vanished landmark, Top Temple, possibly a Templar preceptory or chapel, stood on a hillside to the west of the Rockley junction and a white horse, probably carved in the nineteenth century but already ploughed out, was on a hillside to the north of the village. There are few signs of human activity now but it must have once been a thriving place, the only village in the parish that still has a pond, essential for watering livestock. If you look at the map you can see Rockley lies just north of the downland through-route (‘Herepath or Green Street’ on the map) leading across the Downs to Avebury.  Paths marked Green Lane or Street are old drovers’ routes which have been in continuous use for thousands of years.

 

Sarsen stone, Rockley

The stone is on the right-hand side of the lane that goes past the entrance to the driveway straight down to the Swindon to Marlborough road.  Sarsen stones serve as gateposts, kerbstones set into verges, in churchyards as gravestones and in perimeter or boundary walls.  The local word for sarsens, grey wethers, refers to ‘wether’, a castrated ram, and is probably connected to withers used for tying cattle, as in ‘withes’ which are also used to tie the testicles for castration.  Scholars tell us that the caduceus is derived from the shepherd’s crook, Hermes being the god of flocks. But the imagery of string entwining a rod is much closer to the rope tied around animals’ genitalia to castrate them.  Hermes is also the god of animal ‘husbandry’, seemingly an ancient euphemism, if not being used ironically. The castrator of the herd is of course all-powerful.

 

Across the road from the junction, take a signposted public bridleway heading north-eastwards straight up a short steep hill. Keep going diagonally across the field once you have reached the top of the climb, even though the path has disappeared, to a gate with pale blue arrows and a public bridleway sign. It appears that the local council feels it necessary to assure us that public paths really are for the public, this being an area where racehorses take precedence over people. If you are knocked down by a horse, you may get sued. Turn left and walk a short way along a stony track beside one of the ‘Gallops’ that are such a feature of the Marlborough Downs, then go through a gate (or, if it is padlocked, duck under the plastic strip) to cross the Gallop. On the other side is a path running parallel which you follow northwards till you see a barn ahead.  Just before you reach the barn turn right onto the signed public bridleway, a ‘green lane’ that leads to Ogbourne Maizey about one and a half miles away. It can get stickily muddy from being churned up by horses’ hooves and four-wheel drives which makes you yearn to be back on the chalk ridge, but you are more sheltered in the lane than on the open downs.

After about a mile the bridlepath starts going downhill and just after you pass Green Lane Farm on the left, with a gypsy caravan in the garden, you reach a metalled road; a few yards further on turn left off the road through a white kissing gate and go northwards across the field, over a stile and across another field. The A346 is on the right parallel with the path.  The path could well be older than the main “Roman” road and was no doubt later used by villagers to avoid tolls once the road was turnpiked. After climbing a second stile continue on the footpath past some houses on the right and a wood on the left until you reach a road.  The path continues on the other side of the road via a small bridge spanning a wide shallow ditch full of dead leaves and nettles.  If you walk a few yards to the right before going over the footbridge, you will see a sturdy thatched cottage on the corner where the road turns a sharp ninety degrees northwards towards the Ridgeway; the cottage on the crossroads is the old village forge.

 

The Old Forge, Ogbourne St. Andrew

Set at the corner of a crossroads about half a mile south of the Ridgeway, the forge is a reminder that there would have been more than the occasional rider out for a hack passing through. A smith needs water for quenching, i.e. hardening iron; the ditch running to the foot of the forge may once have channelled a more regular water supply. Further east in the Oxfordshire section of the Ridgeway is a chambered tomb, Wayland’s Smithy, named after the god of smiths and metalworking, Volundr. Volundr like all mythic smiths had been crippled (always in the ‘thigh’, an allusion to the castration role of Hermes) to prevent his escape so naturally he fashioned wings, cf. the trickster Mercury, the winged messenger. [5] Wayland/Volundr was usually described as ‘of the elven race’ and he was associated with labyrinths. Certain types of cloud-formation are known as “the wing of the Archangel Michael” in bygone Wiltshire-speak.

 

The footpath leads straight to Ogbourne St Andrew’s church; once through the lych gate an avenue of pollarded lime trees leads past the church.  Peer through the trees on the right and you will see a large mound covered in dense woodland. The mound, indistinct in the gloom of the conifers but recognisably a barrow, takes up at least half the churchyard which seems to have been built to protect and/or honour this venerable site. The church is half-way between Southend, where the Ridgeway crosses the ritualistically straight A346, and Ogbourne Maizey (presumptively named for the maze, or labyrinth).

Carry on through the churchyard to the road and over the stile on the other side. Cross the field and over the gate which has a yellow arrow and a public footpath sign where you follow the track northwards.  After about half a mile, you will see a Ridgeway sign pointing ahead and to the right.  If you have time, go down the right-hand Ridgeway track for a few yards until you reach Southend, just before the main road. On the left is a row of pretty sixteenth-century thatched cottages, including ‘Toll Gate Cottage’ almost on top of the A346. You can also inspect a muddy ditch, where the Og crosses the Ridgeway, and try to gauge if there is enough water for man or beast. By now you should be aware that provision of water is a strategic concern everywhere on the chalk downland.

Follow the Ridgeway northwards for about half a mile to the road where you will see a signpost pointing to the right, back to Ogbourne St George and the starting point of the walk.

 

 Bargain Cottage Weekend Breaks in Tollgate Cottage, Ogbourne St George, Nr Marlborough, Wilts.

Tollgate Cottage, Southend, is half-way between Ogbourne St George and Ogbourne St Andrew and very close to where The Ridgeway crosses the River Og.

[1] ^ You can start your life-long career as a real place-name expert by speculating – and this is what will make you a genuine expert – that herd means herd and wick means wick and that chandlers made candles by processing animal tallow here and using the coarse Herdwick wool to make candlewick covers. On the other hand, ‘wick’ often means a salt market so you can further differentiate yourself from professional place-name theorists by being a bit undogmatic.

[2] ^ The process of lining a pit with clay is known as ‘puddling’ so always look out for places with ‘Puddle’ in their name though it should be pointed out that in Megalithic times they were more likely to be pronounced ‘piddle’ – the spelling change is due to Victorian sensibilities. Urine was used for all kinds of alchemical experiments.

[3] ^ Coppiced trees are easily spotted; they characteristically have several trunks or shoots growing from their stumps, or stools, and with constant use are immortal. The Americans have their bristlecone pines which are thousands of years old, we have our coppices. Anyway, it’s a nice thought.

[4] ^ The pejorative term ‘Pagan’ has become attached to standing stones not because of any Muslim associations but because of the far more ancient antipathy aimed towards Hermes as the leader of a competing native cult. Give a god a bad name and there is no need to hang him. In fact pagan just means rural. The “Classical” religions – Greek, Roman, Christian – are entirely citified, indeed the whole notion of Civilised Values is bound up with the city, so pagans have always been marginalised, if not worse.

[5] ^ One of the legends attached to Wayland or Volundr recounts he married a swan maiden, half-bird half-human. In alchemy the swan symbolises mercury, smithy-work being a form of alchemy.

§ 3 Responses to Ogbourne St George and The Ridgeway"

  • Keith Macdonald says:

    A while ago I was chatting to one of the oldest farm workers in our village, Ogbourne St.George. I guess he’s 75-ish. He was telling of the year when he was a lad and the farm first had a tractor powerful enough to deep-plow the field closest to Tollgate Cottage. All was fine except for every time they crossed a line running from the Og up to an old field boundary heading up the hillside onto the Ridgeway Trail. The plow kept hitting ground much harder than the chalk and flint that’s usual below the top soil here. When they dug a trench they found clear evidence of a hard-stone base, probably roman cement, where there used to be a ford across the Og.

  • Grace says:

    Doesn’t ‘og’ in Welsh mean young? Perhaps the Ogbourne is a young, i.e. new bourne. Specially designed to serve the needs of people and animals travelling through just as village ponds are created for similar reasons (the Ridgeway presumably was in situ before the village)?

  • Mega-Og says:

    […] St.George features as the first walk on The Megalithic Empire. single […]

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