First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The great chalk horse of Hackpen Hill shone out in blinding white under a scudding blue sky. Once we’d left the runners and cyclists on the Ridgeway, and ducked off along the edge of Wick Down, we saw nobody else.
These downlands of northern Wiltshire are exceptionally beautiful. We walked at the lip of the escarpment, looking south over a roadless bowl of a valley, its curves shaped by weathering, its white chalk ploughlands contrasting with the green pastures in a harmonious subtlety of colour that called out for the paintbrush of Paul Nash or Eric Ravilious. Skylarks overhead drew generously on their bottomless wells of song, and a brown hare paused in its skyline lolloping to sit very upright and inspect us for signs of danger.
On the slope of Rockley Down we turned north into a great bowl of downland where the horse gallops of a training stable formed a straggling oval along the slopes of Ogbourne Maizey Down. A greedy, panicky screeching broke out among the gallops. Crows were bullying a pack of black-backed gulls, and the gulls were taking it out on the worms that had risen to the surface of the ground after last night’s rain.
We left the birds to their squabbling and feasting, and headed up the slope of the down. A brief struggle with a patch of nettles and brambles, and we were out again on the roof of the downs, walking the ruts and jumping the puddles of another of Wiltshire’s ancient roadways towards the low hummocks of Barbury Castle hillfort.
Whatever provoked the attack that marauding Saxons made on Barbury Castle in 550 AD, it was disastrous for the defending Britons. Several were slaughtered, and their fortifications were destroyed. As we strolled a circuit of the double ramparts, it was hard to picture the bloodshed and screams. Common blue butterflies busied themselves among the harebells and scabious, and dogs scampered the earthworks that have crowned Barbury Hill for the best part of 3,000 years.
We left the fort by its western gate and descended the rutted track of the Ridgeway, an upland road that was already ancient when Barbury hillfort was built. Flocks of cyclists and coveys of walkers were out along the old trackway, and we followed its white ribbon back to Hackpen Hill under the bluest of skies.
Start: Hackpen Hill car park, near Swindon, SN4 9NR approx. (OS ref SU 129747)
Getting there: On minor road between Broad Hinton (M4 Jct 16, A4361) and Marlborough (M4 Jct 15, A346)
Walk (7¼ miles, easy, OS Explorer 157): Left (Marlborough direction) along road. In 300m, right through gate on left of driveway (132745); right along field edge with fence on right. In 100m bear left along escarpment edge. In 1 mile, on Rockley Down, left up tarmac driveway (147734) to cross road (150738).
Along broad concrete track. In 300m, ahead (yellow arrow/YA) past ‘Private Road’ notice to T-junction at ‘Barbury International’ notice (153745). Left; in 200m, bear right (152747) and follow clockwise along perimeter of horse gallop. In 300m, bear a little left off stony track (155747; pond shown on map, not really distinguishable on ground), leaving trees on your right (YAs on fence to left). Keep ahead beside grassy ride, passing ‘Stonehenge’ installation, for ½ mile.
150m before a crossing fence, turn left uphill. Cross stile (161742); on uphill for 150m. At top fence post, above square enclosure on right, turn left (162743). In 150m, through deer gate (162744), chained but not locked; on between hedges. In 50m bear half right between hedges; in 100m right again between hedges. In 200m, path bends left (164747) through scrub trees and undergrowth. In 200m, through gate on right (164748); up fence to stile onto broad trackway (165748). Left; in a little over a mile, at ‘Neil King Ridgeway Racing’ sign at Upper Herdswick Farm (157760), left through gate (‘Barbury Country Park’). Follow Ridgeway through Barbury Castle Hill Fort (147763) and on south-west for 1½ miles to Hackpen Hill car park.
Lunch: Barbury Inn, Broad Hinton, SN4 9PF (01793-731510, thebarburyinn.co.uk), or The Crown, Broad Hinton (see below)
Accommodation: The Crown, Broad Hinton SN4 9PA (01793-731302, the crownatbroadhinton.co.uk)