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Sarsen Stones on Fyfield Down

Explore a prehistoric landscape on this fascinating downland ramble.

Distance 6 miles (9.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 328ft (100m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Downland tracks and field paths

Landscape Lofty downland pasture and gallops

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 157 Marlborough & Savernake Forest

Start/finish SU 159699

Dog friendliness Can be off lead along Ridgeway path

Parking Car park close to Manton House Estate (right off A4, signed Manton, west of Marlborough)

Public toilets None on route

1 Leave the car park by the track in the top right-hand corner, signposted 'White Horse Trail to Avebury and Hackpen'. Follow the track right and shortly fork left, continuing between high hedges (private roads right), then on between the gallops across Clatford Down with good views. On reaching a T-junction by a covered reservoir, turn left along the Herepath (Green Street).

2 Shortly, turn right through a gate waymarked 'Hackpen', to join a grassy track alongside a conifer plantation, then head across pasture to a gate into woodland. Follow the track (can be muddy) through the sparse woodland then, on leaving the wood, keep straight on along the right-hand field edge. Turn left down a track in the field corner. Pass a gate on the right and continue between fields to reach the Ridgeway.

3 Turn left along the rutted and often muddy track for ¾ mile (1.2km) then, at the crossways by an information board, turn left through a gate on to Fyfield Down.

4 Proceed along a grassy track and cross a gallop via three gates. This is prime racehorse training country and there are many racing stables in the area. Continue to the right of a wood, then in the valley bottom, fork right off the gravel track and ascend a grassy track, passing more sarsen stones. At the top, go through the two gates that cut the corner of a wooded enclosure and turn right along the field edge, ignoring the stile on the right. Pass through a gate in the bottom corner, cross a gallop and continue straight on across grassland on a defined path. Cross another gallop, then follow the path right over a further gallop to a furlong pole at the end of a line of trees. Swing left over yet more gallops to a waymarker post, then turn left to cross two more gallops to reach a gate. Turn right and follow the outward route back to the car park.

A feature of Fyfield Down and neighbouring Overton Down are the sarsen stones that litter this intriguing chalk limestone landscape. Sarsens are natural deposits of extremely hard siliceous sandstone that derive from Tertiary deposits, later eroded and moved by glaciation some 25 million years ago. Although found elsewhere, they are not on the scale seen in the Marlborough district. Sarsens are also known as 'druid stones' or 'grey wethers', the latter due to their resemblance at a distance to a flock of sheep, the word 'wether' coming from the Old English for sheep.

Sarsens have been of great importance to humans since prehistoric times. The hard flints were used to make hand axes and other useful tools during the Bronze Age. From the 5th century to the mid-19th century, sarsens were used for building stone, constructing the nearby villages of West Overton and Lockeridge, gateposts, and as paving stones and tramway setts. More importantly, Fyfield Down was the stone quarry supplying Avebury stone circle and possibly Stonehenge. Stones weighing as much as 40 tons were dug up, sometimes shaped, and dragged over the downs by hundreds of people pulling them on wooden rollers with woven grass ropes.

In 1956 Fyfield Down was declared a National Nature Reserve, not only to protect this fine stretch of natural downland and Britain's best assemblage of sarsen stones, which support nationally important lichens, but also to preserve the extensive prehistoric field systems that exist here. As you stride across this rock-strewn landscape, note the chequerboard appearance of the field systems. Banks or 'lynchets' some 8ft (3m) high have formed where sarsens had been moved to create field boundaries, arresting soil movement caused by ploughing over the centuries.

The Herepath is an ancient east-west route across the Marlborough Downs. The name is derived from the Old English word 'here' meaning an army or multitude. It suggests that this may have been one of the defensive routes established by King Alfred in the 9th century in his struggle with the Danes.

More famous is the equally ancient Ridgeway. This ancient highway incorporates a complicated network of green lanes, and follows a natural route on high ground. It was used as a drove road or trading route and a convenient means for invaders, peaceful or war-like, to penetrate the heartland of southern England before Anglo-Saxon times. The Ridgeway National Trail forms only part of the route, although by linking several trails you can walk the entire route

While you're there

Visit Avebury to view the largest stone circle in Europe and explore the Alexander Keiller Museum to learn more about the prehistoric archaeology of this area.

Where to eat and drink

There are no refreshment places along the route but, if you bring your own. the Ridgeway track with its far-reaching views provides the perfect picnic spot. Nearby Manton and Lockeridge have pubs, while Marlborough offers the full range of refreshment facilities.

Wilts

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