R8: Devizes to Warminster 22.5 Miles …end

Last night we’d had an over-elaborate meal …and my stomach was protesting. I drank red wine when I should have stuck to water. I drank a lot of that and fruit. Anything to rehydrate myself.

This morning, Jan waved me goodbye as I limped across Devizes High Street towards the Kennett and Avon Canal.

We would hopefully meet again at home in Warminster.

In 89, my brother and I walked the 27 miles across the Scottish border from Byrness to Kirk Yetholm… taking in the Cheviot.

By that last day of the Pennine Way.. we were invincible. Kirk Yethom was nothing, we’d have carried on till we ran out of land.

But 34 years on, this last day would be different. No bleak, rainy moors but a hot day on the Salisbury Plain escarpment edge…and the longest distance so far. My feet sore, my digestive system untrustworthy.

22.5 miles and, straight after the previous 22.. so challenging.

The first piece straight and level along the canal towpath. I left at the wrong bridge too early and asked a woman whether this was Coate. She had no idea and the road didn’t fit with the map so I went back to the water and the next bridge turned out to be the Coate Bridge.

The Kennett and Avon Canal

Then two kms across large arable fields to Etchilhampton Hill where I slipped across the border of OS 157 Avebury and Devizes onto 130 Salisbury and Stonehenge.

The next three were intricate and dodgy. I had to watch out for the Wessex Dragon Ridgeway roundels as the path threaded itself through pasture fields south and east of Stert hamlet across the railway. I climbed yet another stile and dropped my map-reading glasses in the long grass.

I’d had a back-up pair but I’d forgotten them. Left behind in Devizes.

So, I could not leave this spot until I had found them… and eventually I did .. I negotiated a field of horses before reaching the outskirts of Urchfont Village.

Urchfont Village

One of those rare gifts… when the path delivers you to the door of a pub. There was no guarantee that it would be open at 11am on this increasingly hot Saturday but it was… right next door to a shop.

The landlady of the Lamb provided me with a huge pot of tea with biscuits. I took the tray onto the porch outside. The only customer. I just chilled for a while. This place was so necessary. I might get home tonight after all.

On the other side of Urchfont a narrow high-hedged bridleway led straight south to the MoD firing ranges.

The path got suddenly busy… first a family squeezed past… then I backed further into the vegetation as two stately horses ridden by a middle aged couple followed .. and then a young bloke on a bike with a dog. He grinned at me and said ‘getting past that lot’s gonna be a challenge’.

The countryside was quiet again just numerous battered signs warning of explosives if I trespassed east and then south as I climbed to the summit of the Ridgeway edge.

For the next 16 miles I would follow the firing range perimeter track….sometimes tarmac but usually gravelled with wonderful views across the villages to the north-west and north. The path was straight and reasonably level much of the time but it felt like a desert road… not much variation.

The MoD Range edge path above West Lavington

I measured my progress as I plodded above the spring-line villages below.

I aimed for and passed Market Lavington. I had lunch, sat on the dry grass beside the gravel. Sandwiches and the essential easy peeler. An abandoned military signal building breaking up the level vista of my future path. My water supply was good as the stores had been boosted in Devizes by 3 Morrisons juice cartons.

The path descended to the A360 near West Lavington and then climbed back to the ridge edge again, gradually catching up an older woman walking at a steady pace.

She told me that this was a good walk and she had lived in West Lavington all her life. She asked if I was going to New Zealand.. I said that the path took me past New Zealand Camp.

‘That’s right’ she said

‘Were there once New Zealand soldiers posted there?’ I asked.

She didn’t know but the soldiers were away at the moment preparing to fight. We talked of the Ukraine War.

‘One man’s war’ she said ‘Couldn’t a tea lady take a gun and finish him off? Just one bullet…’

She turned off the path saying goodbye and walked through some trees back down to Lavington.

I crossed onto OS 143 Warminster and Trowbridge….the last map.

It took me another 2km to get to the top at New Zealand Camp. I was above Erlestoke now, the settlements were slipping past below me Littleton Panell, Little Cheverell, Great Cheverell, Erlestoke with its prison. Coulston… I trudged on and another car crackled along the dry gravel and parked a little way in front of me at an empty group of buildings…Stoke Hill Farm.

A man, about my age, got out in shorts.

I said ‘Hello’ and he looked at me…concerned

‘Are you alright?’ he asked ..that question again.

He sounded like a senior military officer.

I told him I was just tired. I’d walked a long way.

He looked me up and down, checking out the grazed red patch on my forehead.

‘Where are you going?’

To home… in Warminster I said.

‘Well, you won’t be there for Dinner but perhaps you’ll make it for Drinks’

He wished me well and I walked on towards Edington.

Just another village far below but it was here that the fate of Wessex was decided.

AD 878, the Danish invaders had taken the Anglo Saxon kingdoms one by one and now Guthram’s forces had driven King Alfred and the remnants of his army in retreat to Athelney Marshes in Somerset.

‘the river of death had brimmed its banks and England far and honour a name’

‘Then in the seventh week after Easter, Alfred rode to Egbert’s Stone to the east of Selwood (On the Stourhead Estate, Henry Hoare built King Alfred’s Tower on what is believed to be the site of Egbert’s Stone in the mid 18th century. Emma and I took the long spiral staircase to the top on Saturday.. we could see as far as Glastonbury and Badbury) and the men of Somerset, Wiltshire and part of Hampshire met Alfred there and received him warmly. Two days later they fought against the entire Danish host at Edington and put it to flight and besieged the enemy at Chippenham where hostages were given and the Danes took oaths saying that they would leave Wessex’ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

King Alfred’s Tower on the escarpment edge on the Stourhead Estate. It is thought to have been built on the site of Egbert’s Stone where Alfred assembled his army to retake Wessex from the Danes. Henry Flitcroft designed the tower for owner of the Stourhead Estate Henry Hoare in 1772. A spiral staircase can take you to the top for spectacular views. Though it’s a long climb.

The path changed back to tarmac above Bratton and I took a right towards Bratton Camp and the White Horse. A large family emerged from a footpath in front of me. I rested to let them move on and then encountered the Bratton Camp car park full of vehicles and people enjoying the evening.

Bratton is the most easterly of the four Warminster hillforts. Two ramparts and ditches surround a Neolithic long barrow.

Excavations within the fort in the 18th century by Jeffrey Whitaker, a local schoolmaster, uncovered quern stones, pottery, and Roman and Saxon coins. Also found were ‘nearly a cartload’ of large pebbles, probably sling stones kept ready on the ramparts to throw at any attackers.

The Neolithic long barrow was built three thousand years before and was preserved by the later occupants of the hillfort. Excavations into the barrow in the 19th century revealed human skeletons and cremations.

Bratton Camp

The White Horse was cut into the chalk of the west ramparts in the mid 18th century in commemoration of the Battle of Edington as it was believed that this is where the fight took place. Westbury has given up whitening it with chalk….its concrete now.

I was above the town of Westbury now and then on past an old chalk pit and along the ridge to my destination.

Another hot and dusty 2km … the sun getting low in the sky… I was on Cow Down above Upton Scudamore as Warminster town unfolded like a jewel below me dappled with sunlight from an erratically cloudy sky. My town watched over by the chalk outlier hillfort of Cley Hill, its Bronze Age round barrow crowning its summit. The lynchets along its slope revealed by shadows..

The town was nestled against the skirts of Salisbury Plain where the Were meets the Wylye and enters the chalkland. What a remarkably pretty place it looked with the tower of its minster church to the north and our church of Christ Church on the hill behind.

Warminster with Cley Hill to the right.

One last valley to cross and then a long last drag up to Arne Hill. A yellow hammer sat on a fence beside me and then the chit chit of a Stonechat as it flew by and landed on the grass a few yards away. I hadn’t seen either in the last 130 miles. Warminster was showing off. I phoned Emma to say I was almost there.

Jan phoned me. She would meet me on the road below the golf course and we would walk the last bit together …Home.

She took a photo as I walked towards her. I was not a pretty sight but it was done.. Ivinghoe Beacon was far away and one day I would walk on to Lyme Regis but for now… I would rest.

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