Andrew Swift: The Valley of Stones

This view may be an unfamiliar one, but it’s in a part of Wiltshire that is renowned for its neolithic monuments and the sarsen stones from which they were made – Andrew Swift sets off on a walk through an ancient, lonely landscape.

Fact File
Length of walk:
7 miles
Approximate time: 3–4 hours
Level of challenge: Reasonable tracks throughout, with no steep climbs or stiles; cattle likely to be encountered on the downs
Map: OS Explorer 157

This month’s walk lies through racehorse country. Manton House on the Marlborough Downs, near where it starts, is one of the most famous racing establishments in the country, and the walk passes several gallops en route. It is, however, encounters with prehistory that are likely to linger longer in the memory. This part of Wiltshire is renowned for its neolithic monuments, one of which – the Devil’s Den – is visited early on in the walk. Thereafter, it is not neolithic monuments which command our attention, but the sarsen stones from which they were made, as we thread the dry valley where countless thousands of them still lie scattered. From there, the walk climbs into a high and lonely landscape crossed by ancient trackways and grazed by vast herds of cattle, where hares bound away if you step off the path. After a detour to visit a sarsen that still bears the marks made by workers honing axe heads over 4,000 years ago, the return to the starting point lies along green lanes and through woodland where sarsens lie scattered in the undergrowth.

To get to the starting point, head east from Bath along the A4. Carry on through Chippenham and Calne, and after 31 miles – shortly after passing the village of Fyfield – turn left to follow a sign for Manton House and Hollow. Carry on along a single-track lane for one mile, before turning left at a byway sign and immediately pulling into a large parking area on the right (SU159700; SN8 1PL).

Head to the far end of the parking area and turn right along a broad track heading north-west, following a signpost for Avebury and Hackpen. After 675m, shortly after passing a gate for the bottom entrance to Manton Down Farm, turn left through a handgate and head for another handgate straight ahead.

Go through it and carry on with the fence on your left for 400m. When the fence curves left downhill, follow it. At the bottom, turn left through a handgate and follow a track for 275m to the Devil’s Den (SU152696). This impressive monument, rendered all the more mysterious by being set down in such an unassumingly pastoral setting, is all that remains of a burial chamber. Its name recalls a local legend that the devil turns up here at midnight with ghostly oxen to lift the 17-ton capstone off the mighty uprights supporting it. It also captured the imagination of Thomas Hardy, who featured it in a tale called What the Shepherd Saw.

Retrace your steps to the handgate and carry straight on, following a grassy track along a dry valley. Ordnance Survey maps show this area as Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve, which was created in 1955. Natural England only ever held the lease of the land, however, and, after the 577-acre estate changed hands in 2015, the new owners activated a break clause obliging them to delist it as a nature reserve, which they duly did in August 2021. At the moment, access arrangements are unchanged, and the down remains a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It also forms part of the Avebury World Heritage Site.

Above: The Devil’s Den

In the 17th century, John Aubrey wrote that these stones were “sown so thick, that travellers in the twylight at a distance take them to be flocks of sheep (wethers) from whence they have their name”. They are still known as ‘grey wethers’, although sarsen is the term more commonly used. Exactly how they were formed, and how they got here, is still disputed, although all agree it had something to do with glaciers which formed and melted in successive ice ages, gouging this dry valley in the process. Although they are still an astonishing sight today, their use as building stone, which peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has seen their numbers greatly depleted.

If you want to inspect the stones closely, you can wander among them along the valley floor. To appreciate their full extent, however, it is better to follow the footpath which stays close to the fence on your left as it rises above the valley.

Just before a seven-bar gate at the end of the field, turn right past a recumbent sarsen and carry on with the fence on your left (SU138703). After 350m, carry on though a handgate and continue in the same direction, with the fence on your right. When you come to a grassy track, turn left to follow it, and when it joins a stony track, carry on along it. Although the origins of this track are lost in prehistory, it seems to have been adopted as a herepath or military road in the 9th century. It later became part of the road along which stagecoaches travelled between London and Bath, until it was abandoned in 1743 when what is now the A4 opened to the south. Follow it as it climbs westward, crossing a gallop at the summit, and after another 500m you will come to the Ridgeway (SU125708).

This is one of the most ancient roads in Britain, having been in continuous use for at least 6,000 years. Turn right along it, and after 700m, just after passing the end of the gallop you crossed earlier, go through a handgate on the right into access land. Although there are not that many stones in this field, there is at least one worth seeking out. To find it, head slightly to your right towards a pyramidal-shaped stone by a large patch of gorse about 100m away. Just beyond it is a recumbent stone with grooves scored into it and a saucer-shaped depression, the result of being used to hone the edges of stone axe heads some four or five thousand years ago (SU128715). Known as a polisseur or polisher stone, it lay undetected until 1963, but, although it has since attracted a lot of attention, other unusual stones nearby seem to have been ignored. Apart from the pyramidal stone and a small standing stone with a hole, an enormous flat stone a little further on appears to have not only a saucer-shaped depression but also thin grooves scored into it.

Head back through the handgate and continue north along the Ridgeway for 650m. After passing a copse, follow a bridleway sign through a gate on the right with a sarsen beside it (SU127722). After 500m, just after passing a handgate and a gateway with a cattle grid leading into a field on the right, turn right through a handgate along a green lane (SU132722).

After 350m, carry on through a handgate to follow a track winding through Totterdown Wood, where sarsens lie in the undergrowth and humps and bumps indicate the site of old quarries. Shortly after passing a bridleway signpost for Fyfield, look out for a ruined building, shown on old maps as Old Totterdown, on the left.

At the end of the wood a handgate leads on to open downland. Follow a grassy track straight ahead, carry on through a gateway, and, after going through a handgate, turn left along a gravel track (SU143714). After 90m, turn right to follow a byway sign along another gravel track. From here it is a relatively straightforward walk back to the starting point – the only thing to watch out for is when the track forks after 1400m, ensure you take the right fork.

Many more walks can be found in Andrew Swift’s Country Walks from Bath, published by Akeman Press;

Featured image: The Devil’s Den