A walk through the Stonehenge Landscape

Monday 6 January 2020. On a cold and overcast day in early January 2020 we walked through the ancient and mysterious Stonehenge Landscape, broadly following National Trust’s ‘Circular route from Durrington Walls to Stonehenge’. It was a walk we had been keenly anticipating for many months. ‘Stonehenge Landscape’ refers to the estate, owned and managed by the National Trust and open freely to the public, that surrounds the famous stone circle. The landscape features many Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments, such as Durrington Walls, Woodhenge, the Stonehenge Cursus (hereafter just ‘Cursus’), the Avenue, King Barrow Ridge etc, and is part of the much larger UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites’. The state owns, and English Heritage manages, Stonehenge itself.

Woodhenge to Stonehenge and back

Driving from Semley, we parked in a small lay-by off Fargo Rd opposite Woodhenge and just south of Durrington Walls. Durrington Walls is an enormous Neolithic henge enclosure – a ‘superhenge’ – the second largest in Britain after Hindwell in Wales. (A ‘henge’ is a Neolithic earthwork consisting of a circular or ovular bank and inner ditch, containing or not a structure such as a stone circle. A ‘henge enclosure’ is a henge with evidence of occupation.) We chose not to walk around Durrington Walls and from the lay-by headed straight for Woodhenge.

Durrington Walls from lay-by opposite Woodhenge

Woodhenge is a Neolithic timber monument dating from around 2,500 BCE, making it as old as the earliest stone iteration of Stonehenge (following earlier circular earth-and-timber enclosures), which lies three kilometres to the southwest as the crow flies. According to English Heritage, Woodhenge was “formed of six concentric ovals of standing posts, surrounded by a bank and ditch, which were built to align with the summer solstice sunrise.” The site was only discovered in 1925, following the advent of aerial photography; concrete pillars mark where the original wooden posts stood. What would Woodhenge have looked like 4,500 years ago?

Woodhenge

After some minutes contemplating Woodhenge we passed through a gate and walked west across a yellowish field towards the Cuckoo Stone.

From Woodhenge we passed through a gate and walked across a field to the Cuckoo Stone

The mysterious Cuckoo Stone, a local sarsen stone, is as ordinary looking as it is enigmatic. It may be as old as 4,900 years – as old as Stonehenge’s earlier earth-and-timber iteration. It may once have been upright and larger than it is now. It sits on a line of axis linking the Cursus (of which more later) with Woodhenge, so perhaps it was some kind of marker on a route from the River Avon, which lies less than a hundred metres to the east of Woodhenge. Whatever it was, it’s unprepossessing now.

The unprepossessing Cuckoo Stone

From the Cuckoo Stone we continued south through the field until we reached a gate. Passing through the gate, we turned right onto a path running east–west that was once part of the route taken by the Larkhill Military Light Railway. Built in response to WWI military needs, the railway ran from 1914 to 1929 between Amesbury and Larkhill. To our right was a small wood used by the military for training purposes.

Along part of the route once taken by the Larkhill Military Light Railway, approaching eastern end of Cursus

After 800 metres or so we arrived at a crosswords. Just to the south (our left) lay the barrows of King Barrow Ridge, so named for the Early Bronze Age barrows, or burial mounds, that lie along it in north–south alignment in two groups, the Old King Barrows and the New King Barrows, and date from around 2,200–1,600 BCE. Immediately in front of us lay the eastern end of the monumental Cursus, a huge Neolithic earthen enclosure oriented east–west and nearly three kilometres long. Dating to around 3,500 BCE – thereby predating the earliest phase of Stonehenge – it was evidently dug by antler pick. It is just one of more than a hundred cursus monuments cross Britain. Meanwhile, at our feet lay a Neolithic long barrow, known as Amesbury 42 or the Cursus long barrow, built at approximately the same time as the Cursus. Over the centuries it has been more or less levelled.

Looking southwest towards Stonehenge from the crossroads. To the left is King Barrow Ridge, to the right the Cursus

To reach King Barrow Ridge we turned left just past the long barrow, and after sixty metres or so came to a gate. Passing through, we entered the field beyond. We approached King Barrow Ridge while keeping on our left the line of trees that grows along the northern end of the ridgeline. (Alongside the ridgeline runs a fenced-in bridleway, an alternative means of reaching the barrows – one I’m not sure we knew about at the time.) The Old King Barrows lie north of the New King Barrows, separated from them by the line of the Avenue, a processional way built in the third millennium BCE that leads from the River Avon to Stonehenge, a distance of some two-and-a-half kilometres, and bisects the ridge. As we walked through the field we could make out ahead of us a small, distinct copse – one of the Old King Barrows.

Walking towards Old King Barrows (the small copse on the left)

As we approached, the copse resolved into four trees growing around (and even from) a small mound, an Early Bronze Age round barrow – technically a bowl barrow (one that looks like an upturned bowl quite simply), one of seven Old King bowl barrows and one of more than 350 barrows of all types that lie within the environs of Stonehenge. It is said that the wonderful, gnarly old trees – beech, perhaps? – were planted sometime in the eighteenth century.

Old King Barrows

From this atmospheric Old King Barrow we followed the line of the fence briefly west before heading south again. I do not recall noting the other Old King Barrows.

Heading west briefly and looking back at an atmospheric Old King Barrow

We crossed the Avenue where it bisects King Barrow Ridge, pausing to read the information board, and approached the northernmost of the New King Barrows, which lay only sixty metres to the south.

Approaching New King Barrows

There are five bowl barrows and two bell barrows in the New King Barrow group. According to the National Trust they were once capped in white chalk (whether all or perhaps just the bowl barrows I do not know). This would have rendered them highly visible from a distance; sitting on the ridge, they are already prominent on the horizon when viewed from Stonehenge.

New King Barrows with gnarly old beeches

After spending some time at the New King Barrows, with at least one of our party running up and down them, we returned to the Avenue and began our procession west along the ceremonial way – here just a trodden path through the field – towards the enigmatic stones. Ahead of us flocks of sheep grazed casually in the fields as they have grazed since coming to Britain with the first Neolithic farmers – the same people who built the early monuments of the Stonehenge Landscape – around 4,000 BCE.

Processing along the Avenue

With excitement and anticipation we walked along; on the horizon to our left we could already see the stones – and a large barrow.

Stonehenge on the horizon

We approached a gate in a fence beyond which, at an information board, the Avenue turns southwest at an ‘elbow’ in its route to begin its final approach to Stonehenge. At this point its original banks and ditches become evident. (From the River Avon to here they are worn away.) According to the information board, the axis of this final approach aligns with the position of the sun at midwinter sunset and at midsummer sunrise.

Near the final approach to Stonehenge

We walked the final few hundred metres with mounting excitement.

The final approach to Stonehenge (through sheep)

Behind us King Barrow Ridge was beginning to recede into the distance but we could still make out the distinct shapes of the Old and New King Barrows (or at least of their respective trees).

Looking back eastwards at King Barrow Ridge. The trees of the Old King Barrow stand out distinctly

And there before us lay Stonehenge. We had arrived at the fence separating the Stonehenge Landscape from the English Heritage–managed triangle of land surrounding the stones. To the right of the Avenue (as one faces the stones) is a gate giving access to the permissive path that runs east–west between the A303 and a byway running north–south between the A303 and Fargo Rd. People park their cars along the byway to gain close proximity to the stones as well as to the barrows lying within the English Heritage triangle. We entered the permissive path for a view of Stonehenge almost as good as that achieved by ticketholders.

Stonehenge

After eating a snack and contemplating the stones – and watching the small winter crowd – we bade Stonehenge farewell. We walked 800 metres or so north along the inside of the fence that skirts the byway to the midpoint of the Cursus, that most mysterious of Stonehenge Landscape monuments, whose purpose remains unclear. The eighteenth-century antiquarian William Stukeley, who devoted much time to the study of Stonehenge and Avebury, thought it may have been a hippodrome. According to the English Heritage map Exploring the World Heritage Site Stonehenge and Avebury, cursus monuments “may have been processional routes, barriers, or territorial markers in the landscape.” We turned right onto the Cursus and began to walk the kilometre or so back towards its eastern end.

Walking east along the Cursus (Amesbury 42 long barrow on right at the northern end of King Barrow Ridge)

Ahead of us to our right, the trees of King Barrow Ridge stood out starkly against the grey sky.

Looking towards King Barrow Ridge from the Cursus (left–right Longbarrow, Old King Barrows, New King Barrows). The trees stand out prominently on the horizon

After a kilometre or so we reached the Amesbury 42 long barrow and the turn-off for King Barrow Ridge. We walked back along the former Larkhill Military Light Railway route to the Cuckoo Stone field, passing once again the small training wood.

Military training wood adjacent to the former Larkhill Military Light Railway

We came to the Cuckoo Stone field and, walking diagonally across it, after 500 metres or so arrived back at Woodhenge.

Back through the Cuckoo Stone field to Woodhenge

This memorable, magical walk took us around two-and-a-half hours to complete. Afterwards we drove to the Tesco in Amesbury, whereupon it rained furiously – rain that had been threatening all morning. The weather gods had been kind indeed.

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