Time to move onto the next chapter of my book A Small Farm Future in this blog cycle about it, which is Chapter 15 – ‘The country and the city’. I’m probably going to write two or three shortish posts on this topic. In this one, I’ll approach it obliquely with an account of a walk I took last week.
To blow off a few cobwebs, I decided to spend a couple of days hiking a part of the Ridgeway, which has been in use for around 5,000 years and is supposedly Britain’s oldest road. It’s now a national hiking trail, with one end starting in Wiltshire only a few miles east of my home.
Although it’s nearby, the landscape at the starting point is very different from the small, folded hills of brashy limestone on the edge of the Mendips where I live. It’s more open country, with wide valleys and sweeping, chalky downs. The social histories written in the landscape are different too. Where I live is what Oliver Rackham called ‘ancient countryside’, where there were few commons or open fields and many scattered hamlets and private farmsteads, crooked roads, small woodlands and ponds. The Ridgeway country, by contrast, is what Rackham called a ‘planned countryside’ of widely-spaced villages, few, straighter roads and large, regular fields, strongly shaped by the parliamentary enclosures of the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The walk starts in Avebury, which presents a much older history in the form of a Neolithic henge, less famous than its cousin on Salisbury plain a few miles to the south but I gather no less important in its day. The summer solstice had only just passed when I arrived, and Avebury was still dotted with a straggle of sun worshippers, who’d laced the sarsen stones and ancient trees with gaudy offerings. I can’t say I was a fan, but I doubt the stones and trees take a view on it.
The café was closed after a 24-hour stint serving the revellers, much to the chagrin of the tourists arriving from the car park – an altogether different demographic. There was a National Trust shop, but the only food it had was fudge, that mainstay of the English tourist experience. Luckily, I had a bag of lightweight if unappetizing trail food in my rucksack, so I doused my hat in water from the outdoor tap and began my walk. From the point I left town, I saw barely more than a handful of people over the next two days. And almost all of them were idlers like me – walkers, runners, cyclists – rather than people who were living or working in the landscape.
A major reason for that is water. Since, true to its name, this part of the Ridgeway mostly follows a ridge comprising porous chalk, there are few sources of groundwater along it to furnish reliable supplies. So barring high-energy and high-cost engineering efforts, it’s not a great place to build a house or village. No surprise, then, that most of the settlement in the area is on the bottomlands away from the ridge, often a trek of a mile or more downslope from the trail.
There were, however, a few people living up on the ridge. In occasional places where a minor road transected it with generous parking alongside, I often came across old vans and buses converted for residential use – sometimes deserted, sometimes occupied by young families and alternative-looking types, usually surrounded by a clutter of 25 litre plastic water cans, fire grates and other paraphernalia of life on the road.
As to people working up on the ridge – well, there were just a few. Walking up the long slope out of Avebury to join the trail, a self-propelled sprayer suddenly loomed from a dip in a big field of oilseed rape. My first taste of the Ridgeway was the cloying tug of glyphosate at the back of my nose and mouth – an experience repeated in several of the rape fields I traversed in the next two days, though after that first meeting I tried to time things so the spraying rigs were at the other end of the field when I passed. Still, I doubt I saw more than five tractors or sprayers during the hike. No doubt glyphosate is a great labour-saver.
There may not be many living souls abroad in those fields, but there are plenty of dead ones. The whole landscape is a Neolithic mausoleum. Not just in the now departed hands that made Stonehenge, Avebury and Uffington, but in the actual mausoleums of Wayland’s Smithy and endless other funerary barrows dotting the landscape. At the end of my first day of walking, I spread out my little bivvi tent as inconspicuously as I could behind a bank of hawthorn and lay down to sleep within this veritable city of the dead.
Recent thinking about these Neolithic peoples seems to be that they were agricultural pioneers scattered across a sparsely settled land who were not given to great social stratification. They built sites like Stonehenge collectively as ritual centres to which they travelled from where they lived and worked, often over great distances, and in this way forged social solidarity with each other and with their ancestors.
The situation in the area today seems pretty much reversed. I did make one foray off the trail into a village in the hope of enlivening my food supply. I got briefly lost amidst a thicket of ‘Private – No Public Access’ signs (I’ve long pressed the case on this blog for the virtues of distributed private ownership of farm property – private ownership of all rights to access is more complicated). When I located the village centre the pub was shut. I did come across a ‘Village Store and Post Office’ sign brightly painted on a wall, but the house it belonged to had long since been turned over to a private residence and there was nowhere else to buy food in the village. Most of the picture postcard old thatched cottages in the village seemed to have a couple of fancy cars, Porsches, Mercedes and the like, nuzzling their walls. The main road just outside the village only had a single lane each way, but it was so busy it took me five minutes to cross. The traffic raced north and south, to bigger towns, better shopping and places where a wider cross-section of society lived. But there was, to be fair, one house whose occupants had installed a water tap for passing hikers. I filled my bottles, doused my hat again, silently thanked its inhabitants and headed back up to the ridge, crossing the line of an old Roman road in the process – arrow straight, colonial.
I walked for another day, reaping its thin human harvest of cyclists, runners and tractor drivers. I’d guess that by Neolithic standards the countryside was teeming with people. But considering that southern England is one of the more densely populated parts of our densely populated planet, it didn’t seem so to me. You could easily see more people walking down a single street of my small hometown in a few minutes than I saw over two days on the Ridgeway.
At the end of my second day of walking, I took the bus to the nearest station. I got talking to a man who’d grown up in the north of England but had moved to the southeast for work. His landlord was selling his property, so he was heading over to the next town to find a new place to live. We bade farewell at the station and I took the train home. That cars and trains move a lot faster than people on foot is banally obvious, but it hits you afresh when you’ve been walking for two days and get home on the train in an hour.
And that, I think, is pretty much enough about my little trip. I’ve described it here only because I think it opens up some themes I’ll want to explore in forthcoming posts about the country and the city. Water. Work in the fields and work in the town. Human power relationships and control of the landscape. Transport connections and livelihoods. How we build solidarity with other people, and how we refuse to. How we can get, and keep, a roof over our heads. What things we choose to honour, and where we choose to honour them.