August 28th, 2008 | brainjuice
The Ridgeway is Britain’s oldest known road: a trackway running eighty-odd miles across the south of England, curving over the tops of hills from the Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury in the west.
Last week I had to walk a couple of miles of it for the first time, arcing from the White Horse cut into the chalk hill at Uffington down along the Ridgeway to reach Wayland’s Smithy.
Did you ever walk a road that’s five thousand years old? People have been crossing the country on The Ridgeway since Neolithic times. In some context: when the Ridgeway first came into use, the average lifespan was around 35 years. And those people were in the grip of massively disruptive conceptual revolution: the revolution of farming. The Ridgeway was the connective tissue between these new things, settlements, forming on the dry chalk hills. And with the advent of the continuity of a generation or two in the same place for the first time came the first inkling of history. The Ridgeway predates the White Horse, and Wayland’s Smithy, and very probably Avebury and Stonehenge. This is the path people walked when they first thought about how to talk to time.
I’ve read that it used to run longer — that it used to run down from the west to the southern coast of Dorset, and east all the way to the sea at Norfolk. A diagonal cut across the country from sea to sea.
Funny thing: walking the Ridgeway, everyone who passed gave a smile and a sunny "Good afternoon!" or "Hello!". Everyone, in other words, suddenly became terribly English.