Along the ancient highway

Can there be a finer place in all England to start a journey? Particularly a journey that will take me so far. I’m at St Catherine’s Chapel on the Dorset coast. A square-cut Norman chapel with immensely thick walls, it stands isolated on a hilltop, with a magnificent view sweeping down the English Channel along Chesil Beach to Portland Bill. Below me are the folds of Dorset, undulating away with their combes and copses and small, drunken English lanes.

Ahead lies a walk of 400 miles before I will see the sea again on the Norfolk coast. I will be following as near as I can the old route of the Icknield Way, which has some claim to be the most ancient road in the country. As early as 3000BC it linked the world of the Mediterranean, whose traders landed along the coast from here to Cornwall, with the world of those northern Europeans who came to East Anglia – a prehistoric highway between these two points of entry to England, slicing diagonally across the country from Dorset to Norfolk, with lay-bys at all the great prehistoric sites: Maiden Castle, Stonehenge, Avebury, a string of hill forts and finally, on the Norfolk coast, Seahenge.

London and the south-east were avoided. Only far later, from the Roman invasion in AD43, did all roads start there and Dover become a principal port. But that suits me. I want to take the temperature of England, and slicing across it from the south-west to East Anglia is the perfect way to do so.

Perhaps because of the later Roman reorientation of English roads out of London, far more traces of the Icknield Way survive than one might expect: it has not been simply built over and covered with Tarmac. Nor was the route taken by prehistoric man one that favours the motor car. The old path often follows hilltops, not valleys; it is more concerned with natural ford points of rivers, with keeping above the flood plain and following the grain of the landscape.

Unlike many of the older paths, this has not been commodified into a long-distance trail, with accompanying signposts and people to hold your hand. For much of the Icknield Way’s route from the south coast to the North Sea, it is still half-covered by bramble and tunnelled by elder, beech and oak, forgotten and ignored.

A century ago, the poet Edward Thomas tried to follow its traces for his 1913 book, The Icknield Way. He had a mystic sense of the road as “a shining serpent in the wet” leading over the Chilterns and Wiltshire Downs, and in his preface declared: “I could not find a beginning or an ending to the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness.” It was difficult to resist this clarion call to follow in his footsteps: “there is nothing beyond the furthest of far ridges except a signpost to unknown places”.

The Iron Age hillfort of Maiden Castle in Dorset

Thomas meant what he said about how difficult it is to find the beginning or end of the route. It becomes indistinct as it nears both coasts, not least because those using it may have fanned out to different ports depending on their needs and cargo. Nor was it always that precise. It diverged in many places along the route and is best thought of as a trunk road “with tendrils”. Those travelling with large numbers of cattle or horses would have needed different routes from those travelling alone on foot.

The route is at its clearest as it follows the spine of hills across southern England, where it can still be walked as a broad track, and it was on just such a path, the South Dorset Ridgeway, that I now climbed from St Catherine’s Chapel.

When I passed through Abbotsbury, the butcher’s sold me a pie. I’m a great believer in the power of the pie; my friends in the Lake District try to reach the summit of peaks with a pie still hot in their pockets from a Keswick shop.

I was taken aback, however, when I asked the farmer’s wife running the shop which of the pies she recommended.

“Oh, I couldn’t say. I’m a vegetarian.”

How could a vegetarian run a butcher’s shop? It was not a question I liked to ask outright, although I suppose eunuchs were always good at running harems.

Up on the escarpment of the South Dorset Ridgeway, tumuli and barrows were scattered like confetti all along the route to Maiden Castle. They were easy to miss as the view out to sea was so fine: the thin strip of Chesil Beach extended along the headland towards Weymouth, capturing the waters of the Fleet behind its defences; beyond rippled the Channel.

The first I came to was the Kingston Russell stone circle, lying forlorn in the corner of a farmer’s field. There were 18 stones, arranged in a careful, elliptical shape mirrored by other stone circles along the coast. They had been there some 4,000 years.

The stones had all fallen over. English Heritage, which nominally administers the site, hadn’t put up so much as a board to inform visitors what they were looking at. While I was there, three couples passed at intervals. They would not have noticed the circle if I hadn’t pointed it out.

Yet the stones had a majesty, and much of that came from their position. The slight rise in the land meant that there was a clear sight line to the round hills of Beacon Knap and other similar knolls heading west along the coast. I was accustomed to the prehistoric love of mimicry, the circle reflecting the shape of the hills beyond. Making a landscape yours, stamping ownership on the land by showing that you can shape it, is a primal human instinct. The power of the sacred landscape, and in this case the sea as well, can be refracted by a sense of placement, of concentration. There was a feeling at the stone circle of great deliberation – that this was precisely the right place for this monument.

To walk along the South Dorset Ridgeway, its high escarpment facing the sea, is a reminder of the sheer depth of British prehistory. The Kingston Russell stone circle stood as an emblem of neolithic Britain and the late Stone Age, with its megaliths and barrows. Further along the Ridgeway, I passed the burial tumuli of the succeeding Bronze Age, which lasted from 2500BC to 800BC and was a very different culture, a rich one that we are barely beginning to understand. And then I came to Maiden Castle, the largest Iron Age hill fort in Europe; an Iron Age that was far more problematic than the arrival of a new technology might suggest, lasting from 800BC to the arrival of the Romans.

Maiden Castle was as monumental as an aircraft carrier. Several aircraft carriers in fact. It lay south-west of Dorchester, running over two connecting hilltops. When I arrived, the evening sun was marking deep ripples of shadow along the banks, bringing out the shape and texture of the ridges. The houses of Dorchester in the distance looked placid and dull by comparison.

Walking on one of Dorset’s green lanes

Thomas Hardy described it well, as “an enormous many-limbed organism of an antediluvian time ... lying lifeless and covered with a thin green cloth, which hides its substance while revealing its contour”.

It is a reminder of a time when Dorset was the crucial point of entry from the Mediterranean and southern Europe. Wine, precious stones and other goods from as far as Egypt arrived all along the coast here, from Hengistbury Head to Seaton.

Maiden Castle is most remarkable for the complexity of its entrance: the ditches weave backwards and forwards like a maze. The first millennium BC was a time of conflict. The Celtic influence that had brought the new technology of iron to Britain from the continent created far more pressure for existing resources and, almost certainly, divisions and territorial claims. There was a flourishing slave trade, and a social hierarchy. Maiden Castle was a Celtic status symbol, to which you could only gain access if you were allowed.

The idea of the Celts is, at best, a complicated construct, hedged by romantic and nationalistic longing. They are sometimes thought of as indigenous people pushed to the margins by later invaders – Romans, then Anglo-Saxons, then Vikings – who kept the flame of true Britishness burning in Cornwall, in Wales and in the Gaelic lands. This ignores the fact that they were themselves Iron Age invaders who partially disrupted what appears to have been a more peaceable Bronze Age society – and also ignores the process of gradual assimilation rather than invasion that took place. We have always been a polyglot society. The idea of “the original Britons”, the Celts, is as dangerous and delusive a myth as any.

To walk across England is to encounter many such myths, both ancient and modern. They would make the hundreds of miles ahead of me all the richer; and while the pie from the butcher’s in Abbotsbury was now cold, it made a satisfying end to my first day along what lays claim to being England’s oldest path.

Hugh Thomson’s ‘The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England’ is published by Preface on June 7, £18.99

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