Keeping a horse is usually high maintenance, especially when, like the white horse at Westbury, it measures 170ft long and 182ft high. In the 400 or so years since it was first cut into the chalk hillside, the horse has had admittedly intermittent care to ameliorate the effects of centuries of wind and rain. Its most significant makeover, in the 1950s, covered the entire shape with shiny white concrete. Last year it was scrubbed clean to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee.
So, as I prepare to start my walk at Bratton Camp viewpoint, hard by the white horse, it seems ironic that the one feature spoiling the panoramic vista across Wiltshire is the towering chimney of a cement works. Plans to demolish the plant, parts of which are still operating, were announced three years ago but for now, the 400ft tower – roughly the same height as Salisbury Cathedral – remains resolutely intact.
Standing here at the viewpoint, with my dog, Malin, the view north to the Cotswolds is dotted with other man-made landmarks: a fast-paced train on the main line from Bristol, village churches around Melksham, and the town of Chippenham further in the distance. I turn left from the viewpoint and start walking towards Westbury, passing an obelisk built by schoolchildren in 1968.
At this point I am 754ft above sea level, but the view is suddenly lost in a swirling, morning mist. I head west, negotiating a stile, and follow the edge of the escarpment across open fields. Cackling rooks are making the most of the breeze, soaring on updrafts that make this spot a favourite launching point for paragliders.
After a mile we reach Long River Road, a quiet downhill stretch of the walk that strangely shows no sign of a river at all. However, passing a police firing range built in a disused quarry, we turn left on to a bridleway and discover that here the name is suddenly apt.
It’s early February and heavy rain has combined with horse hooves to create a muddy mass of biblical proportions. The dog is happy enough, but I’m almost over twice in the first 200 yards. Although most of my efforts are spent trying to stay upright, I do snatch momentary glimpses of strip lynchets in the steep-sided fields next to us. These ancient banks of earth are believed to have been caused by Celtic ploughing methods, cutting along the contours in an attempt to prevent erosion. The lynchets have survived centuries of weathering, but the squelchy bridle path is proving less adaptable to what have been exceptional downpours – normally I stride along this section barely noticing what’s underfoot.
At Wellhead water treatment works we hit solid tarmac again, although the respite only lasts 400 yards, before we have to turn left at the lowest point of the walk. This is a long, uphill stretch which I discover includes an unexpected water feature not marked on an OS map. Rain on the upper slopes has followed the bridleway down, washing away the topsoil to expose sharp rocks and boulders. It does mean that by the time we reach Wessex Ridgeway at the top, Malin’s undercarriage and my boots are at least cleansed of mud.
The Ridgeway runs 136 miles from nearby Marlborough to Lyme Regis, in Dorset. This two-mile section heading northeast follows a drovers’ track and is also part of the Imber Range perimeter footpath. Imber is a deserted village in the heart of the army’s training ground, requisitioned in 1943 by the Ministry of Defence and never handed back, despite several campaigns by ousted residents. The ground covers a vast area of land, directly to the right of our route. Signs on the perimeter fence warn that it is a military firing range – but a far more effective deterrent to would-be trespassers is the dull thud of tank guns, somewhere in the distance across Salisbury Plain.
If tanks are blasting large holes in the ground elsewhere, that’s nothing compared to a chalk pit that borders the edge of the path just a mile on. At first the quarry is hidden by a scruffy hedge, then a high metal fence on the right suggests something extremely deep. Peering through the metal bars, I can see that the pit measures about half a mile in circumference and is roughly 500ft deep. Millions of tons of chalk were pumped as slurry from this site to the cement works – now the machinery has stopped and a muddy white puddle swamps the base of the bowl.
Further on, a lone security guard is stationed in a hut next to the pit. He is there to prevent walkers straying on to the Imber Range, rather than wandering into the quarry. He tells me that pairs of Peregrine falcons nest in the area and put on spectacular flying displays during the spring. The path is wide and open on top of the ridge, passing by White Horse Farm, then skirting the edge of a car park.
Finally, we pass by another earthen monument sculpted by man – Bratton Fort, where rare Forester moths and the Adonis Blue butterfly have been spotted. Adjacent to the white horse viewing point, this Iron Age camp covers 23 acres and was dug as a military stronghold, either to repel foreign invaders or local revolts. It was a Neolithic long barrow more than 3,000 years ago and excavations over the centuries have uncovered human bones. Indeed, Malin is suddenly spooked by an archaeologist emerging Hobbit-like from a dip. Then that cement works tower appears again and our walk is done.