Avebury to Pewsey. Fourteen miles. Pillboxes and tank traps.
I am following the Kennet and Avon Canal from Honey Street to Pewsey. The towpath takes me up and over every bridge and on each one I find thick concrete cylinders, two thirds my height, set either side of the road. Short and squat, they guard the entrances like trolls. Some are disappearing into ivy and hedgerow while one pair have been repurposed as gateposts. If I look over the hedges, every second field holds a pillbox of concrete or red brick. Low and patient, their single square eyes are still scanning for the invader.
All these structures along the canal are visible remnants of an event which never happened. Straight after Dunkirk, England was at its most vulnerable: the Nazis stood just twenty miles away across the Channel and far too much of the army’s equipment had been left in France. Given the speed with which the Germans had crossed the continent, invasion seemed inevitable. Within just twelve weeks, the southern country was criss-crossed with fifty defensive lines, intended to delay an advancing army. These deployed whatever existing features might help them, and GHQ Stop Line Blue, the most essential and strongly armed of all, took advantage of this canal. As well as the pillboxes and concrete obstacles, the bridges would have been studded with mines and metal spikes and manned by members of the Home Guard equipped with rifles and flamethrowers. The big army guns would have fired on the attacking forces from the high ridge of the downland above. Even so, this armoury was only intended to hinder the German advance and slow it down. No one really believed that the Blitzkreig could be halted.
The remains of the Stop Lines are portals into an alternative reality, the solid manifestation of a world which could have gone a very different way. Their brick and concrete remnants unpick the neat story we now tell about the Second World War. With hindsight the results are inevitable. The country stood strong, right triumphed. The pillboxes and tank traps are reminders that the future did not seem anything like as certain at the time.
What I like is that I am forced to recognise this version of events by the signs on the ground. I have read the landscape, and it told me a story. This is always the hope when I walk out, that one day I will understand every piece of this ground as it is laid out before me and read it as though it were a book.
Marsden to West Lavington. Ten miles. Lowering with some gunfire, although it stopped for lunch
Hiding in the wide verge is a strange monument, a bleached wooden stake set into a cairn of stones. At its foot, faded fabric poppies have fallen from their miniature crosses, while next to it stands an incongruous statue. A small boy in shirt and trousers, stands holding his sunhat while his hair curls around his face, plump and baroque, like a sentimental garden ornament. The blue paint of his trousers is almost weathered away by the rain, while the plaster of his chin has been shattered. His presence makes the scene uncanny, as does the writing on the memorial which is in a heavy black Gothic script, and mostly in German. All I can read is that this commemorates Jager Dirk Knöffel, and that he Passed Away By Accident on the 5th September 1993.
When I get back home, I can find out more. Dirk Knöffel was a German paratrooper who died when his troop carrier overturned on the track, exactly where the monument now stands. What I also discover is that it has been renewed twice in twenty-five years. This seems extraordinary in a place where the barrows and the forts and the ditches have persisted as landmarks and memorials for so long. Their stories have vanished but their presence remains. Here the story still lingers, but I cannot be sure that the memorial will even last my lifetime.
As I get to the end of the path, a single flare arcs up from beyond the ridge, like a slow firework, leaving faint white smoke as it goes. Finally I can see the fighting I have heard all day. A dark grey helicopter hugs the slope then suddenly rises up, twisting in the air like a flailing insect then dropping down out of view once more. Here they are pretending to be at war, learning their trade.
Gore Cross to Westbury. Twelve miles. Bursts of machine gun fire, like executions.
T drives me to Gore Cross and I open the car door to a short burst of machine gun fire, as though the army were executing people, or at least practicing the skill. He is taken aback to hear it so clearly. ‘I thought it would be more like clay pigeon shooting,’ he says. I don’t tell him that this is light relief in comparison with the booms and the bangs, the low rumble when shells slam into the earth.
The sky is clear blue and I set off along an old tarmac road with no shade. However much I have a right of way, and a signposted path, I am still very much in army territory. The farmhouse ahead of me was once elegant and Georgian, but now its windows are bricked up, leaving only a small rectangle of black through which a gun could sight its target. The next farm along has a watchtower overlooking the farmyard, and the machine gun executions are still going on in the distance.
As I go on, the road rises and on the left I can now see the Plain, rough and unmarked, a wilderness of long grass and hawthorn bushes, bowing low under the wind. A brick pillbox stands guard in the middle of nowhere. Up above, larks fly like motes in the burning eye of the sky.
Before I started walking, I thought that skylarks were something so rare that they belonged in the past, that distant place where they flew over Victorian villages in books and Vaughan Williams set their song and flight into patriotic music. To see one, I would have to become a birdwatcher and sit tight in a hide for still and silent hours.
As soon as I set foot on the chalk, I heard them along every path. So many larks that I thought for a long time they must be some other tuneful bird, because if an amateur like me could come across so many, they could not be endangered. I never see them rising, but they are always there, the waterfall of their song tumbling down from the sky, a reminder that the rare and beautiful things might be all around you, and no one needs to be an expert in order to find them.
In amongst all of this, though, it’s also worth remembering that the lark isn’t just singing from the joy and beauty of nature. Its song is one of fear. All that the lark wants to do with its music and swooping is to distract you, to make sure that you don’t hurt its fledgelings, vulnerable in their nest down in the grassland at your feet.
Shroton to Ansty. Fourteen miles. Oddly quiet. I don’t like cows.
I’ve been posting each of my walks onto social media: just photos with a report on distance and gunfire. People are finding it very strange that I want to walk on my own. It’s seen as odd or subversive, or something which needs sympathy. They offer to come out with me and, worse, to bring a dog. That would be a different experience entirely, and not one I want: it would stop me walking at my own pace or thinking my own thoughts; I would have to stop for lunch instead of eating a hard-boiled egg while I carry on.
One of the reasons, I am starting to realise, that I come out on these journeys is to be released from expectations. The rest of my life is so full of urgencies and necessities and other people’s needs that I sometimes think I will be buried by them. What’s for supper, does E have a winter coat, who has drunk all the milk? The house is a whole universe of demands. The noises are the worst, all the machines cry out whenever they need attention and the doorbell rings and nothing will leave me alone. As I write now, the washing machine is sounding off in the kitchen and so clothes need to go out on the line and all too soon it will be time for food, again. However much I do, there is always something else to add to the list and so it can never be ended. Tomorrow will bring more meals, another set of clothes used and discarded, deliveries to be taken in, questions arising and time spent. Only on a road with nothing else to do can I escape all of these chores and requirements. Only on a road do I feel as though I am going forward instead of around.
Gore Cross to Warminster. Ten miles. No gunfire, but low-flying helicopters and dead tanks. And a dead village.
I can only walk this way for five days during the summer, when the army take a break from shooting and shelling and mortar bombs. The long route goes through Imber, which was once a village and is now just a training site for soldiering.
They have at least made visitors welcome. Along the street, signs have been affixed to various buildings, explaining what they once were. Council Houses, 1938. These were only occupied for five years before the army came, symbols of a better future. Now they are brick shells with corrugated iron roofs, no shelter for anyone, no benefit. The handsome red brick manor, Imber Court is burnt out, its windows blinded by metal shutters and a reinforced look out post peering over the brick garden wall. Imber Post Office is only a sign fixed to a thick tree in a grove by the road; it’s hard to believe there was ever a building there.
The empty village is seething today, with cars parked all along the verges. The church is the only building which has not been wrecked. Further along are a set of new houses, constructed only for the army: shells of unfinished breeze blocks with exterior staircases and green metal roofs like no home ever had. These were not built for living in, just warfare. What the army is training for here is FIBUA, fighting in a built up area. The soldiers have another, starker acronym, FISH. Fighting In Someone’s House.
One large group, dressed in flaring summer colours, picnic on a verge, their dog excited and barking at all the passers by. Behind them, a stone farmhouse has had its windows removed, leaving blank absences in the red brick. Police tape has been stretched across the doorway to deter exploration, and signs, like miniature estate agent’s boards, say ‘DANGER. KEEP OUT.’ The picnickers look as though they are at some kind of theme park built around the idea of the breakdown of civil society. It’s like coming to visit the worst case scenario, for a laugh.
As I climb the hill further, my foot kicks something which rattles with a dull clank, like a part falling off a car. On the road is a brass bullet case, flattened and battered but still glinting in the sunlight. Although the signs tell me not to pick up ordnance, this one must have lost its danger by now, and I hold it on the palm of my hand for a moment as though it were an insect. Then I let it go, back into the verge, even though I do want a souvenir.
Wantage towards East Hendred and back. Five miles. They were shooting clay pigeons
Even when I got to the right place, marked on my map, I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I had to climb into over a stile and get into a field. There, set up against the fence, was a single sarsen stone, facing out over the vale as though it were a person taking in the view. In its holes and hollows had been placed three flints and a piece of bright red plastic, so I wasn’t the only visitor to have made the pilgrimage. On its face was a slate plaque, engraved with the words ‘In memory of Penelope Betjeman, 1910-1983, who loved the Ridgeway’. This was what I had come to find.
On the way back, another monument stands alongside the track. I’d hurried past it on the way out, but now I have time to stop and examine it properly. It’s a stone cross commemorating Lord Wantage, set on a Victorian ornamental base, like a market place fountain, and it’s hard not to think that the two memorials have been designed in opposition to one another. Penelope’s is tucked away, so that only those who know will ever see it and takes the shape of something which could easily have arrived on that field edge by accident. His, meanwhile, stands proud on the ridge, the tall cross visible for miles around, and it’s even been placed on a bronze age barrow, for maximum visibility. The people who built that barrow would probably see the symbolism of the two stones as well: his tall, male and erect, hers recumbent and rounded, filled with crevices and niches.
Men also need to have more said about them, it seems. All we hear of Penelope is that she lived, and she loved this place. Lord Wantage, in contrast has to remind us that he owned this entire area and that this cross has been raised up by his wife and that he will lift his eyes up unto the hills from whence comes his peace.
These days though, if you lift your eyes up from Lord Wantage’s monument, peace won’t be all you see. When I drive away, back down the hill, the signs are directing me to Harwell Science Park. This is a former airfield, then the home to Britain’s nuclear scientists, the place where they designed and made atomic bombs. This is a reminder, amongst the ripe summer fields, that not everything grown in the countryside is fruitful. Other, more equivocal things like to hide high on the chalk downland, out of sight of inquisitive passers-by.
Eleven mile circuit via Wansdyke and Tan Hill. Gunshots and a military helicopter.
Stretched across the ridge in front of me is the Wansdyke, that ancient ditch and bank which meanders for fifteen miles along the hills, a prehistoric stop line. Even from this far away, it’s easy to see, as though a boundary from the map has been carved into the earth itself. Or it’s a scar, perhaps, from where two parts of England have been sutured together. The cow parsley and ground elder have lost their white blossom and become stiff stems topped with papery seeds. I crumple the heads between my fingers and scatter the remains on the path like confetti. Something, I hope, will grow.
When I reach the Wansdyke, I cannot believe how high it is, and how much remains. It’s as vast and impressive as the ditches around any prehistoric monument, yet no one ever seems to speak about it and now I stand near it I cannot imagine why. The banks dwarf me as they follow the curves of the chalk ridge, running off into the distance like a path, an invitation as well as a barrier.
Ahead of me, I’ve seen a man on the slopes but then he disappears. He’s dressed for running and unlikely to be a danger but you never know. He should have come a way down the track by now, but he’s disappeared. Has he hidden behind the bank? I approach slowly, approaching up a steep bit of the banks so that I can see him before he sees me. Then it’s fine because another couple are climbing the stile in the next field, coming this way too. I’m on alert, processing all these movements like a deer in an open field. When I do see him again, he’s sitting on the grassy bank in sunshine, cordless headphones on, talking to someone about opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry. He has not had to think even once about the people around him, and I hate him for it.
Kilmington to Bruton. Only seven miles, but the following the old Hard Way, literally.
Within ten paces of leaving the road I have left every other human being far behind. Trees overhang the hollow of the road, the edges thick with brambles, fern and bracken. The air is completely still. In just a few steps I have crossed over into another world entirely, made entirely of green and silence, where lushness absorbs all sound. Anything could happen here, and yet for once it is not people I fear. I would have heard them coming from miles, cracking branches, swishing through the long grass. What frightens me is the profound presence of the place itself, as though the land itself has a soul, one which did not want to be disturbed. I am not meant to be here.
I almost turn back for the easy route along the lanes instead, but that would be an absurd surrender, so I carry on into the green and heavy air. A pigeon springs out of the hawthorn like a shot, and I jump, my heart racing. A few minutes further along, a buzzard launches itself slowly out of the hedge beside me, but at first I cannot not tell what bird it is. Buzzards usually appear in two ways. Most often they are a flat silhouette, circling in a blue sky, recognisable by the white undersides of their wings and the cat like cries they exchange when they climb in pairs. In winter they sit on fence posts in sodden weather, hunched like a vulture and miserable, waiting for the air to change. This one sails slowly past me along the track like an owl, gliding down the green way so low that I can admire the spread of its wings, brown as a ploughed field, and the speckled softness of its feathers. So strange is this that I assume it has to be some unknown bird, but then it turns left into a field, ready to sail upwards, and I hear its distinctive mew, the only sound in this silent waiting place, and I recognise it.
My feet are soaked from the damp grass, the ferns and bracken are dripping water too, Every growing thing is tense and twisted together: leaves and roots and tree branches, brambles and old man’s beard as though they formed one living path, a sentient thing, more present than I could ever be. Ivy twines around the ancient trees. The path goes on and on, its mood not lifting until I pass an unmarked boundary. The trackway is no longer rutted grass, instead it has become the deep brown crumbly soil of a woodland path. The way is still scored deep into a hollow, the trees still meet overhead, but the atmosphere has lifted entirely. Finally I am happy to walk on.
The road carries on gently down the hill, past farms and cottages once more, until I reach an open crossroads. At this point the Hard Way goes straight ahead, alongside a walled piece of woodland and off towards the horizon, but I am turning right, down into the town where T will pick me up. On the map this road looks like another lane, at best a B road, but in real life it’s a fast route taking lots of people from places to place. As it twists and turns downhill, I am wedged against the verge, at the mercy of their speed. A fine drizzle starts and I am not having fun. So much so that a police car stops and asks if I am alright. I haven’t put my coat on yet, perhaps that’s the problem, or maybe I am just not meant to be here. A woman shouldn’t be walking out like this with no reason.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I’m fine. I wanted to walk’. Well be careful then, the policeman tells me, this is a dangerous road and you’ve got another five minutes or so before it gets safe.
All the energy and purpose is drained from me. I have turned off the proper track and am back in the ordinary world. I trudge on as the rain still falls, down the road and back into the town. On my way I pass the art gallery, which is showing an exhibition of the work of women artists. But when I go in, I cannot see anything which looks like a pathway.
Susannah Walker writes about the reverberations of things and places in our daily lives. Her last book, The Life of Stuff, was shortlisted for the James Tait Black biography prize, and she is now writing about women, walking and belonging in the landscape.
She has a degree in English and an MA from the Royal College of Art, and spent a long time as a television producer.