A 24-hour solstice walk
Clive Ruggles’ log of his walk around Wiltshire on June 20–21 which raised over £1400 for the Alice Ruggles Trust, with a lot of help (both walking and fundraising) from Amanda Chadburn
The overall plan:
To walk from 1pm to 1pm, with short breaks, following a route from Market Lavington (NW of Stonehenge) across the Salisbury Plain to Larkhill, then southwards along Byway 12 past Stonehenge to Druid’s Lodge, then on beyond Druid’s Head Farm (SW of Stonehenge); retracing my steps back to Larkhill, then going across to Woodhenge for the solstice dawn, then weaving around Lark Hill, Durrington and Milston, before heading once more out over the Plain, this time towards Sidbury Hill (NE of Stonehenge), and finishing up in Tidworth.
Not that I expect anyone to be greatly interested—more to justify to myself there is slightly more to all this than just pointless wandering: the route broadly follows three of the four Stonehenge sightlines to be described in my forthcoming book Stonehenge: Sighting the Sun, co-authored with Amanda Chadburn. Amanda has very kindly offered to accompany me on most of the daytime walking.
June 20, 2021
12.30 Sue and I rendezvous with Amanda and her husband Steve on the north-western edge of Salisbury Plain, above Market Lavington. If you are a lunar enthusiast then you’ll be interested to know that this is very close to Alexander Thom’s supposed lunar foresight at Gibbet Knoll; our route in towards Stonehenge broadly follows this long lunar sightline. OK, you aren't. Not that we’ll be seeing moonrise or moonset today anyway: it is completely overcast. But at least it’s cool and it’s dry—pretty good walking weather. The plan for the first segment is to walk across the Plain pretty much directly towards Stonehenge, arriving around 5pm at the Bustard Inn, where Sue will meet us with refreshments.
BUT—and it’s a big but... the red flags are flying. They shouldn’t be!! The army know our itinerary and we’ve got clearance to cross the Plain and been told we’d be notified if it became unsafe to cross. Eventually, after a lot of agonising and unsuccessful attempts to contact the relevant people, Amanda and I set off anyway, assuming that whatever has been going on either (i) has now finished and they haven’t got round to removing the flags or (ii) hasn’t yet started and they’ve already put the flags up in preparation.
15.00 What is so marvellous about this landscape is its openness: rolling chalk grassland, seemingly endless meadows dotted around with thick stands of trees, and no visible sign of hedges, fences or (apart from occasional glimpses of Westdown Camp) buildings. There are interesting wildflowers to try to identify and no modern sounds to drown out the skylarks singing above. Total calmness, in other words. Or at least it would be if Sue hadn’t started sending increasingly worried messages that convoys of army vehicles, including tanks and armoured personal carriers, are powering onto the Plain from the far end, heading directly towards us.
15.30 A couple of army landrovers drive past. The occupants wave cheerily. Either they’re unphased to see us or this is a deliberate ploy to relax us before our inevitable panic at finding ourselves caught in the middle of the firing.
16.00 A security vehicle draws up and demands to know what we are doing on the Plain. It turns out that there has been a communications failure somewhere along the line and there is actually some sort of exercise going on, but after a good deal of exchanging names and radio conversations explaining what we are doing, we’re assured that it doesn’t involve live firing and we’re cleared to continue on to the Bustard Inn.
We have just emerged through here!
17.00 We reach Bustard Inn to find a very relieved Sue ready with refreshments and—an unexpected bonus—a portable stove ready to boil of cups of tea and hot chocolate. Luxury!
18.00 This next segment is less appealing in that it mostly involves trekking along a straight and wide dirt road built for two-way army traffic (see top picture), but there are the first glimpses of Stonehenge in the distance between the trees, and lots to interest us archaeologically such as Robin Hood’s Ball causewayed enclosure, which we pass right by. Before long we reach the north-western reaches of Larkhill, in the form of the Artilliery barracks, and follow round its barbed- and razor-wire fence to reach Larkhill village itself, where Steve picks up Amanda and Sue supplies me with dinner (pasty, pork pie, and more hot chocolate) before I set off down Byway 12 for Stonehenge itself.
20.00 Scattered groups of people are already beginning to congregate and walk down towards Stonehenge. The site itself has been closed off because of the Covid restrictions, so as to avoid the crowds of thousands who normally gather there for solstice dawn. I was meant to be doing an interview for EH’s “livestream” broadcast here around the time of sunset, but this has now been moved to the Visitors’ Centre, 2 km westwards along what was once the A344. As I’m early and they’re having difficulty sending anyone to meet me, I offer to walk there along the road. It wasn’t on my itinerary, and a seemingly empty EH bus passes me twice, but what the heck, I am meant to be walking. I roll up at the Visitors’ Centre still a bit early, and chat to the bus driver who says he’d have happily stopped to pick me up if anyone had told him to. In retrospect I’m glad he didn’t.
21.00 So much for the live interview: they are having technical issues and are unable to connect the live feed to the internet. They interview me anyway in the hope of using the footage around dawn (I still haven’t found out if they actually did). Grateful thanks to Heather for very kindly offering to drive me back to the Stonehenge entrance so that I can resume my intended itinerary on time.
(I actually took this picture in 2005—access into Stonehenge wasn’t possible on this trip.)
22.00 Walking south along Byway 12 as it gets dark. It’s wonderful to have the company of Emma, who has walked up from Druid’s Lodge to meet me, along with her dog Gypsy. They end up staying with me beyond the end of the Byway, where Emma has parked, all the way out to the furthest point, north of Druid’s Head farm, and back, by which time it is after midnight. The objective on this stretch was to reach the nearest place on a public right of way to the end of the winter solstice sunset sightline from Stonehenge –so yes, there was a point to it!
June 21, 2021
01.00 This is the darkest part of the night and I am returning along the 3km-stretch of Byway 12 up to the A303, which (until it gets there) is well away from any roads, by the light of a head-torch. There is something exhilarating, if slightly scary, about doing this stretch alone—the sense of personal challenge, of doing something completely different. I’m not feeling in the least weary or tired yet—I’ve not been pushing myself in terms of distance or speed—the aim is simply to keep going. And there are two things I’m very grateful for: the head-torch battery is holding out and the weather has stayed dry. Byway 12 is a muddy lane, mostly easy going but a bit wet and slippery in places after recent rain, and I wouldn’t like to be navigating it without light or with steamed-up glasses.
01.30 I’ve just got past the one major obstacle—where the Byway descends into a long (100m?), wide and deep (?) puddle/pool/lake. This necessitates a diversion through long grass with hidden tyre gullies where it would be all too easy to slip and fall sideways into the water, or still worse to trip up and sprain something. (Or both, I suppose.) Now I’m past that, everything ahead seems like a bit of a doddle, although of course I’ve still got almost half the walk to go...
02.15 I’ve survived crossing the A303 (twice)!! Doing it in the early hours is clearly the way. There wasn’t a single vehicle in sight, although several lorries passed by shortly afterwards. Trying this trick during the day would be lethal. I’m now passing the Stonehenge entrance where a number of police are filing out from the hut and heading out onto the site, looking as if they mean business. I don’t hear any sounds of frolicking individuals awaiting the solstice out there. Either they’ve all gone away again already or are quietly sleeping somewhere.
03.30 My only solitary rest stop. Here I am, sitting on a bench in the middle of Larkhill in the middle of the night, eating energy bars and charging my phone and trying to look inconspicuous. A few people in cars draw up nonetheless, but only to wish me a happy solstice or else to ask the way to Stonehenge. I’m happy to sit down but, surprisingly, don’t feel any urge to fall asleep. Perhaps the cold wind that has got up is a help in that.
04.52 Solstice dawn at Woodhenge. Given that Woodhenge is aligned on the summer solstice sunrise like Stonehenge, and given that Stonehenge itself is closed off, I was expecting crowds here. So too evidently were the powers that be, as they’ve gone to as much trouble to block off all the vehicular access to Woodhenge as they have to Stonehenge. But when I got here at 4.30am the place was completely deserted. Amanda (who has re-joined me for the event) and I are watching the sunrise in glorious isolation. Or would be if you could see the sun through the cloud. A couple of others come along a few minutes later, bringing the total number of spectators to 4, although given the cloud the other two are probably not aware that they missed the vital moment.
06.30 We’ve walked up through the eastern part of Larkhill around the new housing development there, past the site of the timber post row discovered a few years ago that is also solstitially aligned (honestly, do read the book!). We’re now striking out along that alignment to the north-east. Our route is taking us along the northern edge of Durrington, alongside the river, a very pretty part of the village with several thatched cottages. No creaking limbs yet but I am suddenly feeling that I’d fall asleep instantly if I allowed myself to sit down. With Amanda’s encouragement I keep going slowly until the tiredness passes. It is starting to rain.
07.15 Milston: our rendezvous point with Sue, who supplies breakfast and much needed hot coffee/tea. It is now properly raining, not particularly heavily, but has clearly set in. I’m grateful that it held off until daylight.
09.30 And so back on to the Plain. We are heading towards Sidbury Hill, prominent on the skyline, but this time we’re navigating around the red flags as we follow the army’s stipulated diversion, and thus avoid walking through the middle of a live firing range. Despite the diversion we’re getting some excellent glimpses of some of the round barrows clustered on Silk Hill. Amanda also points out the kiwi. Kiwi?!?? I knew about the White Horses and the Cerne Abbas Giant, of course, but the existence of a chalk-figure kiwi had quite escaped me until now. Amanda tells me it was created in 1919 by New Zealand soldiers who’d fought in WW1 and were awaiting their passage back home.
11.00 As we reach the appropriately named Sun Plantation (in terms of its position on the alignment, not today’s weather) we meet Sue coming towards us. An even more welcome and unexpected sight, nestled in a small clearing, is 3 portaloos. Here in the middle of a copse in open country they seem to be nothing other than a gift from the gods, although the sign inside telling you not to drop ammunition down the toilet brings you quickly down to earth. There is a huge tank obstacle course just beyond here, but sadly no actual tanks (or, rather, tank drivers) being put through their paces here today.
12.00 Beyond the tank training ground and an area bustling with activity (army vehicles, groups of marching soldiers, etc) the route disappears into the trees and rapidly becomes a woodland path which, like a secret passage out of Narnia, suddenly lands us back into the civilian world of normality in the form of a North Tidworth housing estate and primary school. I’ve arrived here an hour early, so, while Amanda waits for Steve, Sue and I walk down into the town centre to find a coffee shop. Being completely unsuccessful in that, we head back up to the car by a different route and I do another short circuit into the woods and back out a different way by the school. Not the most exciting way to finish the walk but the important thing is that I made it!
A huge thank you once again to all the people who have sponsored me. I hope one or two of you have been interested enough to read this. In the end, the walk amounted to 55.2 km, about 5km more than I’d intended. Almost a week on, my feet, knees and leg muscles are in surprisingly good shape, although my back still twinges a bit from carrying far more water than I actually needed. All in all, it was an unforgettable experience and I’m absolutely delighted that we raised over £1,400 for the Trust — almost 6 times the intended target. Huge thanks to Amanda for doing over half the walk with me, as well as to Emma for her company which really kept me going through the first half of the night. And, of course, immense thanks for Sue for always being in the right place at the right time with much needed refreshments and—this will never be forgotten—freshly made hot drinks.
CR —26 Jun 2021, updated 27 Jun 2021. Photos by Clive, Sue and Amanda