above steyning crop

River and Hill

Home and Heading Out

By Jim Hindle, Jan 14 2012 08:00AM

In many ways that’s how it all started; a track and a ford in the river. That’s why the castle was built here in any event; subjugation aside, at least half the idea must have been to defend the inland waterway where the then still navigable river met the trade route running east to west. But people have been travelling on the back of the Downs long before all that; finding easy going clear of the trees and the relative swamp of the Weald. So it should not be too surprising that there was a settlement at least nearby this old fording place and the town it helped bring into being; neolithic settlers digging out their causewayed camp up on the hill to the West.

The tracks today are still well used and tell in their own way a story all of their own of how people lived here and made their way through from the earliest times to today; footsore or buoyant, droving or riding on horses. And in their way the tracks on the Downs, these very literal highways, run towards and then span out from the upland, heartland inner landscape of Wiltshire and its many monuments; all of them mementos of a time when this ritualized landscape very probably formed the site of pilgrimage from all corners of the country. For a vast and what has been called a vertigo-inducing expanse of time in our so called prehistory, people have walked up or down the ridges that form the backbone of the South – South Downs, North Downs, the Berkshire Downs and Chilterns, Cotswolds, Mendips, the Ridgeway where it runs down to the sea; all of them fingers from Salisbury Plain’s palm.

And ever since, the Downs on our door have offered a promise of freedom and even escape – the track at the end of the lane lies relatively dormant now but still vivid when we’re graced by winter sun and sits as a reminder of the Spring, speaking then of days on foot and distant cities with their greens and spires and – further on – the hallows of the ancient stones and stories of both friendship and belonging. And with that, coming down the hill at the end of the day or the even the summer itself there sits the peace of coming home. Host to farms from the earliest times, stocked with a people who knew how to till the light soil and in such numbers that to be out on the tracks and the forts is still to the feel the echo of their silent press, these hills have always been as much about home and settlement as the perennial call to pull on your boots and head out.

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