A white snake across a green hillside, says the poet Edward Thomas of a chalk footpath. He was speaking of one of the many white serpentine ways that criss-cross England's downlands, downs being a term for the chalk hills that stretch across southern England. It was often said that the Romans gave us roads, but this is a myth born of classical snobbery, the belief that the Greeks and Romans were a civilising force among hordes skin clad savages. Forget the fact that the Romans had gladiator fights while the Celtic "savages" did not! There were roads in Britain long before Rome, and archaeologists have found traces of some beneath the Roman roads, showing that the Romans in some cases simply improved existing paths.
The most ancient long distance chalk path known in Britain is the Ridgeway, which is part of the longer Ickneild Way, that runs across southern Britain from Salisbury Plain in Wessex to Norfolk. The word Ickneild may be linked to the Celtic tribe the Iceni, those who were led to their doom by Boudicca [Boaddiccea] as they rebelled against atrocities by the supposedly civilized Romans. Thus it links several economically important parts of Roman Britain: Salisbury Plain, the site of Stonehenge and its rich ritual landscape; the Thames Valley ;and Norfolk, always an area with a rich pastoral economy and good trading connections across the North Sea.
The Ridgeway is that part of the Ickneild way that runs along the chalk ridge of the Downs. There was in ancient times a great advantage to having a route along the chalk ridge, it was dry. When people see the well-drained and well farmed land of Britain they tend to think that it was ever thus,but they err, for Britain is a wet place, and thus the valleys were often muddy. Many were also forested, making travel arduous. Furthermore, the chalk ridge had advantages, the open land meant that you could see enemies coming, and there were hill forts on the route, which meant that there were places for traders to stay and even take refuge.
The route is now a single track, but in ancient times it was a range of routes taken across the country, roughly parallel with each other. It undulates along the gently rising and falling downs, making for a pleasant and peaceful walk.The part which is known to be very ancient runs for eighty seven miles from Overton Hill near the ancient sacred site of Avebury, A stone circle once larger than Stonehenge, to the Goring Gap, a pass in the Thames Valley where the valley narrows as it goes through an ancient glacial spillway.
Robert Macfarlane in his wonderful book, the Old Ways, [p291] describes the Ridgeway as arguably the most sacralized terrain in Europe, a place of vast devotional interventions in the landscape:megaliths and henges, long and round barrows,and the "cryptically simple edifice" of Silbury Hill, a man-made hill erected for a ritual purpose possibly connected with the rituals of Stonehenge, which is visible from its summit. Macfarlane regards the Stone Age landscape of the Ridgeway as landscape theatre and observes that walking is crucial to the perception of it. The approach is of great importance. Merely to whizz along on a motorbike kills the appreciation, you need to draw nigh at walking pace so as to come upon a a slow realization of the sacred significance of the place. Just as fast food rarely is fine dining, so fast experiences are only lightly digested, wheres to be appreciated an experience sometimes must come slowly. Profundity takes time.