Of Ancient Avenues Walked Alone

I imagine my forebears living in southern England, roughly twenty thousand years ago, firmly in charge and running things with benevolence and wisdom. I imagine the stones they carved, the talismen they carried, the knowledge they held in their heads. I know they had bad dental hygiene--there's no need to ruin it for me, okay?

The places that were walked are fascinating to me. Who did the walking? Why did they have strange languages and songs that are now lost forever? What did they eat? Why did they choose to live in England?

THE Ridgeway is the oldest continuously used road in Europe, dating back to the Stone Age. Situated in southern England, built by our Neolithic ancestors, it’s at least 5,000 years old, and may even have existed when England was still connected to continental Europe, and the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine.

Once it probably ran all the way from Dorset in the southwest to Lincolnshire in the northeast, following the line of an escarpment — a chalk ridge rising from the land — that diagonally bisects southern England. Long ago it wasn’t just a road, following the high ground, away from the woods and swamps lower down, but a defensive barrier, a bulwark against marauders from the north, whomever they may have been. At some point in the Bronze Age (perhaps around 2,500 B.C.), a series of forts were built — ringed dikes protecting villages — so the whole thing became a kind of prototype of Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England.

The land here is downland, somewhere between moorland and farmland, hill after hill curving to the horizon in chalk slopes (the word down is related to dune). Here on these pale rolling hills, the plowed fields, littered with white hunks of rock, sweep away in gradations of color, from creamy white to dark chocolate. The grassland becomes silvery as it arches into the distance. The wind always seems to be blowing. The landscape is elemental, austere, with a kind of monumental elegance. The formal lines of the fields and hills not only speak of the severity of life in the prehistoric past, but would also match some well-tended parkland belonging to an earl.

You know, I might have been that earl. I might have been the one to say, "okay, we're going to put a picture of a horse here, and we're going to do it by removing the grass and the dirt so that all we have left is the chalk." I am exceedingly good with a shovel, you see.