The GR20 – Day 4 The Cirque de Solitude

Everyone who’s made the effort to read about the GR20 before heading out to Corsica has heard of the infamous Cirque de Solitude, the most technical day on the route.

And while looking down into the bottom of the Cirque from the Col Perdu it certainly feels like you’re staring down a rocky cliff into an abyss, it is certainly achievable if you can hold your nerve.

Day 4 – Asco to Vallone  8 hours 45

Distance 9km approx with 1000m ascent and 1000m descent

We left the lovely hotel as Asco filled with the first decent breakfast in days (and real coffee!) and headed up the track early. We set out at 6.30am to make the most of the day, and to ensure we were in and out of the Cirque before the predicted bad weather arrived. As the route through the Cirque is entirely rock slabs with chains to hold it is not to be attempted in wet or stormy weather.

The path from Asco starts out as a woodland track which heads uphill until it finally becomes bouldery.

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As we got closer to Col Perdu the path becomes more rock slabs and requires hands to ascend.

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When we arrived at Col Perdu just before 10am, a lot of walkers were already en route and had stopped for a break. Spotting that many of these were from large groups our guide insisted we continued into the Cirque right away to get ahead of the bigger groups, which was certainly appreciated.

The descent into the Cirque de Solitude begins as a scree path and quickly becomes steep rock slabs with the flashes of paint marking the route and leading to the sections of chains. Without these chains the route would certainly require rock climbing skills and rope, but with the chains all you really need is a bit of bravery, good footwork, a tight grip and encouragement!

Being a small group we managed to descend the Cirque at a relatively good speed, though its hardly quick scrambling and abseiling down rocks and chains.

DSCF6706 DSCF6713 DSCF6732looking back up to the bigger groups behind us.

DSCF6729 the bottom of the Cirque – a rocky abyss with no escape routes out

We had a short break at the bottom of the Cirque to collect nerves and have something to eat before we started the ascent back out.

The ascent up the other side was very similar in terms of technicality although there was one short ladder to ascend.

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As the route gets closer to the top of the col it reverts back to bouldery rocks and scree before you appear at the Bocca Minuta where we stopped for a well earned rest. Getting from Col Perdu on one side of the Cirque to Bocca Minuta on the other took us about 3 hours.

The descent down to Vallone is not exactly much quicker as it continues to be a rocky path of boulders and bare rock. So when we reached the Refuge de Tighjettu we had to stop for a well earned hot chocolate.

From here is was only another half hour to reach our refuge for the night at Auberge de Vallone. This was our first night in tents on the GR20. Tent accommodation along the GR20 is variable, tonight we were in pop up style tents which had clearly been up since the start of the season. The mattresses are foam and so were comfortable and aren’t left in the tent so they do get aired. Toilet and washing facilities are limited with only one toilet and one shower to cater for everyone. So we were happy we were off to a hotel the following night.

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Days 1-3

Tackling the GR20

The GR20 – the first 3 days

Heading South on the GR20 is the direction most people travel, and while you could go against the flow I preferred this direction for getting the difficult bits out of the way first. Or at least the most difficult, as there isn’t exactly anything easy about the GR20.

The first three days on the route are useful for testing skills in the group and for working out a suitable pace to be able to ascend 1000m+ each day and not end up out of breath.

We had to carry over night kit (sleeping bags etc) on these days as the two refuges do not have road access.

Day 1 – Calenzana to Refuge Ortu di u Piobbu 6 hours 15

Distance 10km approx with 1295m ascent and 50m descent

We left Calenzana at 9am collecting fresh bread from the bakery en route out of the village. The route starts to climb almost immediately as we left and zig zags through woodland with great views out to Calvi and the coast to distract us as we walked. DSCF6546 DSCF6547 DSCF6550

We stopped in the woodland for lunch and then continued up, crossing the col at Bocca a u Saltu. From here the path becomes more rocky and requires a bit of scrambling – it seemed a bit daunting to the novices in the group but considering what was to come, this was only a simple test. There is no exposure though on this scrambling so its relatively easy going.

As the path crossed a small gully the first chain of the GR20 is here to aid a down climb of a small rock.

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There’s not much downhill to reach to the refuge d’Ortu di u Piobbu, our first stop on the route. We arrived at 3.15pm having spent quite a bit of time having lunch and breaks throughout the day.

Quite a few tents were already pitched when we arrived but having gone with a guide we already had bunks in the dormitory booked. The refuge is basic but clean and as with all refuges on the route, had thick mattresses.


The only downside to the refuge is the long walk to the toilet from the dormitory, but the food was good and the bed comfy. I’d packed a 3 season sleeping bag thinking it would get cold at night. Sleeping in the dorm this wasn’t the case at all and halfway through the night I found myself grateful for having carrier a thin liner with me too.

Day 2 – To Carrozu 7hrs 45

Distance approx 8km with ascent 750m descent 1050m

We took the high level route to Carrozu from the refuge. Having started walking at 7.30am after a breakfast of stale bread and jam (get used to it!) we weren’t exactly set up for the days walk.

The route heads through the woodland before contouring around the hillside to the Cirque de Bonifatu. Already the walking had turned into picking our way through rocks and scrambling upwards, but thankfully there wasn’t a great deal of ascent today.

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The view across the valley was amazing as we contoured around the Cirque.

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In the summer you will see lots of lizards around who scavenge for crumbs.DSCF6616

There’s a few awkward steps to do here but nothing too challenging, but it does slow you down.


The descent down to the refuge at Carrozu is a steep scree path which is rocky and bouldery and is a good initiation into the descents to follow on the GR20.

Carozzu hut is tucked away in a clearing in the woodland and with its balcony overlooking the valley below and the smell of incense it felt a little more relaxed than the previous night. Again, a long walk to the loo from the dorm passed the camping area, but at least they are entertaining eco toilets with a very interesting cartoon to read describing how they work. (I should have taken a picture!)


Day 3 – To Asco 7 hours 15

Distance approx 6km with ascent 860m descent 710m

We awoke early and set off walking at 7.30am, which was a blessing as the sun was scorching hot very early in the day. Straight out of the refuge we headed through the woodland, scrambling over rocks and using chains to head around to the river and crossing the suspension bridge.

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Once over the other side we continued to use chains to ascend the valley up the Spasimata gorge, a really spectacular valley. The chains seemed a little unnecessary in places but the slabs are huge and in wet weather I can imagine are treacherous.

DSCF6650 DSCF6658 DSCF6660 looking back down the valley we’d ascended

The ascent became slower as we reached the top – out of the shade and into the hot sunshine and had started to have to pick our way over the rocks. So it was a welcome relief when we reached Lac de la Muvrella for a lunch stop and to dip our feet.

DSCF6668 DSCF6667From the lake the route became scree and large boulders till we reached the pass and after circling the valley we began our steep descent into Asco. Whilst the buildings of Asco are visible quite quickly it seemed to take us a very long time to get down to them, well over an hour. By which point delirium felt like it was setting in and I thought I’d seen a marmot under the large tree! (its a tree stump!)

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Asco felt like a treat after 2 nights in refuges as we had twin rooms with hot showers and an indoor loo! As well as great food and an opportunity to wash clothes. Discussions then turned to the day ahead of us and tackling the infamous Cirque de Solitude.DSCF6687

Corsica GR20 if you dare

I’m going to publish my pictures and tales of the GR20 in a few different posts, as there is so much so say about this trail and so many pictures!

But I should start with the some of the facts you should be aware of if you’re going to undertake this trek. Also this website is fantastic for general facts of the route – Corsica for hikers.

1. Be under no illusions, this really is the hardest walking trek in Europe. I have done a lot of walking and scrambling and even I found sustaining scrambling and the required ascent and descent needed to be a challenge, doing it every day for 13 days for at least 7 hours a day. Some of the days, especially the infamous Cirque de Solitude have chains and require a head for heights (without the chains you would be in rock climbing territory).

2. Take walking poles. Europeans will have no issue with this, but Brits tend to think they are a sign of weakness – trust me your knees will thank you!

3. Accommodation and food along the way is basic – if you’re luck enough to stay in refuges along the way they are of variable quality, and below the typical standard in the Alps. But they are remote, have fantastic views and this is a once in a lifetime experience. Refuges fill up quickly, (meaning that early starts every day are essential) so you could find yourself in a tent – these are variable quality too. I will post about each place I stayed as I go along. If you’re super lucky and have the odd day in hotels along the route, make the most of the hot showers and soft beds!

4.  Be prepared for all weather possibilities. I travelled in July and expected to be scorching hot whilst walking. This was certainly the case on most days, but we had one day of torrential rain and another of cold wind and fog, so be prepared. I didn’t find July to be too crowded as suggested by some websites.

5. Be fit. Obvious really if you’re going to do a long distance trek. But each day has on average 1000m of ascent and descent and while the walking is shorter in length in the north the complexity of the terrain is more severe, and in the south the terrain isn’t much easier but the distances are greater.

6. Consider a guide. This trek is probably really simple to sort out on your own as the national park authority has centralised booking of refuges and all meals can be bought as you go along reducing the food needed to be carried. But be aware that a significant number of trekkers who do this trail independently drop out at the half way point in Vizzavona – our Corsican guide suggested as much as 60%. If your guide is local to Corsica they will also be able to tell you a lot about the landscape, plants and animals and history of the island.

7. Yes North to South is the typical direction most people hike the route, and while it could be quieter doing in the other direction, I believe its better to get the more difficult terrain out of the way first while you have the energy!


The final marathon to Kirk Yetholm – Day 15

Ok, not quite a marathon but I knew this day was going to be tough and so I was mentally prepared for the long walk ahead. 26 miles of bog trotting over moorland, it was going to take all of my willpower to keep going.

Bryness to Kirk Yetholm (25.75 miles/ 41.2 km)

I set out from Bryness campsite at 6.30am in order to make sure I had plenty of time to do the final leg of the walk and to be able to sit and have lunch (a thing I rarely do) and rest when I needed to (also not common).

From Bryness the Pennine Way heads straight up through the woodland to access the moorland. This is the last view of trees or civilisation I would have for hours as I headed our over the Otterburn Ranges. Much of this area is used as military training ground and so signs keep you from straying from the footpath.

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Heading across the moors I couldn’t yet see the distance or terrain I would be crossing, or even the Roman camp at Chew Green which I was heading for first.


This cairn marks the only archaeological feature I saw on the whole walk across Chew Green. But after bog trotting and already having damp feet when I saw the sign marking an alternative route to Windy Gyle which was half a mile shorter I took it. So I only looked down on the roman camp (only identifiable from the route by markings in the grass). Having not gone to the small car park I have no idea if there was something worth seeing there. From where I was, it didn’t seem worth the extra half mile to find out.  DSCF6265 DSCF6268

So I trudged on.



Eventually the route comes to the old Roman Road of Dere Street which linked York and Perthshire and where this section is a scheduled ancient monument. Here the Pennine way skirts around the route to the right of the fence line.


It wasn’t even mid morning and I was starving so when I reached Yearning Saddle Lamb Hill Mountain refuge I was very happy to have a short break and scoff and entire malt loaf. 10am. I couldn’t even use the excuse it was elevenses. I don’t think I would have wanted to plan to stay at the hut but it was perfectly clean and tidy (I’m comparing to Glen’s Hut a few days earlier, but it was pretty spotless for a hut) and would be perfect if the weather was horrendous or you found yourself benighted.

DSCF6283 DSCF6284Whilst I think paving on peat moorland is a necessary evil to prevent erosion, I don’t enjoy walking on it as it given the knees and feet a bit more of a beating. But after bogs so far I was actually happy to see paving across to Windy Gyle.

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I reached Russell’s Cairn Trig point on Windy Gyle just before 12, a perfect time for a break and a breather. Distance wise I wasn’t even half way yet, which was a challenge mentally rather than physically. Supposedly the site of Lord Francis Russell’s mysterious death in 1585 the cairn is actually thought to be bronze age. At this point in the walk the history washed over me and I was more interested in the chocolate I was scoffing.


Not long after here I could see my first sight of Cheviot, the huge flat hill did not inspire me and having read the commentary in my 1974 Constable guide to the Pennine way, where Cheviot is described as miles of peat hags and lacking a significant view I had already made my mind up that if it was still like that I wasn’t bothering to make the 2 km addition just to visit the trig point.


Thankfully the route must have been so bad even across to King’s Seat cairn that much of the Way has recently been paved, which is fantastic, even if my knees where beginning to grumble.


However I reached the point at where the path splits for the diversion to Cheviot Cairn and the terrain across didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. I decided for the first time in my life that a trig point wasn’t worth the effort, and instead headed through the gate. Even though it means one day I will have to return to ‘bag’ it I still don’t regret it; at that point in the day I would have cursed all the way and been miserable. I was more interested in getting to the next Mountain hut and having a late lunch. (I’ve later read that it is indeed paved now, but still I was too tired to bother at that particular time.)DSCF6303 DSCF6301

So I headed through the gate and off to Auchope cairn where I stopped for a quick snack.

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It was 2pm when I arrived at The Schil mountain refuge and whilst my cheese and onion pasty was well and truly squashed it was the best thing I’d ever eaten.


The Schil hut sits at the col before you ascend to The Schil summit and as such has a great view across to Cheviot’s better side, of Hen Hole where alpine vegetation remains. The sun had finally made an appearance and so had my smile, (perfect combination of sunshine and cheese!) I also formed the opinion around this point in the day that it was a shame that the huts weren’t like those I’ve been to in the Alps, as I could have murdered a coffee or a strong hot chocolate. But I imagine I was one of only a handful of people (if that) who were likely to walk past here today and its also nice to have the total quiet that emptiness brings.


From there the route continues over The Schil summit and the splits providing a high a low alternative into Kirk Yetholm. I chose the low route (again not something I would usually do).

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The route has been diverted around Burnhead farm compared to my rather old OS map, but once there I reached tarmac and a long slog down into Kirk Yetholm on the road.

Farm’s often have unsually things lying around, but I think only in Scotland would you find a Tunnock’s container!


Kirk Yetholm was a great relief when I arrived there 10 hours and 15 minutes after setting off and celebrated with a free pint in the pub (available to all completers!)

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Woodlands and Moors – Pennine Way day 14

Not the wettest day of the Pennine Way, but certainly not the driest! It was also not a particularly long day, which was good as by the time I arrived at Bryness at just after lunch it started and didn’t stop raining.

Bellingham to Bryness (15 miles/ 24 km)

Leaving Bellingham from the north of the village I could see I was heading for the rain and into the clouds. Unlike the day before when I’d tanned quite nicely whilst bog trotting from Housestead, it was immediately clear that it was never going to get sunny on the way to Bryness.



Just beyond Blakelaw farm there is an alternative path marked on the map, and while not an official Pennine way diversion (at least on my 15 year old OS map) there was a fairly old signpost suggesting it as a diversion. In hindsight the shortest route is not always the best. The upper route contours around the hill to Hareshaw House, the lower route follows the wall lower down and probably cuts less than 1km from the walk. I’d have preferred to have walked an extra 1km!


So I chose the alternative route, and waded through and jumped across the bogs to get to the track just below the house. Not worth the diversion at all!

Once I reached the road and donned my waterproof, I crossed and headed into the mist. Despite the route crossing open moorland it is very easy to follow, even in the mist.



As the path gets near to the woodland at Brownrigg Head its clear that the woodland is in the process of being felled.

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This little chap is the only conversation I had all day, and he was only a fledgling so he was probably a bit startled!

Eventually the path skirt the edge of the woodland and after more damp feet it joins the woodland track and on to terra firma!

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The track is however long and a bit dull to walk down but does take you all the way in to Bryness, so there is no need to take the tiny Pennine Way diversions which loop on and off the track. Why get more wet? Eventually the track comes down to Blakehopeburnhaugh where the path diverts off and follows the river on a lovely woodland path to Bryness.

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Heading ever northwards – Pennine Way day 13

As the Pennine Way heads northwards it drifts from towns to only crossing through small farms and villages. Heading to Bellingham the only conversation I had all day was with the odd sheep!

Housestead to Bellingham (13.5 miles/ 21.5 Km)

I was lucky enough to get dropped off on the road just below Cuddy Crag where the Pennine Way turns off Hadrian’s Wall to head northwards. I could see right away though that it was going to be a day of wet feet.

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The walk is across moorland and through woodlands for much of the way, so when I arrived at civilisation at both Willow Bog farm and Leadgate road, there was a certain amount of relief to standing on firm ground!

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This is an uninteresting photo below, but at this point in the day I was finding it childishly funny that I was looking at Shitlington Hall.


From here I climbed the small crags to head down into the town of Bellingham.  DSCF6217 DSCF6218

Along Hadrian’s Wall – Pennine Way day 12

A day off from wading through bogs was much appreciated as I headed out over the section of the Pennine Way which overlaps with the Hadrian’s Wall national trail. This section of the route is possibly the best signposted along the whole route, probably due to the popularity and that two national trails link up here.

Greenhead to Housestead (10 miles/16 km)

It was nice to know I only had a few hours of walking today and that I would be able to avoid bog trotting, so it was even nicer to have the sun shining too. Starting at Greenhead the first encounter with Hadrian’s Wall is Thirlwell Castle, which was actually built in the early 14th Century by John Thirlwell as a family home; built from recycled Roman stone. It did however prove to repel attacks during the Anglo-Scottish border raids in the 15th and 16th centuries until it was abandoned in the 17th century. Saved from further dereliction by Northumberland National Park Authority there is an information board highlighting the castle’s history. Despite it being at the start of the walk, it’s worth a look.


From here the route heads eastwards crossing a few minor roads and former quarry sites, now restored as wildlife habitats. Much of Hadrian’s Wall is a World Heritage site so despite the loss of sections to quarrying and theft of stone for local buildings over the centuries it is still an impressive structure and a fascinating opportunity to get close to Roman history as you walk.


The path generally follows quite close to the Wall itself, allowing you to see the best of the Wall itself. If you are able to stay in the Haltwistle area and have a free day from walking it is worth visiting some of the large Roman forts in the area which are a few miles from the route.

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At Cawfields I reached another quarry, which has destroyed much of Hadrian’s Wall by removing the face of the Whin Sill. As the sign below notes, “Whinstone is the local name for the hard, fine-grained black rock called dolerite, which here is part of an enormous sheet, forming the Whin Sill. This was valued particularly for the surfacing of roads.”

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I continued on towards Housestead Roman Fort where the route gets particularly busy due to the popularity of the Fort. After today’s walk I’m certainly keen to do Hadrian’s Wall National Trail at some point!

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Following the Roman Road to Hadrian’s Wall – Day 11

I’m not exactly a purist, always happy to get off the beaten track to get to where I’m going. But when tackling the Pennine way the whole point is that you remain on the route as much as possible. Alston to Greenhead was one of the only days on the route that I had wished I’d taken an alternative path to get to where I was going. Ok, that’s a bit unfair as there are some really lovely sections along the route, but there are also some very boggy bits!

Alston to Greenhead (16 Miles/26 km)

So be warned, look at the map carefully and decide if you really want to bog trot over moors or head along the South Tyne trail for part of the way, which uses the old train line and runs along the valley bottom. Its possible to take this route as far as Lambley before picking up the Pennine Way again. You could go all the way to Haltwistle if you wished, but then you’d be missing out the day walking along Hadrian’s Wall which would be a shame.

Alston is only a small market town but boasts the fame of being the highest in England.


From Alston the path briefly follows the river before crossing the A689 and heading up onto the fells. The route becomes immediately boggy as it heads across the moorland, crossing Gilderdale Burn and back across the A689.DSCF6111 DSCF6118DSCF6119

As the route crosses under the old railway line there are some fantastic viaducts and wild garlic growing by the river. (Its a good job I’m a solo walker!)


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From Burnstone the path then follows the old Roman road towards Greenhead and Hadrian’s Wall, across more moorland and eventually farmland. If you want to head for Greenhead village then you can’t escape this bit of the route, its very beautiful but pretty boggy!

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Up and Over Cross Fell – Pennine Way Day 10

I have to admit to being a bit excited about the prospect of finally finishing the Pennine Way over a final week of walking after having started this route 8 years ago. So taking a week off work and roping in my parents as willing sherpas I headed out on the fells.

Dufton to Alston (18.75 Miles/ 30 Km)

Heading out I had a skip in my step, eager to get on the fells. I did however have a minor hangover from a great night in the Stag Inn, the fantastic pub in the village (which does excellent meals). Despite being in sunshine in Dufton I could already see that Great Dun Fell and Cross Fell were shroud in mist.

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From Knock Old Man trig I trudged on into the mist, double checking my bearing to make sure I was definitely heading towards Great Dun Fell. The path is actually easy to follow once you head off Knock Old Man and is even paved in parts. Battling through the wind and fog I was grateful to not find myself in the Helm Wind which rages across the Fell top for much of the year.


It was a bit of a surprise to find a tarmac road leading to the mast on Great Dun Fell but even more surprising were the 25 young army lads coming towards my as I descended its summit!

Despite being the highest point in the Pennines and the highest point in England outside of the Lake District, Cross Fell summit was a bit of a let down. A relatively flat summit with a trig point and a low shelter, made worse by the lack of a view.


I headed directly off the summit, bearing off towards Greg’s hut to avoid missing the track to it.

Greg’s Hut was also a surprise as I had pictured a wooden hut in my head, so it was interesting to find a real building complete with guest book, chairs, candles and a portrait of the man it was dedicated to.



The track from Greg’s hut to Garrigill is long and an uninteresting plod; it may have been a nicer walk had I had a view.

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Once in Garrigill I picked up the path along the river and followed it to Alston, my stop for the day. The woodland river walk made a nice contrast to the earlier slog across the moors.

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The Ridgeway and Avebury Stone Circles

Making the most of the gorgeous sunshine on Saturday we headed off to Barbury Castle for a circular walk along the Ridgeway National Trail.

I’ll have to admit that, as a northern lass who lives within spitting distance of the Peak District and the Pennine Way, the Ridgeway wasn’t exactly awe inspiring. But, having woken that morning in the busy and built up Reading, it was certainly lovely to escape to the countryside. Even if you could see Swindon and the M4 from the top of the hill. (And yes, I concede it was a hill, even by northern standards I was going to let Barbury Castle be on a hill).

We had a quick potter around the castle, which is really an Iron Age hillfort, before heading off eastwards along the Ridgeway.

For those of you like me, who know nothing of the Ridgeway and its importance – it is recognised as Britain’s oldest road following a route used since prehistoric times. Established as a National Trail in 1972 the route extends from Avebury in Wiltshire to finish 87 miles later at Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire.

So to make the most of the route we took in the section from Barbury Castle to Ogbourne St George, before turning south off the Ridgeway and heading to Ogbourne St Andrew and then heading back north to our start – the entire circle being about 7 miles long. So a nice couple of hours in the sunshine.

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Afterwards we headed to Avebury to see one of the largest prehistoric stone circles in Europe and certainly the largest in the UK. The site is impressive with a large outer stone circle and two inner stone circles. Unfortunately many of the original stone have been replaced by concrete pillars indicating their location.

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