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The Ridgeway rising westwards on the northern slope of Barbury Hill, below Barbury Castle in Wiltshire (June 2004)

As the last ice age relinquished its grip on the British Isles some ten or twelve thousand years ago, the tundra the receding ice sheets revealed was colonised by forests. First by birch, and later by the mixed decideous woodland with which we are now familiar. In England, this climax vegetation (the natural vegetation of an area) of decideous woodland stretched from coast to coast, brocken only by rivers, lakes and mountains.

The people of the Stone Age who inhabited the British Isles lived by hunting and fishing and roamed the country in search of their prey. About 3,500 BC, the first farmers arrived in the British Isles from continental Europe. They settled on the chalk uplands such as Salisbury Plain and the Marlborough Downs where the cover of woodland was lighter than in the densely wooded lowlands and, working with flint axes and antler picks, made clearings in the woodlands in which they lived and cultivated their crops. Their sheep and cattle which grazed the land kept the clearings open, preventing the growth of scrub and recolonisation by woodland.

When the soil in their clearings was exhausted, these early farmers and their livestock moved their settlements to new areas of woodland trampling pathways through the landscape as they went. Over time, a network of pathways covered the chalklands of southern England used for occassional migrations and regular trade. The Ridgeway ran from East Anglia, through what was to become Wessex, down to the English Channel on the Dorset coast. By the Bronze Age (c.2,300-c.750BC), The Ridgeway had become an important route between Southern England, Yorkshire, Ireland and the continent with the merchants that travelled along it trading in implements, gold and copper weapons. Later the trade became more extensive; jet from Yorkshire, amber from the Baltic and blue falence beads from Egypt all made their way along The Ridgeway.

Late in the 8th century BC, the Celts arrived in the British Isles, bringing not only the superior weapons wrought from iron which gave the "Iron Age" its name, but also improved farming methods from the European mainland. The Celts preferred to avoid the dense woodlands of the valleys as well and they too made their homes on the chalk highlands.

It was the Iron Age Celts who constructed the "hill forts" such as Barbury Castle and Liddington Castle in Wiltshire and the huge Maiden Castle in Dorset.

These early upland tracks continued to be used throughout the Iron Age and the subsequent Roman occupation. It was only with the arrival of the Saxons after the Romans withdrew from the British Isles in 410 that they were abandoned as the new settlers established villages and field systems in the river valleys.

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