Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Artists impression by Christine Bozier
The Ridgeway is a 5000 year old pathway which would have been used by drovers, traders and probably invaders as they traversed the Wiltshire downs. These folk would have clung to the upper slopes of the hills, where their passage would have been much safer, for the lowlands were covered by thick forest and swamp and would have been impassable and treacherous in places.
Today the 89 mile stretch covers Wiltshire, Berkshire and terminates in the Chilterns. The pathway snakes through a prehistoric landscape, passing hillforts, ancients sites, dolmens and countless burial barrows, all of which add colour to The Ridgeway's legend, myth and magic. Its a wild and spooky place at times, for amongst the many strange tales associated with this ancient pathway, there is one in particular that has, on occasion, frightened many a traveller; I refer to The Ridgeway's fearsome 'White Cat'.
The cat is reputed to follow walkers for miles whilst always keeping its distance. Some have even described the encounter as being ‘unnerving’, almost as if the animal were ‘stalking’ them. It has been described as ‘dirty-white‘, ‘dishevelled‘, ‘mangy’ and about the size of a ‘small dog‘. When approached, the cat becomes unusually hostile, adopting an aggressive stance whilst hissing and spitting at those who dare approach it.
Such an encounter with this mysterious feral cat happened to a good friend of mine several years ago; I shall call him Philip. I never get tired of hearing Philip’s story (it’s his party piece) even though I am well aware of the ending. Maybe it’s the varied inflections in his tone that builds the tension and suspense. He tells a good yarn does our Phil, though I am inclined to consider this particular story to be genuine.
It was mid August, it had been a sweltering hot day, the kind of day when all you want to do is stand in the doorway of W.H.Smith and bathe in their glorious air conditioning. Philip had previously arranged to meet with some friends that evening at a pub close to Avebury, with the intention of camping out under the stars.
That evening they duly met as arranged and enjoyed a meal and a few drinks at the appointed pub before eventually setting off towards the hills and the campsite Philip had earmarked as a good spot. During the evening it was decided that at first light it would be rather fun to go mushroom picking along The Ridgeway, no doubt to compliment the breakfast to come.
Sure enough, the following morning as the dawn chased away the nights shadows they packed up their gear and set out across mist shrouded hills. They hadn’t gone far when one of the party noticed they were being tailed by a particularly large, mangy white cat. They stopped to take a closer look at the wretched creature, not easy considering it was partially obscured by the dawn mist. One of the female members of Philip’s party attempted to encourage the animal to come a little closer but it would have none of it and seemed content to keep its distance - some 30 meters or so. They decided to walk on but as they did, so the cat would follow them, when they stopped, so too would the cat. This went on for a mile or so until they came upon a Bronze Age barrow. To their surprise as they began to climb the barrow the cat, which until now had been tailing them, suddenly appeared on top of the barrow directly in front of them. The party stopped dead in its tracks as the creature arched its back, raised its hackles and hissed and spat at them. Quite how it had managed to past them and leap onto the barrow without them knowing was later cause for much debate.
The party were startled not just by the animals sudden aggressive behaviour but by the way it reacted when they tried to climb a little further onto the barrow. For any such advancement was immediately met by more hostile posturing. Philip and his party, now a little wary of kitty, nervously backed away from the menacing looking animal, at which point the cat seemed to become a little less aggressive, although it continued to emit an ominous mewing sound. The slightest attempt to approach the barrow was instantly thwarted by more displays of belligerence.
It was decided the best course of action was to leave the animal well alone, so the party slowly headed off in the other direction, turning frequently to check on the cat, none of the party were keen to discover the animal had taken to following them again. The cat remained on top of the barrow until line of sight was eventually obscured by a hill.
The cats behaviour at the round barrow was perplexing. Some of Philip’s friends thought the animal just plain bonkers, whilst others, including Philip, were a little less hasty to dismiss the cat’s strange behaviour as simply ‘bonkers‘. Philip, to this day, is of the opinion that the cat was warning them to stay off the barrow for reasons unknown.
It is well known that spirit animals, usually dogs but occasionally cats, are thought to guard barrows and dolmens, so I wonder, did Philip and his friends encounter such a creature on that misty August morning as they walked the ancient hills of Wiltshire’s Ridgeway in search of mushroom delights