On March 8th, we come together to celebrate the many achievements of women during International Women’s Day (#IWD2021 #ChooseToChallenge). This annual global event celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, past and present, from all over the world.
How can this global event be relevant to somewhere local, an ancient trackway through southern England?
The Ridgeway National Trail is a walking route in a surprisingly remote part of southern central England. Linking Wiltshire with Buckinghamshire, the route travels in a northeasterly direction for 87 miles (139 Km); from its start in the World Heritage Site of Avebury and ends at an Iron Age hill fort on Ivinghoe Beacon. As Britain’s oldest road, the Ridgeway still follows the same route over high ground used since prehistoric times by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers. It continues to inspire artists, writers, and historians, who between them, enable us to better interpret the collective story and appreciate this wonderful national asset.
Thanks to a group of remarkable women, who through a passion for art, archeology, history, education and farming, bring an important national asset into our communities and collective conscious, for everyone to enjoy, explore, respect and care for, for future generations.
Past and present, this is their contribution
Working at the western end of the Ridgeway, archeologist Maud Cunnington (1869 – 1951), is a woman of firsts. One of the most important excavators working in Wiltshire at the beginning of the twentieth century, Maud’s most significant contribution to the Avebury landscape was that she identified the site of the Sanctuary. Whilst William Stukeley sketched this prehistoric site in the eighteenth century, the stones had been broken up or since removed and location lost. Maud identified the site’s exact location and preserved it for future generations by purchasing the land and giving it to the nation.
In 1933, she was elected president of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, the first woman to hold that position. She was also named a CBE in 1948 for services to archaeology, the first woman archaeologist to receive the honour. She bequeathed almost all her property to Devizes Museum (now Wiltshire Heritage Museum), allowing a salaried curator to be appointed for the first time.
Today the on-site curatorial team at Avebury is made up entirely of female archaeologists. Excavations and discoveries continue to be made and published as they work to form a better understanding of this intriguing landscape.
Archaeologist Molly Cotton (1902-1984), made her mark at the eastern end of the Ridgeway at Ivinghoe Beacon: the Cotton and Frere excavations of 1963 – 65 identified this important structure as Iron Age. In 1936 she was one of the first to take a postgraduate diploma at the newly founded Institute of Archaeology London.
Clare Leighton (1899-1989), was a leading illustrator, wood engraver, painter, author of many books, teacher, and designer for posters, ceramics and glass. It was whilst living in Monks Risborough, just off the Ridgeway in the 1930’s, she published her celebrated volume on Wood-Engraving and Woodcuts. At this time her subject matter often involved observations of the countryside and rural life, as in her books such as The Farmer’s Year: a calendar of English husbandry (1933) and Four Hedges: a gardener’s chronicle (1935), as well as evocative posters for London Transport, including Weekend Walks and The Country Now.
Fay Godwin (1931 – 2005), was a photographer of great renown, known for her black-and-white landscapes of the British countryside and coast. The Oldest Road, an account of the Ridgeway in Berkshire, with text by JRL Anderson, was an immediate success when published in 1975. She was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 1990 and had a major retrospective at the Barbican Centre in London in 2001. Fay also lead the Ramblers Association from 1987 to 1990, at a time when its long-running right-to-roam campaign was turned up to the full-strength pressure. Read more about her life and works here.
Archaeologist Gill Hey was involved in excavations in 2003 of the mysterious Whiteleaf Cross above Princes Risborough on the Ridgeway. Now CEO of Oxford Archaeology, Gill started her career at Reading University where active fieldwork was encouraged. Gill says, “I fell in love with the physical process of carefully unpicking what was left in the ground in combination with the mental process of puzzling out who had been there and what they were doing.” Looking back at her archaeologist predecessors on IWD21, Gill suggests, “It is now a much more equal environment and I am very pleased to say that we have as many women working for the organisation as men, although we need to do more to encourage them to progress to senior roles.”
Archaeologist Dr Wendy Morrison’s research areas are Prehistoric European Archaeology and Landscape Archaeology. Closer to home, Wendy leads the Chilterns ‘Beacons of the Past’ project. Her work seeks to engage and inspire communities to discover, conserve, and enjoy what is around us and the unique Iron Age hillforts and their prehistoric chalk landscapes. The Chilterns has one of the largest collections of hillforts in the UK, yet many are poorly preserved, and little is known about them. Luckily, several of these hillforts are accessible from the Ridgeway.
A key part of Wendy’s project is the largest LiDAR survey ever flown for archaeology in this country, and one of the largest in the world! Images are captured with a laser scanner mounted on a small plane that captures information about the ground below; revealing intriguing ‘lumps and bumps’, such as hillforts, that are hidden by tree cover and other vegetation. Wendy is also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
Landscape painter Anna Dillon, grew up in Aston Tirrold near the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, surrounded by rolling chalk downland and big skies. Drawn to landscapes, combined with an enjoyment of long distance walking, Anna studied Illustration and Design at the Falmouth School of Art and worked as a graphic designer until she made the decision to paint full time. Anna came to see the Ridgeway as a source of artistic inspiration at an exhibition in Swindon showing work by a group of international artists. The curator Francis Kyle, had invited the group to visit the Ridgeway and portray the ‘presence of the landscape’.
During 2009, Anna walked the National Trail through the seasons with her husband, keeping a photo journal and diary. From this, she produced 24 oil paintings that were exhibited in a series of shows called A Ridgeway Journey in 2012. Since then, Anna has added further paintings to create the Ridgeway Series, which tracks the seasons from ‘snowscapes’ in Wiltshire through to autumn in the Chilterns.
Anna is portrayed in the header image.
Farmer, entomologist and ecologist, Sally-Ann Spence lives and works on her family’s farm along the Ridgeway in Ashbury, near Wayland Smithy, in Oxfordshire. Sally-Ann is a leading dung beetle expert and one of her treasures is a dry calcareous grassland valley near the Ridgeway, which she is carefully managing to provide habitat for dung beetles, as well as other flora and fauna. Over two decades, she has built up her own flock of native Wiltshire Horn sheep with stylish Belted Galloway “belties” and Dexter cattle to graze the farm’s permanent grasslands.
To further both research and education in natural history, Sally-Ann has converted her farmhouse and adjoining barn into a research centre called the Berrycroft Hub and mentors many young people. You may have heard her talking about insects on BBC Radio 4 ‘The Killing Jar’ and on the BBC Breakfast programme. She has impressive credentials as an Honorary Associate of Oxford University Museum of Natural History and fellow of both the Royal Entomological Society and The Linnean Society.
We salute you!
This impressive group is by no means exclusive. Instead, it’s the start of acknowledging and celebrating the women who have been quietly making a contribution to our Ridgeway landscape, understanding of and making our heritage accessible and culture enjoyable. Each in their own fields of expertise, are choosing the challenge perceptions and glass ceilings for those women who will follow. We thank you.
With contributions from Sarah Wright, Trail Officer Ridgeway National Trail.
The Ridgeway has been portrayed by many artists, and one in particular, of great cultural importance visited the pretty villages of Goring and Streatley to paint timeless English landscapes.
Many of the images on this website are available for sale on our Chilterns Gifts website in the Kites & Clouds and A Year in the Chilterns ranges.