England LONG READ National Trails

Chapter 2 – The Ridgeway. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”

A walk I must do again as much has changed since 2006. There are 3 fewer cooling towers at Didcot and sadly another YHA closed.  These are mere trivialities in the timeframe of the oldest road in Britain.

The Ridgeway

Ancient Ways

“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” – Nietzsche

Traders and drovers have travelled along the elevated ridge connecting Dorset to Norfolk for at least 5,000 years. The Ridgeway is one of four paths that form the Greater Ridgeway, also known as The Greater Icknield Way. How uncanny that this ancient route follows the boundary between chalk and greensand across England.  You could almost use a British Geological Survey map for navigation.

The greater route starts in Lyme Regis: following the Wessex Ridgeway; The Ridgeway; The Icknield Way; and Peddars Way to reach Hunstanton, on the Norfolk coast, 362 miles away.  The Ridgeway section is 87 miles; an ideal distance to build fitness and try out some new backpacking kit. I should be able to complete the trip in a week.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path had taught me a great deal about what to take and what to leave behind.  This time some heavy items did not make the cut, or I replaced them with lighter items. I only needed to carry one main meal and enough lunch to get me to the next village store, so this should be a lightweight expedition.

I set off in late August to Reading station where I was fortunate enough to see a steam train pull into the main platform as I change trains for Swindon. I was completely captivated by this living breathing monster, a few feet away.  “Any chance of a ride on the footplate?”; I asked the driver. “Not a chance”; he said, “Even the coaches have been booked for months”

I would have willingly abandoned my trip and sold the contents of my backpack if the answer had been positive.  Each coach was full of smug comfortably seated enthusiasts, anticipating a fine lunch served on bone china with silver cutlery.  Most had made an effort to dress in pre-war garb too.

My train arrived twenty minutes later, an InterCity 125, packed to the gunnels with passengers, scoffing fast food.  I squeezed onboard with my huge backpack to coughs of polite disapproval, until Swindon. Thankfully, I would soon exchange this discomfort for the open hills.

A regular bus service took me over the Marlborough Downs to Avebury, hidden under blue-boxed gothic script on the Ordnance Survey Map. Each symbol overlaying a Neolithic or Bronze age site.  The village is at the centre of the largest stone circle in the world and two miles from the start of the walk. It is an opportunity to marvel at the standing stones that mark the ancient circles, leylines and avenues. Further south you could glimpse the mysterious Silbury Hill; the largest man-made mound in Europe. Crystal clear chalk streams sprouting from nearby springs influenced the decision to build in this area. This land was a cultural nexus of strategic significance. What a fitting start to a five-day walk.

The bus driver for the connecting service recognised a Ridgeway walker. “Where is the nearest stop to the start of The Ridgeway”; I asked.  “No worries mate (he was Australian), I’ll drop you off”. He kindly stopped a few hundred yards from the starting point, as he turned south, I walk west.  I touched the finger post directing me to Ivinghoe Beacon, 87 miles north-west, and set off along the track. Soon, it was midday and time for a couple of handfuls of blackberry’s, ripe and delicious; nothing beats foraged food to brighten up a rail station fast-food sandwich.

Progressing into the Downs along Hackpen Hill I approached Barbury Castle; my first encounter with an Iron Age Hillfort. The views northwards are extensive, overlooking Swindon town; large enough to be a modern city. In the direction I am walking you can make out the sequence of hill forts to the north-west at Liddington and Uffington. This perspective brings a real sense of walking on an ancient way. If your mind’s eye can colour in the vale with a dark green forest and the hills in verdant grass, you can transport yourself into prehistory.  Join soldiers, travellers and herdsmen to seek the protection of open downland from the enemies below.

The ancient route descends to Chiseldon, but the National Trail follows Smeathe’s Ridge into Ogbourne St George. The village defers to a splendid 17th Century Jacobean Manor House. Much as I would like to stay there; I will be camping at a small site masquerading as a stable yard. I am directed to the paddock:  “You can pitch there”; a young girl said, “water tap and loos are behind the stables; you’ll have no trouble with the horses”; she smiled.

It appears to be clean so I pitch my tent; cook a meal; and settle in for the night, only for horses to appear and start munching away at the turf. There is an electric fence between us, but I am not about to touch it to find out if it works. Cattle I can cope with, but I am not that comfortable around horses, they are too intelligent and mischievous.  The last one I met bit me. I don’t want to add trampled and kicked to my list of equine experiences. I am reassured by a car battery wired to the fence, clicking intermittently.

I wake with all limbs attached and make breakfast. The paddock, main house and stable yard are deserted. I cannot find anyone to pay, so I drop a tenner through the letterbox.  Not quite a campsite; more someone’s ‘horsey hobby’ yard. It suited my itinerary.

I head north towards Liddington Castle and the drone of the M4 motorway. I cross this modern ‘Ridgeway’; carrying heavy traffic between London and Wales. The elevated aspect amplifies the white noise of the traffic below, but the southern sunlit views more than compensate. The path is multi-use, and I pass several cyclists and horse riders enjoying a fine morning too.   Arriving in Uffington, you enjoy the third Iron Age fort and the famous White Horse. This high stylised Celtic masterpiece of minimalist art dates from the late Bronze age. It spawned many similar works of art, notably the Cerne Abbas phallic giant on the Wessex Ridgeway. This chalk carving is considered satirical art, from the 17th Century. It depicts Oliver Cromwell with anatomically incorrect appendages, wielding a huge club.

To the south are the Lambourn Downs; one of the largest centres for racehorse training in England. The area is a complex network of gallops and stables. To the north is the Vale of the White Horse and the River Thames beyond. I reach the Devil’s Punchbowl, a spectacular dry valley; a view spoilt by six huge cooling towers at  Didcot Power station. This eyesore will stay with me for a few days. Many people actually like brutalist architecture: I don’t.

I pass the fourth fort to reach Wantage Youth Hostel.  I check-in; pitch my tent; and retire for an evening meal at the hostel. The usual wholesome fare, in the comfort of an indoor dining room.  There are quite a few walkers staying in the dormitories and we chat for a while in the common room. I explore the library and find an excellent book about a windsurfer, Tim Batstone, who circumnavigated the British Isles in 1984 in ten weeks.  Wow! I speed-read it from cover to cover, amazed at the sheer audacity of such an adventure. Considering that windsurf technology was not at its height in the 80s, this was quite an achievement. Even by the standards of today.

Inspired, I return to my tent to find the camping field packed with scouts, pitching their tents.  They are oblivious or choose to ignore their scout leader’s instructions. Before long, I am holding back my laughter at the sight of ten different geometric shapes; derived from a standard issue Vango tent.  A dinner bell rings and the scouts vanish, leaving repairs and laughter to the adults. “Their first time camping”; I ask. They nod in agreement.

Satiated, the scouts return at dusk, unable to contain their excitement of sleeping under canvas for the first time. I am too tired to worry about the noise and fall asleep.  They can laugh at my snoring, but I’ll never know.

Being a lark; not an owl, I wake early and pack. Within a few minutes, I leave the site of devastation, with boots, clothes, backpacks and extra bits of tent and poles strewn about.  It is a beautiful morning as the sun reveals a deep texture in the landscape. The angle of the light casts surreal shadows across the Vale. The dew has not yet cleared and I have only the birds for company.  An early start is always rewarded.

I follow Grim’s Ditch, an enigmatic earthwork of unknown purpose, eastward to reach ‘The Atomic’, as it is known.  This is the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) at Harwell. After a long decommissioning period it will become a business park, still with connections to the industry. The Anglo-Saxon word ‘Grim’ means ‘unknown feature’. If they struggled to identify a simple ditch, then they would have been utterly perplexed at the science of nuclear fusion. Just imagine how that conversation would go?

I cross the A34 onto Blewbury Down and descend into Streatley and Goring. It is bin day, and the recycling boxes tell a story: huge volumes of empty champagne bottles stacked high can only mean one hell of a party.  “Someone’s clearly had a good party”; I said to a neighbour, cutting the grass. “Oh! Yes; every summer the same”; he replied. I am sure bin-men are closet anthropologists and sharp commentators on social status and the going on’s in the area.  You can tell a great deal from someone’s rubbish.

Crossing the River Thames, I also cross The Thames Path National Trail, so I will return here again. I make note of the local store, which provides a decent lunch, only to find a very inviting flint built Brakspears’ pub in South Stoke.  Tempting, but likely to scupper my plans to reach Wallingford. The Ridgeway follows the east bank; The Thames Path the west. I divert before Grim’s Ditch to the campsite at Crowmarsh Gifford. After pitching my tent and a quick shower I walk across the bridge into Wallingford to stock up on food.  The Champagne has sold out in Waitrose.

After a lie-in, an ascent of Grim’s Ditch wakes me out of any slumber. I reach the golf course, where the lawn outside of the clubhouse lies covered in mushrooms. How they survived the groundsman lawn mower is a mystery; they must grow in a few days.  I am tempted to sneak a few, but I am not a mycologist, who would know if they are edible. The fields ahead are full dozy pheasants, easily corralled along the hedgerow. This semi-domesticated game bird must be so easy to shoot as to be no sport at all. Easy fodder for the weekend shooting party. Dinner that evening could have been mushroom soup and a brace of ring-necked pheasants: or I could have been a poisoned poacher!

A muddy path descends steeply off the ridge to follow a heavily rutted track beneath the M40 motorway. The tracks are in use by motorised vehicles, which makes my life very difficult as I pick a path through the glutinous mud. I scoff a sandwich standing up, as there is no place to rest. I keep going, reaching easier paths into Princes Risborough: a quintessential Chilterns town. I sneak onto a train home, while no one watches, least I am arrested for fraud – finishing a path early.  There are no campsites or hostels nearby and wild camping in an urban area is unpleasant. The train fare is cheaper than staying in B&B, justifying the return home.

I resist the temptation to pop down the pub for a celebratory pint – I have yet to finish the walk. So early to bed and early to rise.  A good breakfast sees me return to the station carrying a lighter day pack. The last section is a regular eighteen-mile training run for me, but always in the opposite direction.  It is quite a challenging day, with some tough climbs and rough paths to negotiate.

The ascent towards Whiteleaf Cross is strenuous, but the stunning reveal of the Three Hundreds of Aylesbury is unexpected.  It is strange what you miss walking a path in the opposite direction. A ‘Hundred’ is an ancient feudal division of land, usually one hundred homesteads or enough to provide a hundred men for war.  With population growth, I suspect that several thousand men would answer a call to arms now.

The views turn to woodland as you descend into Cadsden, and The Plough: a pub frequented by Prime Ministers and foreign Statesmen alike. A recent visit by the Chinese President Xi Jinping with David Cameron, made national news as they ‘bonded’ over a pint of IPA.  It left an impression, as Chinese investors bought the pub a few months later. It has become a popular spot for busloads of tourists seeking a traditional pub “experience” of a Ploughman’s lunch.

The reason for its political popularity becomes evident. A mile further on you skirt the boundaries of Chequers and enter a land of CCTV surveillance. This is the country retreat of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a property not yet acquired by Chinese investors. The Chancellor of the Exchequer might consider selling if the country’s financial position falters.  Perhaps they could share his country house, nearby at Dorneywood. They could even share a taxi from Downing Street on Friday afternoon.

The next section is a delight as you approach Wendover via the Coombe Hill monument. Erected in 1904 in memory of 148 men from Buckinghamshire who fought in the Boer War. This is one of the first and largest monuments to commemorate loss rather than victory. It stands 260m above the surrounding landscape, overlooking The Hundreds of Aylesbury, and from where the men lived, no doubt.

Grim’s Ditch continues (it is quite a long ditch!) from Wendover towards Tring, where you cross the Grand Union Canal. Here, I caught up with an elderly disabled lady and her daughter;  the first I meet to be walking the Ridgeway completely. “Is everything ok?”; I ask. “Yes, we are fine”; the daughter replies and then goes on to explain their journey. “We started two weeks’ ago in Avebury, …”; she said.

I suspected but did not ask, that her father, had passed away recently and they were grieving.  I am not sure I had their levels of endurance and resilience. I would complete the journey shortly; they had a few days to go. For a few hours afterwards, I reflect on their single-minded determination and the daughter’s unfailing patience. Patience I do not have. I can walk the Ridgeway in five days, but I am not sure I could walk it in two weeks’.  I do hope they made it as the best bit of The Ridgeway lies ahead. “Good luck”; I shouted back as I walked ahead. They smiled and waved.

The final stretch towards Ivinghoe Beacon follows beautiful chalk ridges and dry valleys. This open landscape was once a World War II army training ground and unexploded ordnance occasionally surfaces. Where there is beauty there is a danger, as the saying goes, so I keep to the path, unlike a dog-walkers boisterous Cocker Spaniel. “Have you read the warning sign?”; I ask.  “Oh!, don’t worry about Benji, he knows his way around”; the owner replied. I visualise a 70s Pythonesque explosion and stuffed dog flying through the air.

The ridge terminates at Ivinghoe Beacon.  The Beacon Hill summit is littered with glider pilots holding radio control consoles.  Their huge model aircraft soar overhead in the thermals. A fitting metaphor for the elation I feel after a great day’s walking. I linger for too long, gazing at gliders and the Icknield Way to the north-west, wondering if I should continue to Hunstanton.  The Ridgeway might end here, but the geology does not. Another time perhaps.

Hunger wakes me. I drop off the hill into Ivinghoe to catch transport home. The only village shop open is a local hairdresser. They overcome their suspicion of a man with a Number 1 haircut to fill my water bottle before I wait to board the bus to Aylesbury and a train home.

Now it is time for that pint.

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