Across the Chilterns
Though both the Chilterns and the Wessex Downs are part of the extensive chalk downlands of south-east England, they are very different in character. The Chilterns are far more wooded, whereas the Wessex Downs have seen little tree-cover return since prehistoric clearance; and the modern accessibility of the Chilterns to London, and indeed a succession of north-south transport links, has stimulated the development of several urban centres, which are almost absent from the western part of the Ridgeway trail.
7 October 2007. Icknield Beacon to Pitstone Hill, one-and-a-half miles.
No, not a full day out. This was part of my walk along the Icknield Way Path, and in particular the short seven-mile stage that had started at Whipsnade. I was walking, as often, with my long-term walking partner Dave Travers as we completed that path, and as much less often, my then 15-year old son Adrian. Dave’s wife Rachel met him at the Beacon, they went off to suss out pubs, but Adrian and I wanted to continue a little further, so we just dropped down to a nearby car park, on a path that is the start of both the Icknield Way Path Extension and the Ridgeway.
23 January 2009. Tring station to Pitstone Hill, two miles.
This wasn’t a full day out either. But I’d by then decided to walk the Icknield Way Path Extension all the way to Bledlow Cross. The extension takes a different line to the Ridgeway between Pitstone Hill and Tring station (and indeed throughout their routes the two trails play hide-and-seek), so I decided to walk back up to Pitstone Hill by the Ridgeway before taking the Extension downhill – not with a view to facilitating the Ridgeway, but very convenient it proved to be six years later. By the way, the official determiners of these things, the Long-Distance Walkers Association, have no problem with people walking bits of a trail ‘backwards’, so that’s OK then.
11 January 2015. Tring station to Wendover, eight miles.
My first ‘intended’ stage of the Ridgeway, on a grey winter’s day that was fine for walking but not worth taking photographs for my Walking in London book, on which I had not long started work. From crossing the busy A41, there’s a slow climb up onto the Chiltern ridge north of Wigginton, here around 700ft high. The Ridgeway then heads through the upper part of Tring Park, on an old carriage road dating back to Restoration England. This has sweeping views north, and the eponymous Wren-designed mansion of 1685, now a school for performing arts, is in clear view below. After the carriage road there’s a short section on a quiet country road through the hamlet of Hastoe leading into woodland then, after a more open section, an ancient holloway leads down to Hale Lane. Finally, the trail heads through Hale Woods, eventually twisting north-east to the valley floor. There’s a great view of Boddington Hill from the farm lane that takes you into the prosperous town of Wendover, and for me its London train.
The hollow-way down to Hale Lane
27 March 2017. Wendover to Lewknor, 16 miles, 15 on Ridgeway.
Two years flew by before I resumed the Ridgeway. I had walked Wendover to Chinnor before, on the Icknield Way Trail extension, but the routes rarely coincide, so I could not claim familiarity as an excuse for delay.
It was a grey start but with the promise of better things. The day begins with a stiff climb through a nature reserve to the summit of Coombe Hill (852ft), which bears one of the first war memorials of this or any other nation to individuals fallen in war, in this case the Second Boer war of 1899-1902: the war that introduced the term ‘concentration camp’ to language. The monument has since been annexed for protest, as it bears neat little slogans (no spray paint here, this is the Chilterns) against the planned HS2 rail line that will plunder the plain below. Coombe Hill was once part of the Chequers estate, to which descent is now made. Chequers is the country residence of the prime minister of the day, and in these uncertain times I half expected the right-of-way through its grounds to have been diverted to the road, but thankfully no. There are however plenty of warning signs, and CCTV cameras on the driveway. I felt pretty sure that someone would have tracked me along the path.
Keep out of Chequers!
The Plough at Little Cadsden
Another little rise takes you to the hamlet of Little Cadsden, whose pub the Plough is essentially the ‘local’ for Chequers and indeed was shown off in 2015 by that bottom-ranker among British PMs, David Cameron, to a bemused Xi Jinping, the Chinese president. It’s since been bought up by a Chinese investment group. No sheepish pint for me though – I was before opening time. Up instead, steeply, to Whiteleaf Hill, a Neolithic barrow close by. The hill overlooks the town of Princes Risborough, which the Ridgeway skirts round, and in an untidy moment leaves by the main A4010 out of the town.
The greyness was however now dispelled by early spring sunshine. The road, and the present-day rail line which shadows it, take advantage of a gap in the Chilterns, beyond which rises Lodge Hill, a fine spot for lunch. On the descent, the route joins up with the Chiltern Way for a short while, bringing back memories of my time on that in the early 2000s. Not far beyond, the Icknield Way Trail extension joins the Ridgeway after having played hide-and-seek all day – at first, it had gone south of Chequers, to Little Hampden, and then taken a dull road march west out of Princes Risborough instead of using Lodge Hill. However the terminus of the IWT is barely a mile away at Bledlow Cross, not that there is anything there; its walkers (me once included) mostly have to continue by the Ridgeway towards the nearby large village of Chinnor for onward transport. One more stretch now, an hour by a green lane below the Chiltern ridge, nice enough (and with industrial heritage interest in the vast disused chalk pits to either side) but prosaic in its levelness after the ups and downs of earlier.
The Princes Risborough to Watlington railway comes close by, but as that closed to passengers in 1957 it would not help me get home. There is excellent public transport nevertheless, one of the few places where a coach service is an acceptable rail substitute, with the Oxford Tube service that runs every few minutes a mile from the route at Lewknor.
10 May 2017. Lewknor to Goring, 18 miles, 17 on Ridgeway.
Farewell to the Chilterns, and for me, farewell to the Ridgeway: this stage came after I had walked the Wessex Downs section the month before. It wasn’t planned like that, it just happened. Still, it’s not a bad stage to finish on, with its central section in particular including some of the most delicious fastnesses of the entire walk. That’s not entirely in evidence early on, as you trundle along a green lane beneath Watlington Hill, though there is a space to the countryside that is immensely appealing. On this stretch the first of the ‘alternative footpaths’ appear – they feature quite frequently in Wessex. These take you off the main green lane into narrower paths in the surrounding hedgerows. They can be a refreshing change from what are sometimes monotonous tramps, but I found many of them rather overgrown.
Below Watlington Hill
‘Alternative footpath’ just visible on the right
After about four miles a sharp left turn takes you back up into the hills for the first time since Bledlow. On the way up an ancient earthwork heads west down a little ridge – it’s not for us, but a precursor to something grander that will take us out of the Chilterns for the last time. Instead we head for the tiny hamlet of Swyncombe and its ancient little church, one of the great treasures of the Ridgeway. A glorious mile then follows, one of the best in all the Chilterns, terminating at the arts-and-crafts wonder of Ewelme Park House. Beyond though there are two large featureless fields, a main road and a golf course to cross, so the idyll ends too soon. In the woods before the road, a strolling couple were startled when I passed them – as I told them, if they didn’t have the radio playing, they would have heard me. So much for being at one with nature. Over the golf course is the church at Nuffield, all but the equal of Swyncombe, and excelling it for the tea and coffee making facilities, plus cake supply, expressly for walkers!
A short link path takes you to a three-mile section of the Chiltern Grim’s Ditch, one of at least six earthworks bearing this name across southern England, probably dating to the Iron Age. In its upper stretches especially, it is still impressive today, and there is the chance to walk on both its southern and northern banks as well as in the ditch in between. The ditch itself seems to be heading for an encounter with the Thames just south of Wallingford, but the Ridgeway turns abruptly south at Mongewell Park. From the map this looked like a pleasant walk through parkland, but it has a rather scruffy feel, before crossing a golf course on a hedged path which seems designed to keep walkers out of sight and out of mind for the golfers. Things improve at the village of North Stoke – another pretty churchyard – and here the Ridgeway reaches the Thames for a four-mile riverside stretch to Goring. This was busy today with rowing crews out practising.
The Thames south of North Stoke
You go beneath one of Brunel’s fine viaducts for the Great Western Railway before a brief diversion through the village of South Stoke, picture-postcard-pretty so scarcely a hardship. From here you’re hemmed in a bit between river and railway, but as the latter is in a cutting it’s barely noticeable. After all that has gone before, Goring feels quite a metropolis: here, Thames Path and Ridgeway intersect, so for walkers, it’s very nearly a Clapham Junction.
On the Wessex Downs
I once stood atop a hillfort in Hampshire, in sight of this stretch of the Ridgeway, and asked the professor of archaeology who happened to be standing next to me how the landscape would have looked in the days the fort was in use. “Just the same”, he said.
Maybe there was some hyperbole, but forest clearance happened early here and has not been reversed. There is something magical in walking in such a timeless landscape, along a track whose age is recorded in millennia, and at its best the western half of this National Trail gives some of the best walking, or should I say striding, in southern England. That said, there are longueurs too. Read on to find out more.
Wednesday 26 April 2017. Goring to Sparsholt, 19 miles.
It’s not a very Bronze Age start, through the modern villages of Goring and Streatley and along the main road heading north out of the latter. Even the turn-off puts you on to a minor road, but it’s climbing slightly, into an attractive dean on Thurle Down. At last the metalling ends, and a green lane takes you up into the open country around Roden Downs. Soon you encounter the first gallops. This is important horse-racing territory, the stables around Lambourn world-famous, and the major racecourse at Newbury away to the south: the training gallops will be a feature of almost all the remaining miles.
Gallops on Bury Down
Beyond the busy A34, the Ridgeway resumes its course above the scarp slope. Glance eastwards across the plain and the equivalent slope of the Chilterns is well in view. North, however, what was once open countryside is dotted with warehousing and industrial sites, including the former nuclear research site at Harwell. A little below the scarp in this area the map shows continuing stretches of Grim’s Ditch, encountered by the Ridgeway near Wallingford, on the stage before this one – though for me it would only be walked two weeks later. The weather had been interesting – some sharp showers in view, but none on my bit of the Trail.
Rough weather back east
I had originally planned to stay just off route at the Court Hill bunkhouse, but I was wise enough to check and it was full with a school party. In fact it was to make my logistics a bit easier. A couple of farms hereabouts run informal camp sites, and I’d checked that Hill Barn had space for me. It was just a case of pitching up in their back garden. It was an interesting place, home of National Hunt trainer Harry Whittington, though the campsite and B&B are run by his mum Jo.
Thursday 27 April 2017. Sparsholt to Uffcott Down, 20 miles.
In earlier planning, I’d decided that the Foxlynch bunkhouse at Ogbourne St George was perfectly placed to split the trail’s remaining miles. Alas I found that it had recently closed, so plan B was needed. With no official campsites, only one option (other than an expensive B&B) remained – a wild camp. A bit of web research showed that this wasn’t out of the question. Though wild camping in southern England is often problematic if not downright impractical, the Ridgeway bucks that trend a bit, as for much of its Wessex route it’s a very broad off-road path away from farmed land where, abiding by the arrive-late-leave-early rule, you have a good chance of being undisturbed. Indeed, the Trail’s official website had this to say at the time:
In practice … most landowners do not object if a tent is pitched on the Trail for a night and disappears the next morning as long as no litter is left, no damage done, nor camp fires lit.
Uffcott Down seemed to fit the bill, and was the day’s objective. There was one problem however: no water high up on the Downs. I therefore planned to divert anyway into Ogbourne St George, where I could eat at the pub and fill up with water (and beer), though alas it added a couple of miles to a long day. No thought of that as I set off in the morning, the hill fort of Uffington Castle the first stop.
I found much of the three miles towards it a tad dull, as the Ridgeway, although very much the ancient trackway, took an undulating course away from the scarp and constrained by hedgerows. This was something of a feature of the stretch to Ogbourne and it does mar what might have been a fine few miles. No matter: there is much else of interest. The ditch-structures of Uffington Castle itself are well-preserved, and worth the diversion, though I didn’t drop down to inspect the white horse scratched into the chalk overlooking the vale northwards. A little further along is Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic chambered long barrow that bears two ancient burial sites. This is a prime area to sense the workings of ancient Britain.
Lunch, with Mrs Whittington’s sandwich at the ready, was scheduled for Foxhill. The pub here would have been nice, but it’s now an Indian restaurant, so instead I sat in the village bus shelter. I never like doing this: it disappoints bus drivers if I don’t join them, and passing villagers might think I’m wimping out. But no buses and hardly any villagers would have noticed today. Out of here, there’s a bit of road walking and the M4 has to be crossed before things get much better – a marvellous open, airy section over Liddington Hill. I passed a group of girls on quasi-DoE training and was impressed that they were heading as far as Marlborough today. The good ground continued as the trail turned south, before taking a loop around Ogbourne St George.
Green lane on Whitefield Hill
I had decided by now that I didn’t really want to divert into the village. My feet could handle it, but I would lose the purity of line, and I had made such good time that I was very early for the pub. If, I said to myself, there was a handy tap before my diversion point, then I would fill my two one-litre Sigg bottles from them and continue direct to the wild camp. And there, at the last cottage before the main A346 road – almost the last place that could have sufficed – was a tap. Bless you.
The one downside was that it was only half-past 3, and the pub diversion would have eaten up a couple of hours. I decided to hang around a bit at the picnic area on Barbury Hill, though in truth I was glad of a rest, for the long mile before it on the slowly-rising Smeathe’s Ridge was a tough one, straight into a cold and freshening wind. The day’s early sunny promise had long since gone. Uffcott Down, at a path junction beside a little spinney, was indeed just right for a solo wild camp. My one slight concern was the nearby gallops: what if I were woken at dawn by thundering hooves? No need to worry about that now. I pitched. I texted home. It squalled, and with the squall came an hour’s heavy rain. If I had been to the pub, I would have had to walk right through it.
Wild camp on Uffcott Down
Friday 27 April 2017. Uffcott Down to Overton Hill, five miles (and on to Avebury, eight miles).
The last few miles are uniformly glorious, arguably the best on the whole trail if not within all of southern England. Walking south, the scarp is never far away on your right, so the views stretch across the fertile valley of the upper Kennet. One or two little villages straggle across the river down below, the last of them Avebury – not, alas, the finish of the Trail, as the ancient Ridgeway never went there, but a centre of the prehistoric community that first brought this track into being.
West across the Kennet valley
There’s one diversion away from the scarp, on Berwick Bassett Down, but it’s short and has its own interest in the form of a recently-restored dewpond. I knew about dewponds from the Sussex Downs, similar chalk hills. Water easily seeps through porous chalk so it’s difficult to maintain standing pools for livestock. Dewpond technology, of clay-lined depressions carefully sited to attract water, dates back hundreds of years, and this particular dewpond had recently been carefully restored as an exemplar.
The dewpond on Berwick Bassett Down
Beyond the dewpond, sarsen stones left over from the ice age, known as the Grey Wethers, are scattered around Fyfield Down, looking like a flock of sheep lazily munching on the rich grass (indeed, hence the name: wether = gelded ram). Exploring these would have made a fascinating diversion in itself: one of the tyrannies of long-distance trails is that the mindset they encourage does not permit of variations, and I made none, and I doubt if I will pass this way again. You don’t have to make the same mistake.
But for all the glory of this brief five miles – aided by a couple of chats with people just starting their Ridgeway experience – it ends with a crass anti-climax. The start is officially designated as ‘Overton Hill’. Look it up and you will find it lauded for the ancient barrows and stone circle on its slopes. But it’s barely a hill in the sense of ‘prominence’. It is a hill for car drivers on the A4, as they take a shorter route than the Kennet, which winds around its southern base. Geologically, it’s simply the end of the Downs as they come to the river. To the walker, it’s an area of grubby hard standing where drivers can park up and stretch their legs. Drivers think it’s quiet; walkers think it’s noisy. A place to anticipate the start of a walk, perhaps, but not a place to celebrate ending one.
Not even a bus from here. For that you need Avebury, three miles away – you could make it two if you retraced your steps a little and branched off left on a track after half-a-mile, but I preferred different ground. This took me along the infant Kennet, riverine scenery quite unlike anything I’d seen for a while. The track from the West Kennet long barrow came in from above. I know, I should have diverted off to see it. But Silbury Hill beckoned me on. The website of its guardians, English Heritage, sum up the antiquity and mystery of this great creation of the human spirit (or maybe, oppressive symbol of a theocratic power elite) very well:
“The largest man-made mound in Europe, mysterious Silbury Hill compares in height and volume to the roughly contemporary Egyptian pyramids. Probably completed in around 2400 BC, it apparently contains no burial. Though clearly important in itself, its purpose and significance remain unknown.”
Silbury Hill and the infant Kennett
You are not allowed to climb it, thank goodness – a few months before, I had been to Uluru (aka Ayer’s Rock) in Australia, and heard the heartbreaking tale of how tourist climbing had, in 35 years, rendered unpotable a drinking-hole at its base that had been used by the indigenous peoples for 35,000 years. But though regular in outline, perspectives of it change at every twist of the path. I enjoyed too an occasional comparative glance at the barrow-shaped Waden Hill, which interposes between Silbury Hill and the Ridgeway.
Avebury is entered by a large tourist car park. I don’t begrudge that; it’s not badly placed, and if I were a tourist, I would use it too. I didn’t though take the regular tourist path away, and soon found myself on a quiet pretty lane. Walk along it and people return at the village’s Neolithic stone circle, the largest in Wiltshire, in Britain, in Europe, on Earth, in the known universe. Now, that’s a place to end a walk.
Avebury Stone Circle (some of it)