Walking the Ridgeway 2014

28-Thames-Goring

The Ridgeway National Trail starts at Overton Hill near Avebury and ends at Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire near Dunstable. It can be walked the full eighty seven miles, some sections can be ridden by horse or bicycle and some tracks are open to motorised vehicles, however there are winter closures for these latter users.

Easy walking along good tracks at the start of the Ridgeway

Easy walking along good tracks at the start of the Ridgeway

We split the route into six sections and walked it over six consecutive days using two cars in February 2014 after an exceptionally wet winter in this area of England. The weather was kind to us with only one persistently wet afternoon and some days of bright sunshine.

Uffington Hill but no sign of the horse.

Uffington Hill but no sign of the horse.

The southern half of the route justifies the name as it follows chalk ridges and offers some far reaching views over large fields, mostly along tracks. This is the section available for motorised vehicles during the summer months. The route had a reputation of having been damaged by vehicle use but repairs have been carried out and there was little if any sign of misuse or damage.

Chequers and Coombe Hill

Chequers and Coombe Hill

The northern section follows the ancient lower tracks and often shares with the Icknield Way but finally climbs in the Chiltern’s Ashridge Estate to the grand finale at Ivinghoe Beacon (233M).

Nearing the end the Ashridge Estate

Nearing the end the Ashridge Estate

We started at East Kennett and walked up the hill to the A4 where there is a lay-by for visitors to ‘The Sanctuary perhaps the least impressive site on offer around Avebury. On the way we had seen the distinctive flat topped Silsbury Hill. This first half of the walk is awash with ancient earthworks which even I could not fail to admire.

Silsbury Hill viewed as we walked from East Kennett

Silsbury Hill viewed as we walked from East Kennett

Our ten mile walk today was remote, no village, settlement or building did we pass but we were never far from habitation because close to each road crossing we met dog walkers, then no one. The first fort site Barbury Castle was perhaps the best of the whole walk and we strayed off route around the southern perimeter bank alongside the still deep ditch. The elevation offered an impressive view north over the sprawling railway village of Swindon.

Barbury Castle Iron Age Fort

Barbury Castle Iron Age Fort

Fortunately, this popular location was the only one to offer car park and facilities block because as we walked towards it the wind picked up, the sky blackened and it started to rail then hail. It was the heaviest storm of the walk so we were lucky to have shelter while it quickly passed.

Climbing from Ogbourne St George at the start of day 2

Climbing from Ogbourne St George at the start of day 2

The day ended at Ogbourne St George where the second car had been positioned so it was an easy matter to drive back to East Kennett via Marlborough to collect the other car. This was the procedure we followed over the next five days and although it allowed us convenient flexibility it did result in driving three hundred and seventy miles in each car to walk just eighty seven.

Liddington Hill Fort and Swindon in the distance

Liddington Hill Fort and Swindon in the distance

Day two started with a climbing loop around Ogbourne St George then a detour to visit Liddington Castle fort. A minor change of scene to cross the M4 and a Public House marked on the map but we were disappointed to find it had converted to a plush Indian restaurant. There were a few farm buildings today but the weather was better so no need to take shelter. Wayland’s Smithy was today’s highlight, not a blacksmiths shop but a Long Barrow burial chamber reconstructed to offer an impressive piece of ancient history. Finally, today we passed through Uffington Castle another iron age fort with more Wow factor.

Wayland's Smithy

Wayland’s Smithy

Beside Uffington Castle is another White Horse. I say another because the one disappointment of this walk is that we did not manage to view a single horse cut into the white chalk hills on which we were walking.

At the start of day 3 Devil's Punchbowl / Crowhole Bottom

At the start of day 3 Devil’s Punchbowl / Crowhole Bottom

Car shuffling today involved passing through the race horse town of Lambourn. There may be money in racing but it doesn’t show in this utilitarian little village. The normally dry bed of the river Lambourn was today a torrent fed by the flood of water flowing from the hills and down the road as we drove in from the north.

An arty dog latch on access land near Segsbury Fort

An arty dog latch on access land near Segsbury Fort

Day three starts with the arty swirls in the landscape named as another Devil’s Punchbowl, difficult to capture on film but a delight to the eye. Another large fort but the last at Segsbury just south of Wantage and lots of white railed gallops for training of the race horses. A monument erected to Lord Wantage by his wife is surrounded by thousands of leafless red stems of dogwood. Passing the mysteriously named Scutchamer Knob the once ominous Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment, now the ‘The International Business Centre’ comes into view along with the cooling towers of Didcot’s redundant power stations.

Harwell and Didcot power station from Bury Down

Harwell and Didcot power station from Bury Down

We pass under the busy A34 and the prevailing wind carries the traffic roar eastwards to accompany us for the next mile or more. Dropping down Blewbury Down the field to the north were flooded so it was no surprise to find a river flowing over the track at the lowest point. With care we managed to wade through without it flooding over the top of our boots. One final climb then it was down hill all the way into the Thames valley and departure from Streatley Berkshire into Goring Oxfordshire, half way.

Goring lock on the Thames - top December 2013, bottom February 2014

Goring lock on the Thames – top December 2013, bottom February 2014

Day four and the forecast is not good so we start in rain gear and I worry that we might have to turn back because a section from here follows the river bank and the Thames is high. Initially we are on high ground with views between trees onto the river below but after the pleasant village of South Stoke we are on rivers edge and its soft going but not flooded. Plenty of evidence that a short time before this walk would have been impassable, straw and leaves have been filtered from the flood flow by the mesh of gates and a small cabin cruiser sits on the bank, lines still attached to an ineffective mooring pin.

A wet day passing the Perch and Pike Inn at South Stoke

A wet day passing the Perch and Pike Inn at South Stoke

Leaving the river the path takes a straight line to Nuffield following more archaeology, Grim’s Ditch. We read that Grim was a name used by the Saxons for a landscape feature they couldn’t explain and present day historians remain uncertain why these impressive banks and ditches were constructed. After 3 miles along the ditch we turned and saw again, perhaps for the last time, Didcot power stations.

Grims Ditch - nothing more is known

Grims Ditch – nothing more is known

Nuffield offers another unusual feature found on the Ridgeway, water taps. They are marked in the guide and signed on the ground and perhaps explain why the southern part of the route was unsettled there being little or no water available, an essential to life and settlement for man and animals. The rain had been on and off and so had the rain jacket but now it was permanently on as the promised rain was persistent although not torrential. The sodden ground along side the Thames had been a challenging start and as the miles piled on the seventeen miles schedule looked like beating us. This section offered little of special interest to cheer us on our way and the final muddy section of the Icknield Way wore us down as the thunder of traffic on the M40 got gradually closer.

Not a welcome sight for a weary walker

Not a welcome sight for a weary walker

John wondered if he might have to take a day off tomorrow as we trudged along a section of tarmac to reach Lewknor. The GPS read seventeen point nine miles as we reached the car, but it felt a lot more. I suggested a pint in The Leathern Bottle and this was accepted. It’s surprising what a good pint, cosy atmosphere and log fire can do to revive spirits. It was a shame we had to leave but there was driving to do.

The Leathern Bottle at Lewknor a welcome sight

The Leathern Bottle at Lewknor a welcome sight

Fortunately that was the only really wet day. I suggested we shorten day five but by the morning energy was renewed and our destination was Wendover. The route remains at low level despite tempting high ground to our right. An interesting section was carried on an embankment between disused chalk pits at Chinnor.

Warren Cottage may have gone when we next visit - consent to demolish

Warren Cottage may have gone when we next visit – consent to demolish

The path still manages to skirt Princes Risborough but for how long. A new access to a school warns of Children and Coaches crossing, I wonder which are the more dangerous? Whiteleaf cross shows on the map but investigation during planning suggested there was no good view of it., however we were consoled with a Neolithic oval barrow near the top of Whiteleaf Hill and good views over the town and countryside. We had regained the high ground and John had been asking about Pulpit Hill, sadly we passed it by unnoticed.

Whiteleaf Hll Neolithic Barrow

Whiteleaf Hll Neolithic Barrow

Walkers are used to notices saying “Keep Out – Private Property” but this one was less aggressive but more strident (resolved), it read  “This is a protected site under Section 128 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. Trespass on this site is a criminal offence”. Although we could have stepped over the open boundary fence it was clearly meant to stop any vehicle because at intervals less than the width of a car was section of railway track sunk in the ground. This is the weekend retreat of our Prime Minister, Chequers. Nature has no respect for such authority and a large Beech tree had fallen across the fence and snapped a section of the rail clean in two.

High Security

High Security

Fearing to avoid the muddy track with trespass we slurped on to a gate and footpath taking us through the barrier and across the park and main drive to the house, closely watched by CCTV. The house was given to the nation by Viscount and Viscountess Lee of Farnham in 1921 so I though it a bit much that only our PM has use of it but then we climbed to the memorial and Coombe Hill and discovered this was also part of the gift and open to the public.

Coombe Hill Honeypot

Coombe Hill Honeypot

It had been a Saturday so there were more folk about and as we dropped into Wendover there were groups of Scouts passing their check point no doubt walking for a badge. Let’s also hope that it inspires them to revisit this wonderful countryside through which these two old blokes were passing.

Wendover High Street - part of the Ridgeway route and perhaps soon the route of HS2

Wendover High Street – part of the Ridgeway route and perhaps soon the route of HS2

The final day was a shorter walk to allow time for the journey home. We had found, especially during our early morning car movements, that the roads were incredibly congested and often unimproved but today, Sunday, things were much better as we left one car at Ivinghoe Beacon car park and drove back to the final start point. Wendover is clearly a popular location for local walking groups, one was just setting off from the small town centre car park while another was booting up and making use of the adjacent loo.

Tring Park

Tring Park

Pleasant but not stunning countryside was on offer as we climbed out of the town. I spotted a cottage named ‘Well Head’ with water pouring down the front path and under the gate. More section of Grim’s Ditch today as it twists, turns and duplicates in numerous locations. Tring Park, once owned by the Rothchild family is now managed by the Woodland Trust and new planting, clearing and seats improve an old Lime Tree Avenue.

Grim Bank

Grim Bank

Crossing the Grand Union canal and then railway we start to climb again, first Pitstone Hill and a view across to the diminutive post mill positioned like a folly isolated in the centre of a field. Next a sweeping incline around the gentle curve of Steps Hill then the final ascent up the well worn wide track to the Beacon. It certainty is a good finish and blanks out the bland sections of this northern part of the Ridgeway. The views to west and north are endless and those to the north east entice us to continue along the Icknield Way to link with the Pedders Way in Norfolk, but that will have to wait until another day.

Walks end Ivinghoe Beacon

Walks end Ivinghoe Beacon

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