July 2014 – Following our exploits on the Pennine Way the four of us decided it was time for something a little more sedate and closer to home. We have settled into a pattern of one long weekend a year and chose The Ridgeway National Trail for our next challenge.
The Ridgeway is 87 miles long and starts at Overton Hill, near Avebury, Wiltshire and ends at Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. From here you can carry on along the Icknield Way and the Peddars Way to the North Norfolk coast. The Ridgeway can be walked in 6 days although we plan to complete over 3 long weekends.
Weekend 1 – Overton Hill to Letcombe Regis (near Wantage) – approx 30 miles
Day 1 – Overton Hill to Ogbourne St George – 9 miles
We set off from Salisbury in a convoy of three cars dropping one in a quiet spot in the village of Letcombe Regis, our final destination and one at our second night’s accommodation – The Rose & Crown pub in Ashbury. We knew the pub wouldn’t be serving food on a Sunday evening (World Cup final night) and this would give us more options to seek out some food. Then we drove onto the start parking up in the small village of East Kennett a short walk from the car park just off the A4 at Overton Hill (not a good place to leave a car for 3 days!). This area is packed with archaeological features such as the West Kennett Long Barrow (one of the largest chambered burial tombs in Britain dating from 3600BC), Silbury Hill (the largest pre-historic man-made mound in Europe dating from 2400BC) and Avebury itself (one of the largest stone circles in Europe and a UNESCO world heritage site) plus many hundreds of burial mounds and the odd hill fort dotted around the landscape. Having lived in South Wiltshire for nearly 30 years now this is the countryside I’m used to and it holds much interest and a huge amount of history to be discovered.
By the time we started it was around midday and turning into a pretty warm afternoon. We wandered through sleepy East Kennett and past the entrance to The Sanctuary – which is connected to the Henge at Avebury by a stone avenue. We posed for a photo at the official start point and then set off along the track in a northerly direction with the famous village of Avebury to our left. We could just see the standing stones of the Avenue and circle around the village as we ambled along an enjoyable first few miles. To our right was the Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve where the chalk grassland is littered with sarsen stones (the largest collection in Britain). This was a relatively busy section with walkers and bikers and the odd Land Rover although it was a Saturday so to be expected for such an accessible part of the route.
Of course we never go walking without quality snacks and it wasn’t long before the Gourmet Scotch Eggs made an appearance! We then climbed a few metres up Hackpen Hill where we were treated to a Red Arrows fly past on their way to a display somewhere far away. Hackpen Hill has a White Horse – two a penny in this neck of the woods – although we couldn’t see it from the Ridgeway. We didn’t detour as this is a relatively modern white horse (cut to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838) and the daddy of them all – the Uffington White Horse – was coming up on our final day.
Continuing on the iron age hill fort of Barbury Castle comes into view. In this gently rolling landscape it’s quite an imposing feature with a double ditch and ramparts with great views, a commanding position. With a car park nearby it’s popular with the general public and a good spot for kite flying. Sadly no ice cream van – a missed opportunity on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Shortly after Barbury Castle the good solid farm track we’d been following for a while turned into more of a grassy track traversing fields as we approached Ogbourne following Smeathe’s Ridge in a south-easterly direction with great views of the downs just north of Malborough.
And there was the occasional bench along the way to take advantage of.
Almost at our destination we wandered through the pretty village of Ogbourne St George.
Before reaching “The Sanctuary” B&B conveniently located close to the pub “The Inn with the Well“. The B&B was excellent with a great hearty breakfast to set us up for the next day. We retired to the pub for a few beers and a good evening meal.
Day 2 – Ogbourne St George to Ashbury (11 miles)
The weather was overcast as we set off on Day 2. A sharp rise from Ogbourne got us back up onto the Ridge and we had easy walking on good paths for the whole day.
Not many features on this stretch just pleasant countryside, a good track to follow as we eventually reached Liddington Hill Fort before our short descent to cross the M4 at Wanborough Plain.
The proximity to Swindon and the busy M4 was unnerving after miles of peace and quiet so we didn’t linger and climbed up Chalbury Hill leaving the noise of the motorway behind us in the valley.
The Ridgeway sign at the start of the Chalbury Hill climb.
Shortly afterwards we found a lovely spot to rest and refuel. The beauty of the Ridgeway is you’re only a few feet away – hop over a fence or through a gate – from a perfect picnic spot, a great place for a dose on a warm summers day.
It wasn’t long before we saw the Rose & Crown sign and turned left off the way to drop down into the village of Ashbury.
On the advice of the Landlord we headed down the vale to the White Horse pub at Woolstone where there was a wood fired pizza oven in a pleasant beer garden.
Relaxing with a pint is a perfect end to a good day’s walk. We then retired back to the Rose & Crown to watch the World Cup Final.
Day 3 – Ashbury to Letcombe Regis (9 miles)
The Rose & Crown provided us with good accommodation although we were rudely awoken by an E4 film crew early on Monday morning – they’d hired the rooms and pub for the week for makeup and costume changes whilst filming a new TV series “Glue”. The landlord, slightly worse for wear after the previous night took a while to get up and let them in so our night’s sleep was cut short slightly!
Still eventually we were up and ready for our last day of the weekend.
The first site was the ancient burial mound “Wayland’s Smithy” which was a convenient snack spot (as we had not taken up the pub’s continental breakfast offer we were feeling a little peckish at this point!). It dates from 3700BC and has impressive sarsen stones guarding the entrance.
On a bright summers day there’s no better place to be. This gentle landscape means huge open skies and great views all around.
And an opportunity for “Snake” to demonstrate some “extreme planking” a regular feature on our walking weekends.
The pose known as “the Bruce Forsyth”……
The main feature of the day (and stage 1) that we were all looking forward to was the ancient Uffington White Horse and it didn’t disappoint. The oldest white horse in the country believed to be carved some 3000 years ago and sits just below Uffington Castle hill fort, overlooking “The Manger” (the steep sided coombe or dry valley) where, as legend has it, the white horse goes to feed. Next to The Manger is the small, flat topped mound of Dragon Hill where, of course, St George sorted out the dragon once and for all. The views are impressive and it’s a great spot to spend some time relaxing and taking in this ancient landscape.
From the white horse it was a few miles along the Ridgeway before we turned off at Segsbury Hill fort and dropped down to Letcombe Regis, the car, and the journey home. It had been a fantastic weekend and we look forward to returning in 2015!
Weekend 2 Letcombe Regis to Watlington
Day 1 Letcombe Regis to East Ilsley – approx 12 miles
Another year and the four of us were back on The Ridgeway. After parking the car in Letcombe Regis we retraced our steps along the lane up Castle Hill to Segsbury Hill Fort. Immediately we were greeted by a now familiar sound in these parts of Red Kites overhead. Once their numbers were non-existent in this area but now thankfully they are a common sight again with their familiar cry meaning they’re easy to spot.
After the pull back up to The Ridgeway we paused at the first official sign of the day. With the weather set fair and warm we were looking forward to another classic days walking along this famous route with wide vistas either side of the track. The route for the day was relatively straight forward following the wide track across the A338, tracing the route of Grim’s Ditch, under the A34 before dropping down into East Ilsley.
It wasn’t long before we had our first break and the now traditional walking snack of gourmet scotch eggs made an appearance. As casual weekend walkers we enjoy our food (and beer), it’s an important part of the walk, this is not an endurance event, we like our comforts!
The Ridgeway path in this area overlooks grassland and crop fields affording expansive views which you will never tire of. Talking of endurance events we were now being regularly passed by runners travelling in the opposite direction. We later learnt that these were the front runners of the “Race for the Stones” ultramarathon, a 100km race which started at our weekend end point (after 3 days walking!) of Watlington. The race can be completed in one go (the fastest time around 9 hours) and is run through the night or can be done as two 50km days with overnight camping. Over the course of the day we passed runners travelling at various paces, then into the walkers and some that were obviously suffering and carrying injuries. Hats off to all of them, it looked pretty gruelling to us at our sedate pace! And lots of money being raised for charity which was great to see.
After crossing the A338 we came across the only landmark as such on this day’s walking is the monument to Colonel Robert Loyd-Lindsay, later Lord Wantage of Lockinge who was a founding member of the British Red Cross. Time to pause and take a photo which one of the Race walkers kindly offered to take for us – perhaps he wanted a breather!
We pressed on the wide easy trail following the ridge of the rolling Oxfordshire downlands.
And regularly passing race participants heading in the other direction. We passed the trig point at Cuckhamsley Hill and the earthwork of Schutchamer Knob the legendary burial site of Saxon King Cwichelm.
We came across one of the race feed and water stations which was a handy place to fill our water bottles and watch the comings and goings for a few minutes.
Looks like I’m drinking in the view in this picture or maybe just thinking how glad I am not to be running 100km in this warm weather! Very easy going as you can see with a wide grassy track across Bury Down as we passed into Berkshire. The Harwell Science & Innovation Campus could be seen in the valley below us. Shortly afterwards it was through the A34 underpass and we started to drop down to our overnight accommodation at the Crown & Horns pub in East Ilsley, once famous for it’s sheep market when 20,000 sheep could change hands in one day in the 1800’s. A quick shower and a few beers in the courtyard garden were most welcome!
Day 2 East Ilsley to Wallingford – 13.5 miles
We gathered on the village green for the second day of our weekend’s walking with the weather looking good although with the promise of showers later in the day.
We retraced our steps back up to the Ridgeway and the first part of the day was classic ridgeway scenery. The second half would be a walk along the River Thames from Streatley / Goring to Wallingford and our B&B for the second night.
It wasn’t long before we stopped on a bridge over a disused railway line (once known as the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton railway) to open up the scotch eggs – brunch time!
With my “Black Fire” – a black pudding and scotch bonnet combo – proving to be a cheeky number. We then continued on the usual easy underfoot Ridgeway path and started to drop down towards Streatley with a sense that we were moving into a change of scenery from open grassland to the rolling Chiltern Hills.
Through the day we started seeing signs for another event although this time we didn’t see any competitors. It was the La Pierre White Roads Classic bike race an on / off road long cycling event,
So far on the walk the Ridgeway signage has been first class, I expect due to the number of people who use it regularly as it is well served by many easy access points and car parks.
One of the rules of the casual walker is to never pass a pub without stopping for a pint and the Swan at Streatley was the first pub stop opportunity that we’d come across in the middle of our day’s walking so far. And what a lovely pub it was too! We took a table on the terrace right next to the River Thames and relaxed for a while. Good to see traditional pint pots in use as well!
Whilst it would have been easy to linger in The Swan all afternoon we pressed on taking a left turn northwards to follow the River Thames to Wallingford our overnight destination.
Leaving Berkshire for Oxfordshire the scenery changed from the open downland to grassy riverbank and it was a lovely stroll along the Thames for a few miles. There were many grand properties to admire on the opposite bank. By this time we had the odd shower coming through so waterproof jackets were on and off a few times.
The next village was South Stoke with it’s 17th century Pike & Perch Inn were again we stopped for refueling. From here we saw a couple of WWII pillboxes alongside the river. Then the path bisected a golf course and we were in Wallingford our overnight destination.
And whenever a decent sized town crosses our path there’s a good chance of a curry!
Our overnight B&B in Crowmarsh Gifford was excellent; we were greeted with a pot of tea and a slice of cake – may other B&B establishments take note! And the next morning’s breakfast was hearty setting us up nicely for the final day’s walking.
An early trig point allowed Snake to do his thing……….
We were soon into a long stretch of woodland walking as we followed the Iron-age earthwork called Grim’s Ditch again for a few miles. Showers had turned into more persistent rain for our third day but it was still relatively light and it was a warm day. A totally different scenery from the first 4 1/2 days of the walk, we were now well and truly in the Chilterns and we started to come across the odd steeper rise in the path which got the lungs going.
Emerging from the woodland we entered the tiny village of Nuffield and its’ Holy Trinity Church. Bless the local community who had stocked the church with tea, biscuits and scones in return for a donation.
Naturally we took them up on their offer and relaxed for a while…….
Next we crossed the golf course and crossed over the A4130.
The next section was open fields with the occasional patch of woodland as we made our way to our final weekend destination of Watlington.
We turned left at Watlington Hill and down into the village to pick up the car we’d left.
Another great weekend on the Ridgeway, one more to go next year!