Despite being relatively nearby, we had somehow never got round to doing the Ridgeway, perhaps because of a suspicion that the track walking might be a bit monotonous. However, our list of uncompleted UK national trails was getting smaller, so we thought we should give it a fair hearing, and booked in a weeks vacation for July 2018. We planned to start on Monday morning, and had a leisurely weekend getting our stuff together, spoilt only by the shock of the eye-wateringly expensive peak-time train tickets!
We managed an early start on Monday morning, and were on the train at half past six, and at Swindon by half past eight. We walked the short distance over to the bus station, and took the hourly bus to Avebury, which dropped us off at the Red Lion just after half past nine. The entire village is surrounded by an impressive neolithic stone circle, and we headed off to do a circuit of it, then got a pot of tea and cake at a pop-up cafe at the Manor. It was already warm and sunny, so we put some sun cream on while drinking our tea. There were no facilities enroute today, so we had a quick look round the small village shop for some last minute on-route snacks, and got a chunky vegetable pasty, and a lentil parcel, then finally got moving at about eleven.
Technically the Ridgeway starts at Overton Hill, but it makes sense to start from Avebury, as the start is in the middle of nowhere, and there are some good sights on the way to it. We headed off down The Avenue, which was flanked by large stones, then crossed a small hill to get great views of the distinctive conical shape of Silbury Hill. As we crossed the road to walk up to West Kennet Long Barrow, a coach was just dropping off some tourists, and we put a bit of a spurt on to avoid being swamped on the short walk up. The long barrow was an impressive sight, guarded by a line of huge stones, and you can walk right inside the underground chambers. From there a few fields, and some puzzling over the map got us to the official start, at a dusty car parking spot beside the A4, at quarter to twelve.
Chalky track led through arable fields, with lots of butterflies in the grassy verges. At Barbury Castle, which is a hill fort not an actual castle, there were views over a crop circle in a field below. Way off in the distance we could see a couple of large fields full of solar panels, and behind them the sprawl of Swindon. As we passed Berwick Basset Down there was a dewpond, and despite the weeks of dry weather we were surprised to find that it still had water in it, and some dragonflies flitting about. There was a clump of trees near the dewpond, and we sat down in the shade and polished off the chunky vegetable pasty.
Not long after Barbury Castle were some public toilets that were open from 8 am to dusk, and a sign describing a water tap at a bungalow nearby. The route took to the wide grassy shoulder of Smeathe's Ridge, then contoured round a reservoir through lots of yellow flowers. Two blokes were working on the reservoir as we went past. After the reservoir the path moved into the trees, which was very welcome after the hot sun. The path circled round Ogbourne St George, and south of the village there was a water tap on the side of a house just after an A-road. Just before five o'clock we left the Ridgeway and took an easy cyclepath into Ogbourne St George to reach the Inn with the Well. As the name suggested, it did indeed have a well, right in the middle of the dining room, covered by toughened glass that you could walk over, and looking carefully you see the water a long way below.
After breakfast we walked back up the cycle path, passing a red kite soaring overhead, and were back on the Ridgeway at half past eight. We pushed on past the old hill fort of Liddington Castle, with views of Swindon way off in the distance. Further on there were lots of white butterflies in the flowers alongside the track. We descended to a quite fast and busy road, which thankfully had a decent verge, and it took us across a bridge over the M4 to Fox Hill. There was a large indian restaurant at the crossroads in Fox Hill, but it was only eleven o'clock, so wasn't open yet, and we adjourned to the welcome shade of a bus shelter to have some snacks. As we left the village and turned back onto the track, there was an intriguing gate lock with eight separate padlocks on it. The track went past an old truck that had been turned in to somebody's house, with water bowls on the outside for dogs passing by. A little further on there was tap beside a barn, and we refilled our bottles and drank a litre before pushing on.
Next we came to the excellent long barrow at Wayland Smithy, with four huge standing stones protecting the front of the barrow. After leaving Wayland Smithy, we could see the shape of Uffington Castle on the horizon, and followed the gradually ascending track to reach it. We wandered over to the edge of Uffington Castle, where you could look down on the rather stylised White Horse, plus there was a good view of Dragon Hill, so named because it was where St George killed the dragon. We could also see Didcot Power station off in the distance. Near the turnoff to Sparsholt was a water tap, and a chap with a horse was filling up a large container. We pushed on past the first Sparsholt turnoff, and took the second one near to a large antenna. It was just after four o'clock when we left the trail. The route to Sparsholt took us down a deserted minor road, downhill at first then fairly flat and dead straight through fields, for about a mile and a half, to get to the pub at Sparsholt. It was a smartly refurbished place, with bedrooms in a separate building from the pub, and after showering we got some food from the gourmet menu, including an elaborately stacked chickpea burger.
Sun was streaming through the window when we first woke up, and after breakfast we got going from the pub just after eight. Thankfully it had partially clouded over, which reduced the heat a bit. After the walk back up the quiet road, we were back on the Ridegway at quarter to nine. We took a short detour across a wheat field to have a look at the Devil's Punchbowl, although it wasn't quite as dramatic as it's namesake on the South Downs Way. As we retraced our steps back to the trail, we were passed by a dog called Eccles who took the punchbowl turnoff of his own accord, followed closely by his owner who explained that he knew his regular walking route off by heart. There was lots of grassy path, and a stretch of dusty chalky path, with newer patches that gleamed white in the sun. As we pushed on occasional horse riders, mountain bikers and runners went past.
Nearing the A34, the large sprawling complex of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory appeared down below. The last stretch to the A34 took a wide grassy path, and it got a lot hotter, directly in the sun. The only shade we could find were the trees alongside the descent to the subway itself, and we stopped for a sit down and a snack. While we were sitting there two dog walkers appeared who were slightly surprised at out choice of picnic spot, and their four dogs all strained at their leads to try and investigate our food. On the other side of the A34 was a pleasant shady wooded area, that would have made a better picnic spot, We pushed on along the chalky track, occasionally flanked with bushes, which eventually led us to the long and very dusty descent alongside the large bowl of Streatley Warren. The last bit took a quiet road, where there were lots of holes to do gas main repairs, past a golf course, then we joined a pavement alongside the main road into Streatley, to arrive just after four o'clock.
After all the walking in the sun, we were definitely ready for a pot of tea, and walked down to the cafe at the Swan Hotel on the banks of the Thames, but unfortunately the hotel seemed to have turned into a large building site. So we walked back up to the YHA, the reception wasn't open for check in until five, but the kitchen was open, so we made a pot of tea and sat on a shady picnic table at the front of the building. After getting checked in and showered we walked across the bridge to Goring and found a good Indian Restaurant, which for midweek was surprisingly busy. Near the railway station we found a reasonably well stocked supermarket, and got a load of snacks for the next day.
We collected up our used bed linen and stuck it in the laundry bin, and put our key under the reception door, as we made our way out of the YHA. We walked back across the bridge over the Thames into Goring and got breakfast and a pot of tea at a small cafe. We got going on the Ridegway at ten to nine. Although the route followed close to the Thames, most of it was flanked by large houses, and later on hemmed in between hedges, so you couldn't actually see much of the river. Near South Stoke we finally broke out into a field of yellow flowers, alongside the main railway, and quite a few trains went past as we were crossing the field. After going through South Stoke, the path rejoined the river and there were better views of it, and part of the way along we went under a large arched bridge which took the railway over the Thames. After North Stoke the path took a track between hedges, with golf course fairways on both sides. We passed by a sign telling us that Costa Coffee was only a few steps away, but we never came across it, and suspected that it was aimed at golfers rather than walkers passing by..
After Mongewell the path left the Thames and headed East. It was hot going in the sun, and we were definitely ready for elevenses by this time, but there was nothing on route, and we stopped and looked at the options for off-route possibilities. Wallingford was quite a way off route, and getting there and back would have added an extra three miles. Crowmarsh Gifford looked a lot closer though, and just before crossing the A4074, there was a turnoff onto a cyclepath along an overgrown old road, that took us there fairly quickly. We went in the first pub that we came to, and got mugs of tea and some bag of crisps, and got them to refill our water bottles. The complete off-route detour took us about an hour, and we were back on the route at half past twelve.
From here the Ridegway followed Grim's Ditch, which was a nice stretch, the footpath was slightly raised above the surrounding fields, through bushes and small trees, which kept the sun off a bit. Part way along we heard some screeching, and saw two red kites having a mid-air tussle. Further on Grim's Ditch turned into an actual ditch, and the path varied between walking alongside the ditch or sometimes along the bottom, with taller trees alongside. We could hear constant whistling calls of red kite all the way along here, although the tall trees meant we couldn't see them. Finally we left Grim's Ditch at the small village of Nuffield, where there was a church that very kindly provided a kettle and some biscuits for passing walkers, which we very much appreciated. After Nuffield, some dead straight paths took us across the middle of two large corn fields, followed by sections alongside forests, with lots of good butterflies. Just after a small campsite, was the turnoff for Watlington, which we reached at half past five. It was a fairly short walk into Watlington, with pavement all the way. There was a decent sized supermarket in the vilage, so we got some salad and picnic stuff for tea. They also had a good range of different energy bars, of different types of nuts and seeds, and we stocked up on them for the next day.
After weeks of hot sunny weather, the forecast was predicting thunderstorms and localised flooding over parts of Southern England today. After breakfast we walked back up the road, to rejoin the route at half past eight. A group of teenagers with large rucksacs appeared out of the campsite just as we were passing, and they headed off on the Ridegway in the other direction. The route followed easy tracks alongside occasional tall trees, and good views of tree covered hillside, and we could hear lots of red kite calls from up on the hillside. Along here the M40 slices the hillside into two parts, and the path takes a subway underneath. As we neared Chinnor the track passed through colourful buddleia bushes, and glimpses of deep flooded chalk quarries on either side. Shortly after crossing the Chinnor Hill road we sat down on a bench for a snack. Just after we sat down there was a sudden roar, and the Red Arrows flew past in formation. A bit further on from Bledlow Great Wood, we came out on the summit of The Cop, and had a short stop to look at the views.
We were getting quite near to Princes Risborough, but we couldn't see any sign of it yet. After crossing a railway, and passing a golf course with gigantic carp in a pond, we reached a main road leading to Princes Risborough just before one o'clock. We continued a little further along a track, past a school, and then turned off and walked the fairly short distance into the town, passing the "Pudding Stone", which was apparently a prehistoric waymark. The town had a small selection of shops and cafes, and we sat down and had a pot of tea and some wraps, and got them to refill our water bottles. On the way back out of town we saw a red kite soaring over the houses, and there views of a large chalk cross cut into Whiteleaf hill.
A steep climb took us up some chalk downs, with great views, followed by a steep descent to a pub at Lower Cadsden, where there was a water tap outside. A series of forest and pleasant wildflower meadows led to the edge of the Chequers Estate, the country residence of the UK prime minister. There were good views of the house, and in the distance behind it the large monument on Coombe Hill. The route skirted round the edge of the Chequers estate, and then cut across part of the estate, crossing over the driveway leading to the house. As we started down the path to cross the driveway, a 4x4 pulled up and an armed policeman got out and surveyed us we went past. On leaving the Chequers estate, there was a large police notice on the gate warning that flying of drones was prohibited in the area. More forest walking took us up to the monument, where we had a short stop to take in the view. Pleasant grassy path led to Bacombe Hill, then the final descent into Wendover, where we stayed in the Red Lion Pub, which apparently counts Oliver Cromwell as one its previous customers!
From Wendover, there was quite a bit of easy walking through beech forests, with occasional groups of mountain bikers going past. We sat down on a log at twenty past ten for a snack and a chap rode past on a recumbent bike. There was a nice stretch through Tring Park, wide easy track through tall trees, and views down to the large manor below. Footbridge over the A41 dual carriageway, then past a field with parched yellow grass, where two donkeys were sheltering under a tree. Just before twelve we reached Tring Station. A cafe would have been nice, but there weren't any facilities, not even toilets, just a huge car park. From here it was another 5 km (3 miles) to the finish at Ivinghoe Beacon. Some pleasant path through woods, brought us out onto chalk downs in the full heat of the sun. Down below was a large pool, which looked like a flooded quarry, with people relaxing on the edge of it.
Rolling grassy track took us to the bottom of Steps Hill, you could tell it was a Saturday, there were lots of people out compared to the relative quiet that we had encountered on the rest of the Ridgeway. It was a hot ascent of Steps Hill, and part way up we stopped in the shade of a tree for a drink of water. On top of the hill, there were some more chalk downs to cross, full of butterflies, and then we finally arrived at the summit cairn of Ivinghoe Beacon at quarter to two. There were superb views across the surrounding landscape, including a huge chalk lion cut into a nearby hillside. Alhough that was the end of the Ridgeway, there was still the small matter of the 5 km (3 miles) back to Tring Station, and we reversed our steps, although it was a lot quicker on the way back, as it was mostly downhill, and we arrived back at the station just after three. It was a pity there was no opportunity for a celebratory pot of tea, but we made do with takeway cups of tea as we changed train at Clapham Junction
So overall we found it a reasonable trail. We had been worried in advance that the tracks might get a bit monotonous, and to be honest there were a few times when we were getting a bit weary of miles of identical looking tracks through arable fields! There were some good ancient monuments though, especially near the start, plus an interesting mix of forests and chalk downs in the Chilterns, after crossing the Thames at Goring. Here are the route stats, including the bits from Avebury to the start, and from Ivinghoe Beacon back to Tring Station:
The UK was in the grip of a heatwave during our trip, so we had a lot of hot sunny weather, and despite threats of thunderstorms on the weather forecast, we had no rain at all. We did have to carry a fair bit of water, on some days we started off with four litres, and the occasional taps enroute were very helpful. We used the Official National Trail guidebook, which has 1:25k maps, plus also took the Trailblazer guide which had a good run down of places to eat and stay.