The Ridgeway

25th – 27th May 2013

Day 1

Liz Adams and Michael Payton had planned a 3-day walk along 36 of the 86.5 miles of The Ridgeway, an ancient cattle drover’s road stretching between Ivinghoe Beacon, in Buckinghamshire, and Overton Hill, near Marlborough in Wiltshire. They’d decided to make our route from East to West rather than the more usual West to East route, so at 09.00 on the Bank Holiday Saturday a dozen walkers met at the day’s finishing point at Wendover’s Cricket Club car park. Here we organised the car sharing and shuffling and then drove to the start of our walk at the bottom of Ivinghoe Beacon. It was only then the majority of us realised the full challenge of the scramble (I can call it nothing else) to the top. The Beacon rises some 230 metres and, as the ground was neither wet nor slippery, and nobody wished to walk an extra mile to the main access track, we twelve ascended - each in our own way and own time. It was a VERY stiff and incredibly steep climb but after a few stops to catch our breath we staggered – some less elegantly than others - to the summit. It was a formidable ascent but the upside was it gave a saving of 12 pairs of feet each having to walk that further mile.

Ivinghoe Beacon Ivinghoe Beacon Photo: Elizabeth Adams

At the top of Ivinghoe Beacon we were rewarded with the most fabulous panoramic view of The Vale of Aylesbury below. Although still chilly, the sky was clear enabling us to see probably some twenty or more miles’ distance. Close by we espied the ‘lion’ of Whipsnade Zoo, carved out on the side of a hill.

Once we’d had a moment or two to ‘prime our bellows’, as Michael called it, and to savour that magnificent view, we hoisted rucksacks and set forth on our 3-day trek, everyone hopeful of more glorious views and anticipating good walking weather. No-one was disappointed. Throughout the day, as we walked the ancient trail, there was an ever constant joy of stunning vistas. Sometimes our path took us through beech woods bedecked with carpets of bluebells, speckled with the dappled sunshine, and sometimes past patches wild garlic. We were often accompanied by bird-song and enchanted by the occasional butterfly. Occasionally oncoming hikers exchanged pleasantries but mostly the day was our own.

Unused to map reading, I had photo-copied the OS map and, to the best of my ability, highlighted the course of the Ridgeway, only to be advised by Liz, more than once, that I was ‘off-piste’, easily having confused the many Tracks and Trails! Generously, she put me right on more occasions than I’d care to share. Our merry band had walked over some very steep and demanding ascents and descents, via Tring Station, skirted Wiggington, and through the village of Hastoe with Liz constantly checking the map against the posts with stencil markers of a white acorn (the sign of a ‘National Trail’) and so brought us safely the, approximately, 12 miles to Wendover. What an amazingly wonderful, albeit tiring, five hours.

Coombe Hill monument Coombe Hill monument Photo: Elizabeth Adams

Day 2

Today we were a party of nine who met in Chinnor to arrange the day’s car shuffling between our end point there and the start at Wendover. We had a much more gentle introduction to the walk, beginning at Wendover’s Cricket Grounds car park, on through the streets and across the railway line to once again meet open country to climb up Babcombe Hill and beyond to Coombe Hill. At the summit (almost 260 metres) we stopped at the Monument erected in 1904 in memory of men who died during the Second Boer War (11 October 1899 - 31 May 1902). According to Wikepedia, “on a clear day it can be seen from the Berkshire Downs and Salisbury Plain to the south-west and the Cotswolds to the west.” Consequently, the day being clear, we were able to appreciate the incredible and breathtaking view for almost that far.

Much closer we could see the Chequers Estate, barely a few miles away. Just as we began to continue along the path, the peel of church bells rang out through the Sunday morning sunshine. Dave and I agreed there could be no more quintessentially English scene anywhere. Everyone’s photo is probably held on a government database somewhere as the cameras, sited both in, along and out of the footpaths across the Chequers’ Estate doubtless followed our progress. I wonder if we were filmed having our coffee break in the sun-blessed field opposite?

We continued up-hill and down-dale with a repeat of yesterday’s fabulous weather and jaw dropping scenery. Later in the day a group of five teenagers, on their final task of a Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award, stopped us to confirm they were where they thought they were. Yes, they were; I could learn much from these Bright Young Things. (But I did get better at looking out for the stencilled acorn markers!)

After having skirted the town of Princes Risborough (“Fit for a Prince,” as the signs told us), our path took us over the train tracks and past the golf course, a couple of small donkeys and a deer farm and on through a field of sweet smelling neon-yellow rape, its pollen marking dark coloured trousers and rucksacks with impunity.

Having taken time to ‘stand and stare”, to enjoy elevenses and lunch in the warmth of the sun, having conquered occasional stiff climbs up steep hills to enjoy long views and savour the beauty of the miles of beech tree avenues, we arrived back at Chinnor approximately 6 hours after having left.

Day 3

Nuffield was today’s destination; (nearby is Nuffield Place, the home (from 1933 to 1963)of the late William Morris, Lord Nuffield of Morris car fame. It is now owned by The National Trust. 11 walkers met at the church to determine the shenanigans of siting which car where and then the selected drivers drove the group to Chinnor to start our last day’s hike. We knew rain was forecast for later in the day but felt sure it would not arrive until we’d completed the 12 or so miles that lay ahead. The morning was cold but clear and there was some discussion about how much to wear – Dave wearing shorts and Avril and myself sporting more than a few layers (including hats and gloves) with everyone else somewhere in between.

Oh what joy to start with a long, level stretch and no steep climb! The easy terrain meant we positively zipped along The Ridgeway, passing under the astoundingly noisy M40 before stopping for coffee. Over our previous days we had not encountered too many other travellers; today was different, with frequent noddings and occasional chats with walkers, cyclists and horse riders on the stretches of bridle path. It was during our coffee break that one conversationalist told us he was in training for the ‘24th Ridgeway Relay’ which was to be held on 16th June. This race is organised by the Marlborough Running Club for teams of ten runners to run in relay the full length of the Ridgeway over ten legs in under ten hours! (Every team must have at least two lady runners and female teams may have up to two male members.)

Our journey took us between Watlington and the bottom of Watlington Hill and so still no climb! On we breezed before stopping for a lengthy lunch where, with help from both book and Alison, Kathryn took the opportunity to identify wild flowers. A little time was spent comparing the merits of sheep’s wool vs ‘Compeed’™ but mostly we just enjoyed basking in the sunshine.

Working off lunch? Working off  lunch? Photo: Elizabeth Adams

Rousing from our leisure (some having discarded much apparel) we squared our shoulders to start the first real ascent of the day. It was not so very difficult but was an indication that complacency should not be our companion. Oh no, before the day was out the couple of hills ahead made this OFS member wonder why on earth she had ever embarked on the venture? I found those last hills very tough. But wow, once again was rewarded with beech and bluebells – and such fabulous views…

Without exception everyone commented on how incredibly lucky we were not only to have been blessed with three days of superb weather but also to have spent them walking in such glorious countryside. If you are up for walking a hill or three, then do flag this section of The Ridgeway on your radar for the future. If you seek views, you’d be hard pushed to find better so close to Oxford.

Each of us thanked Liz and Michael for all their hard work in organising the walk, the car parking and pooling and keeping us on track. There was talk of perhaps the next section Liz???

Hazel Hobbs