Walking the Ridgeway

rw1I wasn’t that happy when I set off to walk the Ridgeway Path, the 87 mile ‘oldest road in Europe’. January, said the guidebooks, is not the time, with driving rain on exposed ridges and deep mud in woods and valleys to look forward to. Moreover, I was to suffer alone. Since friends with proper jobs were unable to join at short notice, I was to be walking solo for the first 54 miles. Plus, after the Christmas eating season, I was in no shape to be walking up to 24 miles a day. But the Financial Times wanted the article, and I always seem to look back on these missions with fondness. Even if they’re not much fun at the time.

The Ridgeway Path follows a chalk scarp, running about 87 miles from Overton Hill in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. The ancient chalk ridge – the whole ‘Ridgeway’ rather than just the modern ‘Ridgeway Path’ – actually runs for much longer, bisecting Britain from Dorset to Lincolnshire coast. The Path’s modern 87 mile stretch is truncated by secret army antics on Salisbury Plain to the south, and the Luton conurbation to the north.

The Ridgeway could be the oldest road in Europe, but we have no way of knowing. It’s been a popular route, it’s thought, for at least 8,000 years. Until its recent conversion to a leisure track, it was a motorway for drovers, tradesmen and armies. Earlier, convincing conjecture will have it, it was an ice age animal migration route.

Its allure is dryness and safety. Chalk is very porous, so rain drains quickly. When southern England was largely a soggy, wooded morass, the Ridgeway offered safe, dry-footed, speedy passage. High above the surrounding plains, you can see any trouble – lions, wolves, bears, storms or bandits – coming from miles away.

The route’s first half is crammed with prehistoric mega-monuments, including hillforts, barrows, and the only ancient white horse in the country. The joy of prehistory (in the UK that means before the 43 AD Roman invasion) is that nobody back then had the foresight to invent writing, so we know almost nothing about it. Within half an hour, therefore, you can know as much interesting information about the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages as any expert. More than half an hour’s study, and prehistorical literature becomes solely concerned with pottery.

What we do know: from 8,000 years ago to the Roman invasion, society was druid and warrior based. European mainlanders sent their druids to train in Britain. Brits built gigantic defensive hillforts and other monuments, but we’ve no idea why. That’s about it.

So you can make it all up for yourself. I once flippantly asked an Iron Age expert whether it was all hairy heroes on horseback rescuing sacrificial virgins from snake cults, like in the film ‘Conan the Barbarian’. “That film is about as good a representation as we have,” he replied. [NOTE ADDED 16th March 2015 – to see just how much this quote affected and inspired me, see main page of this website].

So, off I set to commune with the ancients by walking the Ridgeway Path, recording a Dictaphone journal as I went. Below is essentially a transcript of those recordings, transposed into the past tense. Apologies in advance if I bang on too much about how much my feet hurt. And sorry to the people who walked with me but get scant mention. I did much more Dictaphone recording when I was on my own, partially because I couldn’t use it near Simon without him making his hilarious ‘dick-to-phone’ joke.

Day 1

Thursday 24th Jan

20 miles

Soulful soar along ridge of prehistory

I was off! Uphill, at a medium to cracking pace. My big and little toes, on the advice of an army friend, were wrapped in zinc oxide tape (a second skin for blister avoidance). I was wearing action trousers (with un-zippable lower sections), shirt, fleece and new, super waterproof anorak. Everything for the next five days was strapped to my back in my Microsoft laptop rucksack (without laptop).

To my left were gigantic views across Wiltshire, including Silbury Hill, Europe’s biggest prehistoric mound (what was it for? Nobody’s got a clue of course). Fat little tumuli dotted the fields around. Tumuli are mysterious prehistoric lumps. If bodies are found in them, they’re upgraded to ‘barrows’.

It was cloudy but didn’t look like rain. It was windy, but directly on my back from the prevailing south west; from the Christian direction, Patrick O’Brien’s Captain Aubrey would have said. The chalky path was firm despite recent rain and flooding elsewhere in the county. Unfortunately it had been deeply rutted in parts by the rambler’s nemesis, the evil four wheel drive cars that are allowed to hoon about up here in the summer. I tutted on behalf of ramblers everywhere as I waddled along, straddling ruts.

rw2Tiny, rotund birds flitted along either side of the path, tweeting nervously and keeping up with me for a bit before heading off to find something more interesting to do. More prehistoric sites appeared, including copses sprouting from tumuli dotted haphazardly across the rolling scenery, and, down to the left, the huge henge at Avebury.

A ‘henge’ is a circle where the ditch is inside the walls, which means, the thinking goes, that they can’t have been defensive. If they were, the ditch would be outside the walls. This means, the thinking continues, that henges must have been religious. They might well have been. But they might equally have been sports / leisure facilities (this is not an original idea – there’s a birthday card that depicts Stonehenge’s structures as football goalposts).

The white chalk path bisected massive views across Wiltshire to the left, and, to the right, the rolling Marlborough Downs. I saw not a soul for two hours, apart from a few riders and an elderly couple who told me I should be wearing a hat (I had two in my bag). I crossed one road preceded by garish signs telling me not to get run over. Luckily, I’d encountered roads before and made it across alive.

I’ve never walked on my own in the countryside before though, largely through pre-emptive embarrassment. I imagined that any passersby would think me, at best, a prowling rapist. Friendly as one hallooing rider and the elderly couple were, I was still, at this stage, slightly mortified to be so obviously friendless.

Despite my best attempts, I couldn’t really get a sense of the prehistoric, apart from when I briefly convinced myself that a mini path-side henge was an ancient motorway service station, selling expensive, unimaginative food to unhappy people in animal skins. Mental time travel was, I supposed, hampered by the modern agricultural buildings dotted about, and Swindon’s steadily appearing sprawl, hunkered in the plain below.

rw4This changed when I reached Barbury Castle, two hours and six miles in. Occupying the shoulder of an approaching hill (at right of picture on right), Barbury’s concentric ramparts and ditches were still impressive, but they would have been much better in 600 BC. The ramparts would have been higher and deeper, and, fresh-hewn from the chalk, glaring white in the sun. They would have been topped with a wall, in turn topped with spikes, perhaps topped with hapless enemies’ heads. The aforementioned expert on hillforts thought they may have been peaceful structures, symbols of success and a display of building ability, but, given their mighty defensiveness and man’s inherent tendency to violence when he can get away with it, I suspect he was wrong.

So, walking through the wide field encompassed by the fort’s walls, it was easy to imagine the place as a frontier town type place. Lots of huts, men with beards, women, dirty children running around, pigs, chickens, that sort of thing – all perhaps abuzz with the news of an approaching army. But, of course, who knows what it was? It was whatever your imagination wants it to have been.

Leaving Barbury, I could see the long ridge leading into Oxfordshire that I was to walk later that day (also visible in above pic of Barbury). Six miles in, 14 to go. My feet were getting sore, particularly the left foot for some reason, but I was about to have a break. My rucksack also kept opening on its own – a problem I’d hoped to solve by moving the double zips from the top to the side of the bag.

As I walked through Barbury’s totally empty car park, I realised that, although it was great to have my solitude confirmed, my break-place, Barbury Castle Farm Cafe, might be shut. I’d hoped to buy my lunch there to eat on the hoof later.

The cafe was shut, but I sat at their picnic table, had a very nice Double Decker bar, drank a bottle of water and refilled it from a tap at side of the farm, with only a fleeting worry about typhoid and other water-borne pathogens. The closed cafe meant that I’d have to deviate though Ogborne St George to get my lunch. Not a problem. I love foraging in village shops, and it would shorten the journey by half a mile.

Heading on, I’d done six and a half miles in two and a half hours, which meant I was pretty much bang on target. I had slightly been hoping to be miles ahead of target. I was going by the rule that no matter how fast you walk or how many breaks you take, the long distance walker travels at 2.5 miles per hour. It had proved accurate to within an uncanny amount of decimal places on a previous walk along Hadrian’s wall (76 miles).

The path was a gentle three miles or so down to Ogborne, running along ‘Smeathe’s Ridge’, which was grassy and unblemished by four wheel drives. I imagined prehistoric families rushing up the ridge to the sanctuary of Barbury castle, pursued by a howling bearded army. [NOTE ADDED 16th March 2015 – this is where I got the idea for the beginning of Age of Iron, when Zadar massacres the people of Barton. There is a reason that Barton and Barbury have the same first three letters]

My left big toe was becoming quite sore, but the weather had, almost suddenly, become seriously sunny. Smeathe’s ridge had great views on both sides; to the right along the valley floor was a racehorse gallops looking like a broad green river; to the left I could see for miles over Swindon and into Oxfordshire. It was January 24th, but it felt like a summer’s day.

However, by the time I was approaching Ogborne, 10 miles and half the day’s walking done, my legs were pretty tired. But, for the first time the track was enclosed by trees and fat little birds tweeted at me from their twiggy perches. I fantasised about lunch from the Ogborne Spar – something pastry and pork-based plus onion-oriented crisps, no doubt – and my legs felt easier.

Ogborne was a charming, quite big village, with a church, snowdrops in its graveyard and precocious daffodils in the main street. No shop though – just a house with the words ‘General Store’ faded on its brickwork, and very good views into its living room. Damn the breakdown of the traditional village!

So I stopped for lunch at the Inn with the Well, which let me in 13 minutes before opening time after only token resistance:

“We’re not open yet.”

“Can I come in anyway?”


Despite me putting my Ridgeway book on the table, and asking for a receipt, neither landlord nor landlady (in their matching Inn with the Well shirts) asked me what I was doing, so I didn’t get to show off about being a journalist. The pub did have a well though, in the middle of the floor, covered with glass that claimed to be bullet-proof.

rw5Back up on the downs it was like a fine but windy summer’s day: sunny, birds everywhere, wind up to a force six, still from the Christian direction. After an hour I was approaching another great fort, Liddington Castle. Part of me was marvelling at Iron Age man’s love of a good view – you couldn’t possible get a better vista over Swindon that Liddington Castle affords – and a part of me was sulky, for three reasons.

First, the track was hard-going, rutted to proto-impassibility by four wheel drives and trail bikes. I’ve nothing against motorised leisure, but allowing them on a chalk path is like letting jet skis into a swimming pool.

rw6Secondly, I’d lost my gorilla-grip camera tripod, no doubt when my rucksack fell open by Barbury castle. When it happened, I’d just looked in my rucksack and thought ‘hmm nothing seems to be missing’, and carried on without checking the ground behind me. Idiot.

Thirdly, and worst of all, was the large ‘Code of Respect’ notice board. There was a key showing a symbol for each path-using method of transport: motorbike, rider, 4X4 driver, carriage drivers and so on. A list of instructions displayed who should obey which instruction, in key form, next to it. So, ‘Respect each other’s right to be on the path’ had all the symbols next to it. But ‘make sure your bicycle is roadworthy’ only applies to cyclists, so just had a silhouette picture of a bicycle next to it. People are paid to produce these signs, yet not one of them said: “Why are we making this sign? Won’t anyone clever enough to read it find everything on it insultingly obvious?”

rw8And I was getting a bit of a sore back.

The only crumb of solace was that my gorilla grip tripod might be buried for millennia, and that future archaeologists might dig it up and pretend to know what it was for. So reassured was I by this that when, minutes later, the only person I’d passed all afternoon was a man carrying a the largest camera tripod I’ve ever seen, I took it quite well.

Also cheering was the fact that I was walking along an Iron Age ditch. These long, deep and straight ditch-and-banks are assumed to be boundary markers, but they could just as easily have been log flumes. As I contemplated the ditch, three deer appeared and stared at me for long enough for some cracking photos. Then, best of all, I realised I was approaching my future monument location.

rw9Going west on the M4, shortly before Swindon, there’s a clump of trees on a hill that can be seen for a crazy amount of miles in every direction (right, from nearby). Since childhood I’ve said I’ll have my memorial monument built there. But I’d never been to look at the clump, and here it was, just 10 yards from the Ridgeway.

Concealed by the twenty or so trees of my memorial copse was the beer-can and rizzla paper detritus of teenage evenings, and a pill-box containing two metal water tanks. I sat happily on the pill-box in my copse on the roof of the world, looking out over the gigantic view. I wondered if the distant hazy headland was Coombe Hill, where I was to be in 60 miles time (it wasn’t). Even the M4 was pretty that day.

I set off down the springy turf of the hill. After a minute’s walk I realised that I had a smile on my face. My face’s usual default position is a scowl, so this was odd. Walking, particularly solo walking, as Wordsworth and Tennyson would tell you, has a narcotic effect, and here was proof.

rw10My bubble burst though. The track became a mile of quite busy, verge-less road, where I formed and positively tested the hypothesis that the more expensive the car, the less leeway is given to the walker. I stomped along the road approaching the bridge over the M4, feet getting sorer, buzzed by cars every few seconds – even scarier now that an overgrown hedge forced me further into the road. No wonder walkers chuck bricks onto motorways, I thought.

The road continued north of the M4, and my smiling poetic reverie had been blasted to crap by the dickhead cars. rw11When eventually I came off the road, potential relief was tempered by a massive hill. I reached the top with four miles still to go, knackered, knackered, knackered. I took a break, sitting in the middle of the path as it was the only dry spot. I wasn’t enjoying the walk anymore, and was pretty sore. (left, looking back at my future memorial’s site. You can click on all these pictures to make them bigger by the way) The only ray of happiness was that I was firmly proving my theory that every long walk is at least an hour too long.

Then, when all seemed lost, I remembered my Ipod! Headphones jammed in my ears, great music playing, suddenly everything was beautiful and I didn’t want the walk to be over. Walking makes your thoughts fly, but after a while (16 miles in this case) all those flying thoughts are about how tired your legs are. That’s when music is the necessary catalyst to send those thoughts soaring skyward again.

rw12I arrived in Ashbury, marvellous sunset blazing, very much looking forward to getting crisps, cans of coke and tomorrow’s lunch from the village shop, then heading straight to my room in the pub for a small feast and a hot bath.

The village shop, of course, had shut down. It’s just a (doomed) post office now. The pub was closed too. I tried all the doors and windows, and sat dejected and cold for an hour until I found someone to let me in.

But then all was cheery. A friendly fellow opened the pub door, gave me crisps and coke to take to my room, and promised me a see-a-batter for the morrow’s lunch. I took this to be a sandwich made with Italian bread, thanked him, and headed for my bath.


Day 2

Friday 25th Jan

24 miles

Feet of endurance

rw13aI set off, steeply up to the Ridgeway under a pinking sky at 7.15 a.m. A minor disaster had occurred: blisters on my second biggest toes, caused by the sloughing of the zinc oxide tape on the inside of my big toes. So I’d wrapped the second biggest toes in zinc tape too, and joked to myself that I’d end up with every toe taped up. My legs also felt pretty rubbish, but the sighting of a rabbit cheered me up (I like rabbits), so I put my head down, slogged up the hill, and estimated my arrival time in Goring to be 16.56. 24 miles go to, all countryside – I wasn’t going to pass through even a hamlet until the very end.

The night before had been good. I had three sensible pints, read my book, and ate a fine cottage pie for supper. I was just heading to bed when a glamorous blonde chick asked me to join her, her husband and his mother. He turned out to be Hywel Davies, 1985’s grand national winning jockey. So I had a further three pints with them. So I wasn’t hungover as such, but I did feel a bit light headed, slightly sick, and extremely flatulent.

My farts, even in the high wind, smelled exactly like donner kebabs, proving the quality of lamb in the shepherd’s pie. I thought I was lucky to be on my own, then realised I was enjoying the solitude. Rather than something to be embarrassed about, being a lone crusader had become a bonus.

rw15Happily back on the Ridge, I crossed a road and passed an amorous couple in a blue Nissan Micra with steamy windows. I didn’t think that happened any more, particularly at a quarter to eight in the morning. When I met Bill later he pointed out that, from moment I noticed them to when I looked away, we were all, technically, dogging.

rw14I don’t like to deviate, especially on a 24 miler, but the jagged standing stones of Wayland’s Smithy were too interesting not to investigate, despite being 50 metres from the path. The Smithy (right) is a 180 feet (60 metre) long tomb (or ‘barrow’), built around 3500 BC. That makes it 1,000 years older than Cairo’s pyramids. It gets its name from the Saxon God of Blacksmiths, Woland (or perhaps ‘Roland’ dictated by someone who couldn’t pronounce their ‘R’s?). It’s said that if you leave a horse here overnight and a coin on a rock, your nag will be shod be shod in the morning. Given that the Saxons got here about 4,000 years after the shrine was build, naming it after one of their gods is like renaming Westminster Abbey after a footballer’s wife. Which means the horseshoe thing probably isn’t true either.

I spent a while looking around, imagining goings-on of 5,500 years before. I was utterly alone, lit by red dawn light filtering tough the narrow wood on the other side of the Ridgeway Path.

With the remaining 23 miles looming like a school bully, I pressed on, in the footsteps of a hare the size of a greyhound sprinting along the path ahead. I really didn’t know they got that big.

rw16Views opened up again as the long and chalky track climbed to Uffington Castle, another massive hillfort (left). I could still see Barbury Castle’s stand of trees behind me, and up ahead Didcot power station appeared for the first time. Both those landmarks lay on my old journey from home to school, so I knew they were about half an hour apart, driving at 80 mph. It was quite cool being able to see them both at the same time.

The fort at Uffington sports the only ancient white horse in the UK, a stylised figure apparently, which dates from 800 BC. Britain’s next oldest white horse was built 230 years ago. I say apparently, because I’d already taken and hour and a half to go two and a half miles, which was half an hour too long, so I didn’t detour to look at it.

Despite my slow progress, I was half an hour overdue for a short break, and vaguely aware that if I didn’t take a break now I’d pay for it later. But the land was sodden with dew and there was nowhere to sit. You’d think the authorities may have laid on some benches, rather that those stupid signs telling cyclists and horsemen that they should ride “at a safe and controlled pace” (if a sociopathic horseman chose to ride “at a dangerous and uncontrolled pace”, would he have time to look at a sign telling him not to?).

rw17My muttering was stopped by the new, possibly even more colossal view as I crested Uffington castle. It seemed the whole of Oxfordshire was fanning out on my left (click photo on right for high def, and you may spot Dicot power stations’s towers). Here, on the open higher ground, partridges kept bursting from cover, and hawks wheeled overhead – much more serious birds that the fat little tweety feather-balls of the lower tree-lined sections.

The path became annoyingly up and down, and I still couldn’t find anywhere to sit. More annoyingly, given my slightly hungover thirst, I walked straight part the first of three water taps marked on the map, where I’d been planning to have a water downing fiesta and fill up my bottle.

I started musing about the constant human juxtaposition of joy and sorrow. Hywel Davies, the jockey I’d met the night before, must have won the Grand National just days after my mother died on March 25th 1985. When he had his greatest joy, I had my greatest sorrow. Countless similar joys and sorrows are criss-crossing right now, everywhere. Considering whether sorrow or joy wins in the end didn’t make for happy contemplation. I walked on.

The town of Wantage, birthplace of Alfred the Great, slowly unravelled on the left. Alfred had kicked Danish arse at the battle of Ashdown, pretty much exactly where I was walking (probably) on the 8th January, 871 AD. Although it took place 1,137 years, two weeks and three days before I happened along, it was still along that relevant theme of good Christian men thrashing the dirty invader. There must have been many other great battles on the Ridgeway in antiquity, but the only other known one is Mount Badon, in which Christian, Roman-Celtic King Arthur had his greatest victory against the evil invading heathen Saxons in about 500 AD. 371 years later, Arthur’s enemies had become the successfully ensconced Saxons, who we now see as good Christian defenders under Alfred. Maybe by the year 2370 Muslims will be the UK’s mono-god fearing goodies?

Stunning countryside, in the form of the Devil’s Punchbowl, unrolled to my left. I was seriously motoring, nearly back up to 2.5 miles per hour after 7.5 miles. The lack of water might have been a worry, but since I was pissing every half mile or so I reasoned that I was clearly full of the stuff, and, anyway, there was a drinking tap in about three miles.

rw18There was still nowhere to sit, but a little weasel looped across the track ahead, then a stoat (essentially a big weasel) appeared on the path about 20 feet away and stared at me like a meerkat. A gigantic red kite came very close as I marched past Segsbury, yet another massive hillfort with gigantic views. Segsbury’s rampart nearest to the Ridgeway, rather than being rounded like all the others, was dead straight, running parallel to my path: proof that the even though the fortress is ancient, the road is older.

I managed to find a style to sit on for a while, and everything was cheery. I may have been kidding myself, but I thought I could see Oxford’s spires in the distance. Amazing to be able to see that great university, I thought, second only in the country, perhaps even in the world, to the one at Bristol.

As I peered at the academic town, I realised with amazement (possibly walking endorphin induced, it wasn’t that amazing), that I was walking directly above a childhood haunt. It was Lockinge point to point racecourse, the Easter Monday gathering for rural public school kids of the surrounding 50 miles or so, where I used to get drunk and fall in love with girls.

Also looking over the course was a memorial to the poet Betjeman’s wife. Why aren’t there more monuments like this? I wondered. Do not enough rich people love people who die? Or is monument erection stiffly regulated?rw19

The second water tap, according to the map, was shortly after the memorial. I couldn’t find it, and, while spinning around looking for it, I fell into a muddy rut. It was a low moment. Which became lower why I discovered that the ‘tap’ was actually a manhole, which I couldn’t get into. I was roughly halfway, totally out of water, and the old leggies were getting pretty sore.

I phoned a few people to chat and take my mind of thirst as I trundled along. One of my oldest friends, Sara, with whom I was planning to stay a few nights later, helped by going into her kitchen and drinking a big glass of water while I was on the line. “But seriously,” she said – “drink out of cattle troughs”. Strangely enough, I was passing one when she suggested it, and I thought I might try the next one. But I didn’t see another one all day.

rw20I passed Scutchamer’s Knob, a potentially interesting prehistoric thingy, where I would have normally stopped. Not that day though – too far to go. Head down, trudging on, I finally passed Didcot power station after approaching it for four hours. [NOTE ADDED 16th March 2015 – I’m adding photos to this article today, just over seven years after I wrote it (publisher created a new website for me, which is great, but all my photos were lost).  Sara (from previous paragraph) now lives about a mile from Scutchamer’s Knob and I went there with her husband and my wife a month ago. When I walked past it back in 2008, I hadn’t met my wife.]

In an exposed field near the A34 Newbury to Oxford Road, I found a sheltered hollow where I planned to a 20 minute lunch break to eat my see-a-batter. The sarnie was great (marvellously and juicily over-mayonnaised), but my hollow was cold, and, I slowly realised, home to tens of thousands of snails. So, after just ten minutes, I got up and headed on. I could hardly walk.

I was absolutely knackered, with nine miles to go. Which means I was pretty much there, I told myself, nine miles is just three times three miles, and three miles is hardly any distance.

It was Ipod time. Soon I was swinging my arms and singing along lustily. There was still nobody about. All day I’d seen a farmer in a golf cart, three dog walkers and two surly young fellows with bicycles and a tent.

After crossing the A34, The view narrowed a little into rolling farmland, and the entourage of tubby little tweeters reappeared. I could still see a long way ahead of me, and it was seriously clear that I still had fucking miles to go.

rw21I arrived at the third tap and danced a little jig. I read the plaque above it, and gave thanks to the local doctor in whose memory the tap had been installed. I went to turn it on, but the bit you grip and turn was missing. I arsed about trying to make it work it for a while. I might have been able to if I hadn’t decided that my Swiss army knife, with its handy pliers, was too heavy to bring.

I decided to sit, rest and check out my toes, which had been getting pretty sore. They were bad. My left foot little toe was nothing but a sac of goo with a toe in it. I wrapped more tape round it. And carried on. I was seven miles from Goring (my destination), and half a mile from a pub (a possible cheat). I could have cut right to the pub, had a couple of pints of orange juice and lemonade, and taken a cab to Goring. But I didn’t.

I think my resolve to carry on cheered me. It wasn’t so bad. My thighs felt absolutely fine. My hips were sore where my femurs were grating into my pelvis, my knees were sore, my calves felt stretched, my feet felt like they’ve been smashed with hammers, and my toe blisters were painful. But, considering them individually, no single pain was that bad, so I found I could ignore all of them. I got on with enjoying the farmland scenery of the Chilton downs, which was truly lovely. I wasn’t that thirsty either. Thank god for that second cup of tea I’d had at breakfast.

rw22I met some illegally off-roading boys in a Berlingo van looking for a dog, and a huge flock of blackbirds or starlings or some such caught my attention for a while. I kept marching along, feeling decidedly odd.
rw24The final mile and a half was on tarmac road. On the right were pretty little houses. A dog outside one of them scared me. I’m never normally scared of dogs. My feet were really, really sore. I didn’t know what my legs were doing because my feet were so sore I couldn’t tell. I had images of my boots filling with blood, and feet splitting along the bottom.

My Ipod, specifically Jaques Du Compte’s remix of the Royksopp song ‘What else is there’, kept me going.

rw23My final destination, the Thames side mega-village of Streatley / Goring slowly agglomerated around me. I passed the first bench of the day (left), and made a big point of not sitting on it. Head down, I walked along the pavement next to busy commuters stopped at Streatley’s traffic lights. They didn’t know what I’d been doing. They didn’t know that I’d just emerged into civilization after an odyssey through the wilds. They didn’t know that I could only just walk.

I made myself notice how pretty and ancient the buildings were. As I crossed the Thames, I was pleased to see it had burst its banks a little. It was a reminder of the rain that had been falling nonstop for weeks, then serendipitously stopped just before my journey’s launch.

I had to sit on a Goring bench for a few minutes to gather the strength for the local shop. Mothers with prams passed me. They didn’t know what I’d been doing either.

I spent six pounds on drinks and sweets in the Goring Spar type shop, stood outside it and downed the fastest and best apple and blackcurrant juice ever. I hobbled to the John Barleycorn Inn, my final destination, arriving 45 seconds earlier than I’d estimated 24 miles and nearly 10 hours before.


Day 3

Saturday 26th Jan

15 miles

English Beauty, break in solitude.

I had a good night in Goring. Somehow I’d let it slip to the newly tarted pub’s new owners that I was a journalist, and they’d put the sick into sycophantic. On arrival I was presented with a marvellous cup of tea with biscuits that were more chocolate bar than biscuit, then they rushed about getting a new room ready after I said I’d prefer a bath to shower.

My grandmother lives in Goring, so after a fine bath I hobbled over to hers and chatted for an hour, then had a few pints and supper with a friend who lives nearby, then slept about as well as it’s possible to sleep. [NOTE ADDED 16th March 2015 – my grandmother is now dead. Time is weird.]

The John Barleycorn’s fry-up was excellent, although the landlord actually lifted my cutlery off the table and handed it to me, which was taking obsequiousness a bit far. I hoped he hadn’t compensated by adding ‘chef’s special sauce’ to my beans.

And I was off, through pretty Goring, and immediately past two benches, which I hoped set a bench-heavy precedent for the day. On my grandmother’s advice I’d removed all zinc tape and popped a couple of her pain killers. Over the counter paracetamol, unfortunately – I’d been hoping for something a little more trippy when she’d said she had some ‘pills that would help’.

rw27bMy legs were stiff, toes not too bad, and it was a pretty morning as I traipsed though Goring’s suburbs (perhaps it’s a town – a village shouldn’t have suburbs). Glimpses of the Thames showed swans taking off and banks lined with Canada geese. Up ahead swarms of red kites, the huge birds of prey that have perhaps too successfully been reintroduced to the Chilterns, kited about. I stopped to have a staring competition with a big rabbit. It was a lovely morning.

It got better. The road became a marshy trail across a field next to the swollen, sun-dappled Thames. Geese launched from banks like bathing matrons as I approached, ducks quacked happily, and, above, more red kites than you could shake a shotgun at circled about. If all those big birds got a leader it could all go quite Hitchcockian in the Thames Valley.rw25

It was Saturday, so I’d thought the path would be awash with ramblers, runners and dog walkers, but, other than a couple of joggers in Goring, I didn’t see a soul.

Which was possibly because it was so squelchy underfoot. And at one point I had to take off shoes and socks to paddle through water so cold that it made me angry. But these were quibbles. Ducks continued to squadron around. On the far side if the river were superbly pretty houses, rustic boathouses and churches. On my northern bank, early sun laser-beamed though vast beds of rushes. Any jigsaw box would have been proud to sport the scene. It was rather special having it all to myself (below is the London to Bristol line, which crosses the Thames on an IK Brunel Bridge here, and which I’d crossed three days earlier to reach the Ridgeway’s far end).rw26

I passed a couple of pillboxes, a reminder of a time when things weren’t so relaxed, and rw28that nearly seventy years ago now people gave their lives, time and effort so that they might be. I popped into North Stoke Church (below) to look at 14th century paintings, but was more interested in a plaque to men from the tiny village who had died in world wars; nine in the first and three in the second. No matter what revisionist history spouts, I mused, Britain was shaped by war.rw29

For four miles of villages and Thames I passed nobody apart from a builder and his arse-crack. It was the most beautiful Saturday for months, but all the adults were probably playing golf or in the gym. Their children, who should have been on countryside adventures, were no doubt playing violent video games or looking at porn on the internet under the half-hearted supervision of a Polish daily. All fine activities of course, but not on a sunny day.

rw30The path swung right-angled, away from the Thames, back to rejoin the Ridgeway proper. Since Goring, the Ridgeway Path had been cheating and sharing a route with the Thames path. Perhaps hoping to gloss this over and regain some prehistoric credentials, although it wasn’t fooling me, the route back up to the Ridge followed Grim’s Ditch (left). This, they say, was a prehistoric boundary, but it could just have easily been dug by the hapless reed-cutters of the boggy Thames floodplain as a punishment from cruel overlords

‘Grim’, depending on which guidebook you believe, either means in Saxon ‘Devil’ or ‘King of the Gods Odin’. Someone’s very wrong. I’m just wishy-washy, happy with the ‘could be either’ option.

rw32I headed uphill at pace, aware that I was going to be late for my lunchtime liaison with Bill Markham, friend and animal TV producer / director, and his brother Andrew, and his son Toby (Bill and Toby right). Bill was to join my walk for the next day and half. Soon I was sweating like only I seem to be able to sweat. The ‘ditch’ became more impressive, and was soon a high ridge fringed with beech woods. Jolly pretty.

My sweat-spouting pace didn’t upset the scene, but the shotguns firing in nearby woods did. Why can’t they just look at the birds?

rw31Near the top of the hill I turned a corner, and there it was again: Didcot Power Station, squatting in the distance (left, click on pic to see properly). This whole Ridgeway Path is basically two semi-circles; first around Swindon, then Didcot.

My final landmark before lunch was a golf course. As I passed the clubhouse and its attendant greens, I realised that this was Huntercombe golf course, and the green was the 18th. Which was, by creepy coincidence, where I’d seen my first dead body aged 16 – a man who’d had a heart attack (“not a member, it’s always the guests” the matronly club secretary had said). By another coincidence, the guy I’d been playing golf with aged 16 was the friend I’d met for a pint the night before.

The path swung off the golf course , and right though someone’s yard, narrowly between house and garage. There was a sign on the front door saying “Please ring bell!” I wonder how many passing walkers do so?

Lunch in The Crown at Nuffield was good chat from Andrew and Bill, and hilarious chat from 2 year-old Toby.

Within minutes of leaving lunch, zoologist Bill had pointed out deer tracks, which I wouldn’t have noticed. We chatted and moseyed along through rolling farmland and woods, not classic Ridge scenery but pretty nevertheless. Foot pain had returned with gusto, and I was aware that I was not going nearly as fast as Bill would have liked. But I didn’t care. As the sun set, we rolled into Watlington.

Day 4

Sunday 27th Jan

15 miles

March with Muppets.

I’d only mentioned our 8.30 departure time about 15 times, so it was fair enough that at 8.50 I was still on my own outside the Fox and Hounds in Watlington, waiting for Bill, plus Simon and Zoz, who’d joined us the evening before. Just like it was ok that I’d forced the chef to come in an hour and a half early at 7.00 to make breakfast, and none of the others had made it downstairs until 7.45…

I went in and found that Bill and Simon had finished breakfast, but were reading the papers as if to prove that they’d leave when they wanted. They went by their own rules, nobody else’s, no sir, especially not on the weekend. I went back outside and carried on waiting. To force it would be have introduced unpleasantness, and anyway, leaving late just meant we wouldn’t have time for a pub lunch that I didn’t actually want. Plus Zoz was still in her room.

We’d stayed in the Crown the night before, and had an excellent evening, as one always does when out drinking in a random town with good friends, and I’d enjoyed showing everyone my appalling blisters. So my ‘hell is other people’ moment in the car-park was something of a shame, but the good cheer of my fellow walkers lifted it within moments of leaving. At 10 past nine.

The morning with Simon, Zoz and Bill (left to right above) was fun, chat was interesting rw38aand funny, japes were amusing, rw40but the scenery was the dullest so far and the going tiresomely muddy. Approaching Princes Risborough, climbing and cresting a few chalky hills gave everyone the idea of Ridgeway proper. Mainly though, the day’s first 10 miles were hedged-in muddy tracks, which was a bit of a shame for Zoz, who left us in Princes Risborough (where we didn’t stop for lunch). She was replaced by Will, husband of my pregnant friend Sara, and their spaniel Ruby (below).rw41

Zoz-less, we climbed steep Brush Hill, to the best view of the day. There was a mounted metal sigh telling us what we could see (including Didcot power station 20.4 miles away). Buckinghamshire county council had also included Braille text, to tell blind people what they couldn’t see, which we all agreed was a marvellous use of funds.

After 11 miles, Simon and Bill were quite tired. I kept mentioning that I’d done 24 a couple of days before, which no doubt helped. Landscape and views remained fine, and the going dry – that chalk really is good stuff. Rosie hared about like the young spaniel she is, while being a very good dog by not causing trouble and staying nearby. Local Will told us local tales.

rw43We rounded a woody corner and Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country seat, burst out of a field (above). As I leant on a fence taking photos, Will said that we were definitely under observation, and my camera would be confiscated by hidden SAS men. I was hoping they’d try. If they’d arrested me, or just taken my camera, I’d have been able to make thousands from the story. Well, hundreds perhaps.

rw44We went up, away from Mr Brown’s house, though golden beech woods dappled with the long shadows of the setting sun. I still had my camera, which was disappointing story-wise, but I was pleased that one can walk so unimpeded past the Prime Minister’s mansion happily snapping away. This isn’t a country even slightly at war, no matter what the media will try to build a few idiot Islamists into.

rw45Bill was whinging a bit, and Simon was sulkily asking if we could sit down at some point. Either their wimpery (after only 14 miles!), or good old walking euphoria put me in excellent fooling, so I dashed happily about the beautiful woods, leaping stumps that would have been easier to walk around. Bill accused me of mock sprightliness.

We emerged on Coombe Hill, to find the Boer War obelisk and perhaps the biggest view yet (and our official sitting down spot that I’d been telling Simon to wait for). Stunning it was, so we sat for while. I didn’t know it then, but it was to be my last sight of Didcot power station, about 50 miles after I’d first seen it.rw46

Sunset sated, we headed gingerly down the world’s steepest hill to Butler’s Cross, the pub, and pregnant Sara who, with Will and Ruby, has the good grace to live so near the Ridgeway Path, and to have said yes when I invited myself to stay.

I said goodbyes to Simon and Bill, who’d been excellent walking companions. If I’ve picked up on their worst bits, it’s retaliation for them taking the piss out of me all morning. Like schoolchildren they were, egging each other on to say more and more daringly teacher-mocking things. Luckily, either because they got tired, or because Zoz wasn’t around to show off to any more, they stopped after about midday.

Day 5

Sunday 27th Jan

13.5 miles

Return to solitude and beauty

I had an excellent evening at Sara and Will’s, soaking for ages in possibly the best bath ever, then chowing down on Will’s amazing pheasant casserole and Sara’s fantastic bacon and egg breakfast.

Sara drove me though thick fog to the top of super-steep Coombe Hill. It wasn’t cheating as I still started (at 8.30, as planned) a quarter of a mile back from the Boer War obelisk where we’d finished yesterday. I walked in what I thought was the right direction, limping a little. My left little toe and right middle toe were now red raw and bleeding gently, and all the others had blisters within blisters. Never use zinc oxide tape for blister avoidance.

I couldn’t see a thing in the wet fog, and had cleverly given both my waterproof trousers and compass to Simon to take back to London. And I was right by a slope that was very nearly a cliff, and the path ran somewhere across a grassy rise, with no way of telling where… But I was only lost for a moment before I realised that the path was a completely different colour to the rest of the grass, like a ski track across virgin snow.

I might have been miserable about the weather, and the disproving of my theory that the weather is always the same as it was yesterday, had it not been for the sound of commuters driving to work in the valley below. I’d so much rather be lost in the fog than going to work in an office. Especially on a Monday morning.

Into sepulchrally beautiful woods, trunks, branches and twigs were bright in the darkness and bedraggled with dripping mist. I was heading steadily downhill to Wendover, which was uncomfortable on blistered toes. All pain must be relative, I thought as I walked along. You must reach a point when something painful becomes just how things are, and therefore disappears. It works for emotional pain, anyway. Why not for toes?

Wendover was vaguely memorable, as my grandmother used to live nearby. By simply staggering coincidence, the Ridgeway Path only passes through two towns, the one which my grandmother lives in, and the one she lived in previously to that. What are the odds?

I met Sara and spaniel Ruby in Wendover. We’d decided that the hill wouldn’t be so good for someone seven months pregnant, so Sara joined me only for a pleasant mile or so though Wendover’s suburbs of ancient water-powered industrial buildings and town-consumed country piles.

Sara turned to waddle home, and I was on my own again, with ten miles to go. Into the Wendover woods I went, marching up a long hill. The silence of the woods, early sun breaking though the mist, and the tweeting of birds made it hauntingly beautiful, but I could have done without the hill. (looking back over misty woods below)rw47

I realised as I went – I genuinely hadn’t thought of it before – that these were the woods in which I heard the news that my father had died. I was six, so it was probably 1979, and I had seen little of him since he ran off with the daily when I was three. My older brother Tim and I were staying with my grandmother. Mum arrived, took us for a walk in the woods, and told us that he’d died in a plane crash. It affected me then as it affected me now – simply as interesting news.

I left the noise of the roads behind and ambled on though the quiet woods. I passed another defaced distance marker. Since I’d been in Buckinghamshire, all the Ridgeway distance markers had been vandalised; kilometre distances had been scrubbed out, leaving just the miles. Rule Britannia, I suppose. Kilometres were invented by Napoleon, after all.

I passed a smelly farm in between woods, and the path reverted to more of a chalky ridge. I could picture trudging groups of Palaeolithic man and ancient woolly mammals. The woods spat me out onto a road for a while, but it didn’t matter. Roads are sorer on the feet, but much better for speed, and I didn’t see a single car.

rw48Moseying along down lanes past quite big semi-rural houses – the sort of 4 or 5 bedroom things that would be called mansions in the Sun – I got that time-warped-to-the-1950s feeling that I always get in that sort of environment.

Then, happily sauntering, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t been thinking about anything at all. My mind had been literally blank for I don’t know how long – a good 30 seconds I reckon. I’d understood walking’s fine narcotic effects, but I was surprised to reach the meditator’s nirvana.

rw49On the 80 mile mark the path went off road into Tring Park, the garden of the Rothschilds, whose country pile (a real mansion, right) squatted at the bottom of the hill. Money-wise, I guess there is something to be said for going into the office on a Monday morning.

With five to go, I realised that counting the miles to the end was counter-productive. I was rushing and not enjoying the surroundings. I forced myself to take more notice of the fat little tweety birds. They were following me again, as they had over so much of the journey, hopping along in the hedgerow, stopping to stare at me for exactly as long as it took me to raise my camera and be about to take a photograph.

A friend rang, and asked what I was doing . “Walking”, I said, “That’s what I do these days.” It seemed like I’d been walking, and would be walking, forever. I knew though [and I was right] that when I’d finished it would seem like it had never happened.

Crossing the A41’s busy dual carriageway on a high, narrow, spindly bridge freaked me out. I traversed it at quick-march, looking straight up and ahead, arms slightly out for balance, like a camp major on parade. If you’re a vertigo sufferer who wants a rush, that’s a good place for it.

rw50While you’re there, spare a kind word for the sad-looking horse at the end of the bridge, on its own in a field sandwiched by two busy roads. It took a step towards me then stopped. I nearly called it over to give it some grass, but realised it would be sad when I left and the net effect would probably be negative. All animals should be kept with at least one other animal.

At Tring station I asked the taxi man to come and pick me up an hour and forty minutes later at journey’s end. It felt very good.

rw52The path re-ruralised after Tring’s suburbs, entering an area of chalk upland famous for its butterflies. It being January, I didn’t see a one.

Legs and feet were getting seriously sore by now, so I put my Ipod on for the last big push. I strutted through the woods, listening to heroic music, feeling like a hero, probably looking like a knob.

Out of the woods again after a big climb, and Ivinghoe Beacon appeared in the distance (the lump on the right, below). There were massive views to the left, and equally big tunes on my walkman. A manful mist clouded my eyes, and I had to choke back a manful sob. Exhaustion, you see.rw53

A mile and a half to go, there was a road section, so I took my Ipod off for safety. And realised that I was in bits. My feet were agony, my legs buggered, back…. pretty sore. But back in a field I re-plugged Ipod on full uplifting volume, and strode like a battle-winner past appreciative sheep, holding back manly tears.

With three hundred yard to go, gigantic, largely new views opened up on both sides. It was just like Wiltshire all those miles before. 86.8 miles of Ridge behind me, I strode on, up the final, super-steep ascent.

And I was there, at the summit of Ivinghoe Beacon, at the end. Two odd looking fifty something men were up there too, flying model planes, but I ignored them. I looked out over the huge view and read the notice about where I’d been. I was about as happy as is possible. I took a picture of myself (below), then sat and ate the Budgen’s mega-eat triple sandwich and Fridj milkshake that I’d bought in Wendover that morning.



I was soon cold, so I descended to the road to wait 20 minutes for my taxi. It whipped me back to the station in about two minutes, rather annoyingly. Back in London I poured into the rat tunnels of the Tube with everybody else. Walking through the close-packed crowd, boots still caked with Ridgeway mud, I felt surreally disconnected and alone.


Copyright pictures and text Angus Watson 2008