Expansive views and big skies have never felt as important as they did at the end of seven long months of abnormality. So we planned a spur-of-the-moment, six-day hike along England’s most ancient trail — the Ridgeway.
Spanning 85 miles from Avebury in Wiltshire, crossing the chalky Berkshire Downs and then kissing the river Thames, it’s a route that’s been trodden for over five thousand years and a path we’ve wanted to walk for a while — that we longed-for limbo. As a chill crisped the late September air, I’d never been happier to pull on a pair of hiking boots and shuffle my shoulders through the straps of a weighty backpack.
Unlike other thru-hikes we’ve undertaken, this one didn’t feel intimidating nor, perhaps, as exciting. But it wasn’t excitement that we needed from this journey, it was an uninterrupted gaze. An unbroken chain of thought.
Avebury to Ogbourne St George
Avebury is a museum of cottages complete with thatched roofs and window boxes filled with scarlet-red flowers. The World Heritage site holds the famous Bronze Age stone circle — easily a match for Stonehenge — and makes for an impressive introduction to the trail. But it’s after this, once you’ve picked your way up the rocky lane and out onto the bare hilltops that the walk begins its therapy.
It’s wind-whipped and exposed up here. The luscious colour of summer is draining away and the sky is a paintbrush water hue, but that lends itself to the anticipation of falling leaves, logs crackling on fires and red wine. Winter will feel different this year, undoubtedly.
We’re tailed by two red kites almost all the way along and we stop intermittently to watch them perform aerobatics as they hunt. Ten miles of easy hilltop walking, eyes gently scanning the subdued shades of harvested wheat fields and browning hedgerows, have been a real tonic.
Ogbourne St George to Sparsholt
Morning is cloaked in fog, but there’s something comforting about walking shrouded like this — a protective cocoon for you and your thoughts. I’ve felt the same out on the Yorkshire moors and walking across Dartmoor through a soft blanket of drizzle. Simultaneously bleak and cosy.
The fog begins to lift, at first just revealing the feet of field-covered hills but then, slowly, the murky apparition of open countryside. Breaks in the low cloud give a glimpse of that pale, yellowy shade of blue that you often see in autumnal skies.
Later in the afternoon, we pass what is without a doubt the most gorgeous field of fading sunflowers and wild, weedy blooms I’ve ever seen. It’s shimmering and golden and when we stop at its side, we see that it’s vibrant with life. Cabbage white butterflies in their hundreds are making their rounds among the flowers, busily pollinating the last of summer’s flora. I try to film this but a cheap phone camera can’t capture the scene like the eye can. I take a mental picture to reinforce the physical one which, as always, is a bit of a letdown.
In the warm, late afternoon sun our long shadows slide past the Uffington white horse — one of several prehistoric chalk figures marking the slopes of the Ridgeway. One of the only drawbacks of being on the trail is that you skim past many of the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age sites that sprung up around it, without even knowing they’re there.
Our B&B is a remote farmhouse way up on the brow of the hill, with panoramic views across Wiltshire. Our hostess, a warm woman, cooks us vegetarian lasagne and apple and raspberry crumble made with the produce from her garden.
Sparsholt to Goring & Streatley
After two “warm-up” days of ten and 15 miles, today is a longer 18-mile stretch. There’s rain forecast but we have the gear to stay warm and dry.
One of the most noticeable things about the first three days of hiking has been the absence of trees. The countryside has been a patchwork of gently undulating agricultural land which has its own type of beauty, with only tiny clusters of woodland, standing like penguins huddled against the cold. You wonder what it looked like before, when those first ancient commuters walked the chalky spine. Whether it was enclosed in forest on both sides or was always stark like this. This thought crops up frequently along the trail.
Goring & Streatley, straddling the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border, are picture-postcard-pretty villages. South England’s Village of the Year from I’m not sure when, but you can see why.
Goring & Streatley to Watlington
Today there’s a welcome shift in scenery, miles of bucolic countryside give way to stretches of shady woodland for the first time. It’s warm and breezy with big barrelling clouds offering a glimpse of the weather that’s to come.
I’m surprised by the wildflowers that seem to be bursting into life all around us. Yellow orchid-type stems, wispy lilacs and blues dotted around the edges of fields and what appear to be wild blueberries peppering the hedgerows for miles. Then there are autumn’s berries hanging heavy in the trees in vivid scarlet-red and orange, and blackberries still clinging on in places. I forget every year, how pretty this season is.
We stop for lunch in a newly-harvested field and watch military helicopters making drop-offs. After lunch we pick our way through more tree-cloaked tunnels and then through vast open fields of what we’ve deduced are rutabagas. The sun’s still warm and we’ve appreciated it today, knowing there’s a storm rolling in for tomorrow.
Watlington to Princes Risborough
The rain started last night and the wind is blowing, but we’re not dampened by it as we kit up and head outside. We know that today’s trail promises more protective swathes of woodland and we’re grateful that we won’t be up on those windblown hills of the first stretch. We tend to do these hikes backwards for some reason, and it’s worked in our favour this time.
Walking in the low light of the woods with the rain hammering the canopy overhead, I think again about what it was like to walk this path a thousand or so years ago. Where the trail widens and is carpeted by rust-brown leaves and silence, you imagine an ambush by men on horseback. Where it narrows and you wind and duck through thick, low-hanging branches, there’s an ethereal quality to it.
This is one of my favourite points of the journey. Woodland is beautiful in the spring and summer, with its fine rays of golden twinkling debris. But I become aware of the haunting beauty of the forest in autumn as the light fades and shades of conker and moss merge like a watercolour painting. The smell of trees and undergrowth in the rain is evocative too, heavy and peppery.
We failed to utilise our umbrellas early enough today and, despite our “waterproof” gear, we’re damp and cold by the time we reach our B&B in the early evening.
Princes Risborough to Chesham
Or, rather, Wendover. We’d always intended to cheat the last stretch so that we could meet friends for a roast on the Sunday, but after a day of non-stop rain and the fatigue of six days’ walking without a break, we didn’t have the energy left to hike through another wet, windy day.
And it did rain, right until we boarded the train. Sod’s law. But, in spite of its short duration, today delivered more of that mystical decaying woodland I’d loved so much from yesterday — this time my cheap camera delivered the goods.
We were treated to one last delicious view of patchwork-quilt farmland from the top of Coombe Hill before we left the trail behind, tired and content.