The Ridgeway - Part Three
Watlington Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon
Although we were leaving it a bit late in the year for all day walking my brother, sister and I decided that it needed one more tumultuous effort to conquer The Ridgeway. Things had been further complicated for Mrs Cane and myself by our having to go to a memorial service for an old friend in Manchester on the Friday before the walk. I’d only got about four hours sleep and had to get up very early to meet up with my brother and sister at the Cobham Services on the M25 before heading up to Ivinghoe to leave my car and then make the quick cross-country dash to Watlington to start the walk. As it was we didn’t begin walking till almost 9.30 with the knowledge that we had seventeen miles to cover to Wendover and only seven hours of light. That probably doesn’t sound like an excessive distance to cover in that amount of time, but if you spend too much time laughing, joking and stopping to try and photograph ancient monuments you soon begin to realise that you’ll be wondering around in the dark at the end of the day.
It has to be said that the initial part of the walk from Watlington Hill is not terribly exciting. In fact you’re not even on Watlington Hill, but skirting along the bottom of it with few, if any, good views to be had. This was a similar scenario to a couple of months earlier when we were repeatedly asking ourselves why we were almost always looking south at inviting hilltops and wondering why we weren’t walking on them? Possibly this has something to do with land ownership and a lack of freedom to wander where we please, but judging by the amount of tracks and footpaths that criss-cross the landscape, perhaps not. I don’t know enough about how the route was designated earlier in the last century to understand the logic of it other than it consisted of a loose arrangement of tracks and paths which was then unified. There are parts where there are ‘alternative’ tracks, notably the section near Ogbourne St. George. All I can feel is that if I’d been walking 5,000 years ago from the Marlborough Downs to Ivinghoe Beacon I’d rather be doing it along ridges of hills than in low lying damp areas!
So, lack of a good view besides, the first thing of interest, but perhaps insignificant, are two large sarcen stones which sit in the undergrowth next to a disused railway line which must have once served the gravel/chalk pits at Chinnor. Both are about three feet high, un-worked as far as I could tell and the first I’d noticed since Streatley. After passing Chinnor the route twists and turns taking you down to Lodge Hill where there are a couple of barrows (apparently), but they must have been worn away as we didn’t notice them. Again the way dips down and heads north towards Princes Risborough and the crossings of the two railway lines. You need to be a bit careful at the crossing as it’s on a bend and we were a bit surprised, having just crossed, that a train came hurtling around the bend at about 80 mph, and seemed to be on top of us before we knew it! The other crossing is thankfully some sixty feet beneath you through the Saunderton Tunnel. After this we made our way North Eastwards towards the edge of Princes Risborough and on to Whiteleaf Hill.
With the low golden sunlight sweeping across the hillside we made our ascent to some of the best views we’d had all day. At the summit is a Neolithic barrow, slightly misshapen from the odd excavation and well trodden by locals for that ‘slightly more elevated’ view. A wonderful place to be buried no doubt. Maintaining our North Easterly direction we then proceeded to Pulpit Hill, an Iron Age hill fort, but at this point the Ridgeway was ‘closed’ due to tree clearance. Flimsy bits of plastic tape denied our way with the advisory notice that ‘heavy machinery’ was in the vicinity and could be a health risk if we tried to encounter it and would we kindly walk an extra mile around the edge of the hill. Reasoning that it was a Saturday and unlikely that anyone would be working there we boldly climbed the stile only to hear someone in the distance shouting “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” As it was just another walker (peeved because they’d obviously just walked the diversion) and not anybody in authority we told them to f**k off and mind their own business. As it transpired there wasn’t even any machinery up there, but we didn’t really want to hang around to look at the hill fort in case someone turned up.
Onwards, ever onwards, we next found ourselves walking past a very big house with polite notices asking not to enter the grounds on pain of sudden death. Consulting the map we were all a little surprised to find that it was Chequers, the PM’s country retreat. We really ought to do more research when we do these walks. Here you certainly don’t want to try and take a shortcut as it’s probably protected with land mines and there were certainly a lot of security cameras dotted about and we used every opportunity to wave in a friendly way to them. By now it was definitely darkening and we knew we still had a good two and a half to three miles to go till we reached Wendover. Stumbling through Fugsdon Wood we eventually found ourselves looking down on the bright lights big city landscape of Aylesbury from the Boer War Monument near Wendover. At this point we could no longer see any Ridgeway path signs, but we figured that if we followed the tarmac path from the monument it would lead to a road up from Wendover and, although we wouldn’t have strictly speaking done the whole ‘way’, it was a toss up between that and freezing to death. A few minutes later we came to a small car park where the last of the evening’s dog walkers were shoving their soggy hounds into the back of their estate cars. Asking which was the quickest route down to the mile and a half away Wendover we were given quite complicated directions when the husband of one couple said, “Actually, would you like a lift?” “I thought you’d never ask”, replied my brother!
Thanking our saviours and their nice warm car we checked into the Red Lion in Wendover with only a slight feeling of guilt for not having done that final mile and a half. Having perused the football scores (Fulham 0-3 Spurs in case you were wondering, yeahhh!) and texted Vickie, a friend of mine from college days, who now lives in Wendover inviting her to join us for a drink, we headed on down to the bar for a meal leaving a trail of drying mud in our wake.
The Sunday morning greeted us with bright sunshine and a very heavy frost, perfect walking conditions for this time of year in my opinion. In the courtyard of the Inn is a curious stone, sarcen I think, which has obviously been there a long time, unmoved and painted white to stop motorists and drunken guests banging into it. It also has a water-filled depression in it so may have functioned as a natural drinking trough for horses or dogs. Wending our way out of Wendover and, counter to expectations, heading south-east, the big hill fort of Boddington Hill overlooked us to our left and unfortunately the Ridgeway path doesn’t go through it, like some of the other hill forts which had been just out of reach in earlier sections of the walk. Oh well, maybe that’s another day out in the future. It’s very pleasant walking here through the sun-drenched mixed woodlands and there are all sorts of earthworks along the way some from obvious quarrying, others maybe ancient boundary markers and possibly linked to our old friend The Grim’s Ditch which was meandering to the south of us and that we’d meet up with again closer to the end.
Having made our way past the A41, Grand Union Canal and railway main line at Tring the path once more ascends towards Pitstone Hill. As you come towards the top of Pitstone Hill there is what appears to be a barrow cemetery, but on closer inspection the ‘barrows’ turn out to be the spoil heaps of a quarry, hence the name Pitstone Hill (durrrr!) On this particular day we were also the guests of some spectacularly shaggy and incredibly docile ‘Belted Galloway’ cattle that were grazing at the top of the hill. It’s at this point that you find yourself once more in the company of The Grim’s Ditch and you follow it right across the hill until you spot on the horizon your final destination, Ivinghoe Beacon shining in the afternoon sun like a…. well, like a beacon!
Although in some ways it looks tantalisingly close, it’s still almost two miles away and we think back to the start of our walk some eighty-five miles ago in the Spring realising that it’s all about to end. I think the main thing that comes to mind is the shear variability of this walk compared to, say, the South Downs Way that is almost exclusively along hill ridges and definitely a more defined and logical path. Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise for walkers to go over the maps and plan their own Ridgeway path. Only this very last section of The Ridgeway feels remotely like our beginning at The Sanctuary on the Marlborough Downs, high chalk hills overlooking flat plains below with the occasional barrow or hill fort dotted along the path.
Dropping down for almost the last time we pass the end of the Grim’s Ditch as it curves around the base of the hill, cross a minor road and a field and then begin to climb Steps Hill. Almost at the top of here is a dramatic view down a dry valley, Incombe Hole, looking southwest back across the way we’ve come. Then comes a succession of boundary markers or cross dykes and a couple of barrows atop the knoll directly south of the beacon indicating just how important and populace a place this once was. We can make out the other Sunday afternoon strollers on the beacon and with a slight tinge of smugness we know that they probably haven’t done the whole walk, but we have (well almost)! With the end now in full sight, we walk the final few yards and on the count of three we all put our feet onto the lip of the hill-top map and congratulate ourselves. We spend a few minutes admiring the spectacular view and then it occurs to us, with a slight feeling of panic, that we can’t remember whether we left my car in Ivinghoe or Ivinghoe Aston? We plump for Ivinghoe and decide to go the direct route down the steep slope before it can get dark. Halfway down I almost trip when I see something out of the corner of my eye. It’s a coin, but sadly nothing really old just a 1919 George V penny. Maybe it was dropped by someone doing exactly what we’d done, but ninety years earlier. For me today it’s a nice reminder of our year’s walk.
The Ridgeway - Part Two
Segsbury Camp to Watlington Hill
A promising sky greeted us as we made our early morning meander from Basingstoke to Letcombe Regis to begin the second phase of our walk from Segsbury Camp. Having parked her car at the bottom of the hill it wasn’t until we were two thirds of the way up that our sister realized she’d left her phone in the car and my brother obligingly set off back down to get it. Ho hum.
This didn’t look to be the most promising part of the walk in terms of ancient sites, barring the Way itself, but at least it was going to be easy on the feet. With the ever-present cooling towers of the Didcot Power Station as a progress gauge, most of the walk was on level ground, especially the section that follows the Thames northwards from Streatley, but that was for day two and in walking, talking and laughing terms, some way off.
The first site that appears on the map, but which proved eminently indiscernible was Grim’s Ditch. This Iron Age boundary marker comes and goes along almost all of this section in fits and starts, but proved much more interesting on the second day. The first non-prehistoric feature you come across is the monument to Baron Wantage who seems to have spent a large chunk of his early life slaughtering Johnny Foreigner on behalf of his fellow Victorians. However, on post-walk reading I learnt that the monument was erected on top of a Bronze Age barrow. Shame.
Next up is the quaintly named Scutchamer Knob hidden discreetly in a small copse on the southern side of the ridge. This is a sizeable round barrow, but because it’s been burrowed into on its north side it looks slightly like a Cotswold Severn Long Barrow with turtle-like flippers sweeping around in front. Only the lack of a tail end suggests otherwise, but there again who knows whether it wasn’t ploughed out centuries before? Despite the joke-worthy name this is a very enigmatic spot with tremendous views and was a historic meeting place in the past.
After this the track begins to dip down some before crossing beneath the thundering A34 whilst surrounded by numerous gallops. Horseracing is BIG in this part of the country and the sweeping downland provides excellent training facilities for the local stables, obviously why they were there in the first place. Shortly after an abrupt left turn at Compton Downs the track crosses a disused railway line which is of some significance to my siblings and me. If we’d followed it south back to Newbury it would connect us to the road we lived in back then as youngsters. I can just about remember the steam and noise of steam trains as they puffed along the track on an irregular basis before Beeching put an end to all that. Ah, nostalgia!
So, on to a slight diversion to Lowbury Hill which, according to the map, has a R***n temple on top of it and where there’s a temple there’s almost always something of earlier interest. My sister and I decide to go and investigate while my brother lies down in a field after his earlier exertion with her phone. The temple proves to be a huge disappointment with only the barest traces of anything visible on the summit. There is however a low and lonely barrow and the inevitable view of the DPS cooling towers. “That was amazing!” we lie to him at the base of the hill, “You really missed out there”. “No I didn’t”, he replied, “There’s nothing up there because I asked someone coming back down”. Smartarse.
We are now coming to the end of our days walk and the track slowly descends into Streatley, a posh little town on the Thames and my brother and I are wondering if we can get to a pub showing the Man U v Spurs game before the 5.00 kick off. One of the few things of notable interest, other than the outstanding natural beauty of the valley on the way down, is an amazing field system that I would guess to be medieval, though there’s no reference to it on the map. There’s also a large sarcen stone near Thurle Grange on the side of the road but little to relate to it. A word of warning! If you are on the right hand side of the road, as we were, when you come into the town the pavement suddenly stops and you have to face speeding oncoming traffic as it comes round the corner. We encountered a twat in a hatchback who showered us with expletives and to whom we replied with suitable hand gestures only to be followed by, we assume, his father in a minibus. He passed so close that I put my hand up to avoid his wing mirror taking my head off and thus caused his mirror to be bent back. More verbals ensued but I don’t think he fancied his chances against our sister.
The YHA in Streatley is run by very nice people and I thoroughly recommend it. They even told us where we might catch the game and so we sped off to locate the only pub in town likely to be showing it. Sadly there was something wrong with their TV but they redirected us to a workingmen’s club down the road where we ‘might’ get in. Imagine our surprise when we walked in to see that Spurs were 2-0 up! Now imagine our disgust as we were ejected from the premises for not being members!! So we had to make do with lovingly relayed scores from Mrs. Cane while we sat through a ‘more tense than usual’ pub dinner. Well, Spurs 3 – 2 Man U! Who’d have thought it and what a superb day.
Singing Andre Villas-Boas’s praises we set off the next morning into a not quite as sunny day. There are some interesting sarcen stones next to ‘The Bull’ pub which is located near the YHA in Streatley and another sarcen built into the corner of the adjacent house. Whether they’re of any significance or not I don’t know, but these and the large stone we’d seen at Thurle Grange the previous day were the only sarcens we saw along this stretch. The track was now heading north following closely the course of the Thames which seems a little unnatural as you presume that for some parts of the year in past centuries it might largely be underwater and therefore unwalkable.
Passing through South Stoke and heading for North Stoke I decided to make a slight solo detour to investigate what looked like (on the map) large barrows in the corner of a nearby field at Barracks Farm. This proved to be another huge disappointment on a similar scale to the Lowbury Hill R***n Temple. Whatever had been there in the past was now long gone, ploughed out by some merciless farmer. I strained to see the slightest of bumps but it really wasn’t worth the effort and so I departed to catch up with my brother and sister in North Stoke.
Arriving at Mongewell the path veers east again away from the river and after crossing the A4074 you suddenly find yourself walking along a raised path across level fields - the resurgence of the Grim’s Ditch! Only it’s a dyke here rather than a ditch and becomes bigger and more impressive as you progress. Also, strangely enough, there’s a trig point on the track about half a mile in and as you look across the fields you can’t help wondering why you’re not on the low hills to the south (presumably the beginnings of the Chilterns)? After a few miles the ditch begins to climb and grow in size and character and at some points there’s a good twenty-foot difference between the path and the bottom of the ditch. It’s strange that this is so overlooked, as it’s just as impressive as, say, a hill fort and the amount of manpower needed to create it would have been almost equal to the largest of those forts. Nobody seems to know just what its function was. Certainly not defensive as it’s far too small and generally misplaced to be of any practical use. A boundary marker perhaps? There is a similar structure, the Devil’s Ditch, which runs along a section on the southern side of the South Downs Way and that has been described as such though it’s certainly not as impressive as the larger sections of Grim’s Ditch.
We finally departed company with the ditch at Nuffield and here you have to be quite watchful as the path crosses a golf course and although it tells you to ‘follow the markers’, presumably to stop you getting into fights with irate idiot golfers, we managed to get lost and it took about twenty minutes to regain our bearings, throw away miscellaneous golf balls that we came across and get back on track. The reward is a nice pub, The Crown, on the edge of the common and we stopped for a quick one before beginning the final ascent.
Crossing the A4130 we found ourselves crossing a large open field with a very faint footpath. Over our heads soared at least a dozen Red Kites. These beautiful birds had been present throughout our journey but not in these numbers. Until relatively recently the Red Kite had been in terminal decline in England with only a handful of surviving pairs in Wales, but successful introductions of continental birds have now made it one of the most prevalent species in the area. They really are wonderful to watch.
The remainder of the walk to Watlington Hill was pretty routine. Nothing much in the way of pre-history, just a burning desire to put our feet up, particularly our sister who’s feet were beginning to hurt due to new boots which she’d not worn in beforehand and the prospect of a long drive home. We had one last glimpse of those damned cooling towers at DPS and a good view of the Wittenham Clumps from near Ewelme Park which made us appreciate how far we’d traveled and then it was just a quick final dash to Watlington Hill and back to my car. The next section of the walk in December will be back in hill territory, the Chilterns, and hopefully we’ll encounter more and interesting sites, certainly ones that we’ve never visited before.
The Ridgeway - Part One
The Sanctuary to Segsbury Camp.
Over the previous 4 years I walked the South Downs Way with my brother and sister, generally doing a section of 2 days walking once a year till we had completed the whole 110 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne. Last year we didn’t do any walking, but decided that we’d undertake the Ridgeway this year, walking the 87 miles in the course of one year. On Saturday 19th May we set off on our epic journey from The Sanctuary on Overton Hill (near our childhood home of Wroughton) under a grey, cloudy, but not unpromising, sky. Of course I always have an ulterior motive when we do these walks in that I’m constantly waving a camera about and pointing out things of interest in the passing landscape but the primary reason is really about talking absolute bollocks and having a damned good laugh.
The initial part of the walk is a personal favourite as you leave the stunning views from the Sanctuary over East and West Kennett, Silbury and the numerous scattered Bronze Age barrows on Overton Hill and make your way North towards Hackpen Hill and Barbury Castle. I’d forgotten just how many sizable sarcens hug the path in this area mostly dragged from ploughed fields over the centuries by generations of taciturn Wiltshire farmers. Today dotted across the landscape are herds of hardy Downland sheep barely discernable in the distance from their stony namesakes and in the space above the ever-present accompaniment of skylarks. A section on Overton Down has a string of large sarcens lining it and it made me wonder whether these hadn’t been part of some ruined monument nearby which had succumbed to clearance, but given the proximity of the Grey Wethers to the East maybe not.
You can always tell when you’re near a parking area on the downs because the number of people, dogs and kids on bicycles rises and so we knew that the White Horse figure on Hackpen Hill was imminent. As children we often used to take this minor road passing through Rockley and Old Eagle as a shortcut to Marlborough or sometimes just for a picnic up by the Gallops. Passing on we began to make out the mighty banks of Barbury Castle, another childhood playground. This is quite a busy section of the Ridgeway as it’s open to motor vehicles during the summer months so you’ll quite often encounter 4x4 freaks or strings of young men on cross-country motorbikes, the whine of their engines buzzing in your ears five minutes before you encounter them and five minutes afterwards. I’m not sure who’s more selfish; me for wanting peace and quiet or them for seeking thrills.
Arriving at Barbury around 1.00 we stopped for lunch and sat on a section of the bank looking down on the beech copse and reminisced about the bendy branch of one of the trees that we used to take turns sitting in while our dad twanged it up and down. All around us were newly flowering yellow cowslips and thousands of brightly coloured small snails encouraged by the recent wet weather. Moving on to Smeathe’s Ridge we dropped down to Ogbourne St. George and wondered if there was still a pub there. In Wroughton we’d known nine pubs but in the intervening thirty years three had closed so it was with some relief that we discovered that The Inn with the Well was still there. A swift pint and we were on our way again making the gradual climb to Round Hill Downs where the going is relatively flat until you go a little further North and start the climb to Liddington Castle. All day I’d been spotting what I thought were round barrows only to discover upon consulting my OS map that they were almost always small reservoirs, the consequence of a relatively dry landscape.
Just before arriving at Liddington there are a series of earthworks one of which runs parallel with the path. It consists of a ditch and bank and strewn along the ditch are more sarcens, which had become scarce since we left the Grey Wethers earlier, and I assume that this was probably a boundary marker. Liddington is a strange place and had always seemed so. It’s about the same size as Barbury but seems to be ‘back to front’, the western side being too big and formidable where you don’t really need it due to the steepness of the hill and the eastern side being too small and under-protected. Perhaps it was never a hill fort at all but a prestigious enclosure or corral?
After Liddington we dropped down towards our days destination at Fox Hill crossing the B4192 and then walking along a horrendous section of road across the M4. Because of the abundance of foliage at this time of year you’re forced to walk along the edge of the road into the face of cars travelling at 50 mph just a couple of feet from your body. I don’t understand why there’s not a proper pavement here as this is the official Ridgeway path and must be used by thousands of walkers every year. There’s certainly no other crossing point nearby. So an imperfect end to a perfect day.
Following the Saturday evening disappointment of Chelsea undeservedly winning the Champions League cup, and so displacing Spurs from next seasons CL campaign, it was now Sunday morning and the wind was up and blowing almost straight in our faces. We cursed Didier Drogba and set off. Nearby Charlbury Hill looks like it should have had an ancient settlement upon it but apparently didn’t. There’s not a lot of pre-history other than the Way itself until you get to Wayland’s Smithy, which was still some four miles off. So you have to be content with rolling downland, vivid yellow and green fields and path side flowers like speedwell, forget-me-nots, cowslips and borage. That’s fine by me. Wayland’s didn’t disappoint and we spent a good half hour wondering around, climbing in and out and taking pictures. My sister assured me that the hole on the back of one of the largest stones is where you place your silver coins when leaving your horse to be shod, but I’m not sure how she can know this and we have no way of testing it out other than leaving our brother there overnight dressed in a suitable costume. Obviously he’s not willing.
Next up is Uffington Castle and The White Horse. We made our way to the edge of the hill near the horse’s head and spent a while gazing over the Manger, Dragon’s Hill, a crop circle in a field of rape and the steaming towers of Didcot Power Station. We decided to have our lunch in the ditch of the castle, but whichever way we turned we couldn’t escape the blustery wind and eventually moved on to a strip of woodland near Ram’s Hill. Later, approaching the Devil’s Punchbowl, the sun threatened to breakthrough but, sadly, didn’t quite make it. A great shame as it’s a beautiful piece of landscape. Now we were almost in sight of our final stopping point for the weekend at Segsbury Camp. Again this is also a bit like Liddington in that it doesn’t seem substantial enough on the side where it needs to be so I came to the conclusion that this too was not really a fort but more of a gathering place. All the forts we had passed through so far had been quite evenly spaced as were the intermediate ones which are on the edges of the Ridgeway like Bincknoll, Alfred’s Castle and Windmill Hill. I wondered how different each of them might have looked in their heyday with different levels of fortification, palisading and gates, whether they all belonged to one large tribe who roamed between them or to different family groups or clans who farmed the local hills and valleys. What was the decision making process when deciding where to site them? It’s obvious for some but not others and it’s also difficult to know whether they’re all contemporary with each other. There may have been long intervals between them and almost certainly different phases in their individual construction. Ah, questions, questions, questions. So, a good weekends walk and the prospect of more to come when we venture on to unknown territory this summer.
I'm a professional photographer living in West Sussex and have been interested in ancient sites since childhood. I was brought up near Barbury Castle in Wiltshire so visits to hill forts, stone circles and various lumps and bumps were routine. The grip of these fantastic places still has a hold on me and I still get a feeling of total wellbeing whenever I come across a new place or revisit familiar places. Much of that is to do with the magnificent or interesting locations in which they're found and equally the mystery attached to them - we know so little and can imagine so much.