The Ridgeway is reputedly the oldest road in Britain, once stretching from Lyme Regis in Dorset to Hunstanton in Norfolk, known as the ‘Greater Ridgeway’. The centre section of this is listed simply as ‘The Ridgeway’ and is a well-established and well-trodden trail for long-distance walkers. This section runs for 87 miles from Overton Hill nr Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon (Buckinghamshire) nr Tring (Hertfordshire), passing through Berkshire and Oxfordshire on the way.
Last year, being an avid country walker, I took a week’s leave and set myself the challenge of completing the Trail starting at Avebury, only to succumb to a nasty batch of blisters 29 miles along. This September, I resolved to complete the walk and on Sat 15th travelled to where I’d left it – the village of Letcombe Regis in Oxfordshire. I had B&B booked at the delightful Quince Cottage and planned to start walking the following day. This gave me around 58 miles to walk in a target time of 5 days. Not too difficult; the approx. equivalent straight line distance from Shrewsbury to Birmingham Airport. Since I could only get B&B for 3 of the 5 nights, I had a 1-man tent (thanks, S/L Ops!) and bivvie bag to rough camp if necessary. This didn’t go down well with my darling daughter Deb, who staunchly believes that no 60 year-old man (particularly her father) should be out and about without a nurse, drip, bodyguard and Sherpa for the luggage. Makes you wonder how I managed for 36 years in the RAF…..
L. Regis is an awkward place to get to by train, necessitating a change at Newport, Gwent to Didcot followed by a bus to Wantage, then a fair walk to the village. Checking in with my landlady Louise on arrival at Didcot, she kindly drove to the station to pick me up – good start! Also staying was Richard, an Australian scientist who’d started at Avebury a couple of days before. He had some nasty-looking blisters already, a legacy of prolonged walking on iron-hard rutted chalk. Our landlord (also Richard) informed us that a good many people drop out at that stage for that very reason, which made me feel a little better regarding last year’s debacle!
Aussie Richard & I then ambled to the local pub, which wasn’t doing hot food due a suspected gas leak, but we did get a good Ploughman’s before retiring.
Sunday: L.Regis to Streatley/Goring (14 miles)
High overcast – warm. After an excellent breakfast and a much appreciated lift from Louise to our start point, Richard & I managed by expert use of signs, map, compass, GPS and commonsense to walk 400 yards in the wrong direction – worrying! We soon sorted ourselves out and swung into an easy pace. This section involved mile upon mile of boring, wide to narrow grassy and dirt track. Fortunately, interesting conversation passed the time nicely. We stopped for lunch around 1215 to eat, drink and self-medicate, also sorting out a group of lost schoolgirls on a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition.
At around 1700, I was getting a little concerned as there seemed to be nowhere isolated enough to pitch a tent. Shortly afterwards we limped into Streatley and by a strange, unspoken mutual urge, wheeled right into the Black Bull pub for refuelling. Fortunately, rooms were available and I spent a relaxing night after a hot and much-needed bath. Richard had his room booked in nearby Goring, so we parted company, wishing each other good luck for the rest of the trip.
Monday: Streatley/Goring to Watlington (14 miles)
Bright and sunny. Starting early, this was easily the nicest walking of the trip. The route took me through Goring and the picturesque villages of South & North Stoke, level walking on grass and dirt track alongside the Thames for much of the way. After crossing the horrendously busy A4074, the path began to climb steeply through the woodland of Bachelor’s Hill, where the ubiquitous and permanently squabbling residential grey squirrels kept me entertained. Thus distracted, I failed to register the presence of one of the equally-ubiquitous (and detested) tree roots lurking at the side of the path. Catching my already suspect right ankle, my momentum pitched me headfirst through a stand of vegetation and down a 4 ft ditch filled with? yep – nettles! Passing the odd remark such as, ‘Oh, dearie me!’ and ‘Gosh, how unfortunate’, I hauled my total weight of 16 and a half stone, bleeding, mottled, hurting and not a little annoyed (nettled, if you must) back onto the path. Taking stock, I discovered that I’d slightly twisted the ankle but otherwise was in reasonable shape. With several miles to go until my next stop, this was going to be a trial, but the guidebook stated there was a pub a couple of miles down the road at which I could get lunch and recuperate.
My route took me through across the fairways of the local Huntercombe Golf Club at Nuffield, which made me feel similar to a duck in a shooting gallery! (I wonder if hikers are regarded as ‘natural hazards’). After negotiating someone’s back garden – legally, I may say – I came out next to the pub, which for some COMPLETELY UNREASONABLE reason was closed. Why me, God?
6 miles and several hours later, I arrived on the outskirts of Watlington. There was a campsite there which I’d hoped to stay at, but there was no-one around or indeed, any sign of any other tents. On an impulse, I rang the local Fat Fox pub which had previously turned me down for accommodation and as luck would have it, secured B&B for the night. Bliss!
Tuesday: Watlington to Princes Risborough (12 miles)
Again bright and sunny. This proved to be another stretch of easy walking through hedge-lined lanes and a long-disused railway cutting. Chalk Blue butterflies proved agreeable companions. At around the halfway mark. I fell in with another hiker, a retiree in his 60’s, who walked with me for the remaining distance. An interesting point: apart from the schoolgirls mentioned earlier, I met no youngsters in for a long haul – interesting!
The country opened out into broad fields of crops and at one point, a deer farm. The going here was relatively easy, with gently–undulating terrain. I was to be accommodated at The Ridgeway Lodge, situated outside the town; predominantly a walker’s stopover and a real joy to stop at, run by Miv -a lovely semi-retired lady. Unfortunately, I was 3 hours early for check-in, so elected to walk a mile into town for refreshment. Equally unfortunately, the pub I stopped at wasn’t doing food that day. I was by now highly suspicious of publicans!
After a long hot bath and a couple of hours watching TV, I finally got the first decent night’s sleep that week (Note: yours truly is somewhat of an insomniac).
Wednesday: P. Risborough to Tring (12 miles)
Bright and sunny with some suspicious-looking cumulus. Miv and my erstwhile travelling companion had told me that the next leg would be more testing than the previous day, and so it proved. The path rose steeply through woodland and across fields, giving beautiful views across the Buckingham countryside. The route took me across the driveway of Chequers, the PMs country residence. Apart from cameras at the gatehouse, there were no other obvious signs of security, although a nearby herd of cows studied me with an intent that I found most disturbing…..
Arriving at the top of Coombe Hill with its monument, I found that neither the guidebook nor map described adequately the route down, so spent 15 mins trying to find the path, which I eventually did with the help of a local. After several miles, I arrived at Wendover, an attractive little town with lots of places handy for the walker to eat and get supplies. On a whim, I headed for the the nearest establishment, ‘The Shoulder of Mutton’ pub, which turned out to be an excellent choice. As I eased my rucksack off my aching shoulders, accompanied by the by now usual cacophony of shrieks and squeaks, I could distinctly hear the chorus of ‘Ohhh, bless-s-s-s!’ from a blue-rinse brigade in the corner. Thoroughly humiliated, I crept into the corner to enjoy a satisfying plate of fish and chips, engaging in a most entertaining conversation with an elderly couple at the next table.
Refreshed, I headed out of Wendover to enter an area of woods and farmland. This was a long, hot haul, with some stretches of secondary roads to be negotiated. Proceeding through Wigginton and Tring, I then had to clock up a couple of extra miles to the Tring Premier Inn on the Aylesbury Road. After checking in (no sign of Lenny Henry), I gratefully sank into a hot bath before adjourning to the ‘Crow’s Nest’ Beefeater Grill next door. The food turned out to be first-class, with the added bonus of being spoiled rotten by the waitresses, who no doubt considered it a novelty serving a would-be hobo compared to the other well-to-do clientele!
The Premier Inn really does guarantee you a quiet night, with the beds being comfortable in the extreme. Five hours sleep – luxury!
Thursday: Tring Premier Inn to Ivinghoe Beacon (5 miles)
Don’t want to leave this bed. Oh, alright – bright, sunny, cloudy and windy. Again fussed over by waitress at breakfast. Scorned by well-heeled commuters. Smiled cheerfully back. Having been wished good luck by the staff, I had planned to catch the bus to Tring Railway Station, but it looked simpler on the map to walk it, so I did. Unfortunately, Tring Railway Station is located some distance on the wrong side of town all on its own, so it took me some time to get there. Stopping only for a quick coffee, I cracked on up the woodland path towards the beacon, the signs saying 3 miles (uphill). Surprisingly, everyone I met was going the other way, which meant they got up a lot earlier than I did!
After emerging from the woods, the guidebook states: “You’ll get your first glimpse of Ivinghoe Beacon, up ahead in the far distance.” I’ve seen closer stars! Much to my surprise, my pace got me there in 35 minutes flat. The hillside drops away towards the north, west and east, giving endless and spectacular views. Remaining for approx. 15 minutes to refuel and text all interested family and friends, I then set off to return to Tring Station for the journey home.
On emerging onto the main road, a passing motorist kindly gave me a lift to the station, saving me a fair wait for a train. Rapid changes at Milton Keynes and Birmingham got me back to Shrewsbury around 1630, where my partner was waiting with the car.