The Chelmer and Blackwater Ridgeway Walk - 16th to 20th August 2012 43 miles in 4 days from Avebury to Goring on Thames Report by Graham H. Photos by John T.
We arrived during the afternoon at Leighton Park School in Reading which was to be the base for 48 of us on the 4 day walk. We had stayed at this boarding School previously for part of our Thames Path walk and decided to hire a coach from Stewarts again, to ferry us to our consecutive start and finish venues each day on the Ridgeway.
Our stay at Leighton Park coincided with a One World festival taking part on their campus. This certainly added extra interest and colour to the weekend as well as some confusion over the choice of food in the queue for breakfast!
We chose to start our Ridgeway walk in Avebury rather at the conventional Overton Hill on the A4, as it offers better services, as well as plenty of interest in the Village itself. After wandering around the Stones we started the walk along Herepath or Green Street to meet the Ridgeway Path going north. On the way we passed a rather excited American woman and a group that had just spotted a crop circle in a field outside the outer Avebury ramparts. Odder still we came across an abandoned upright piano on the path which caused wild speculation as to how it got there. Sporadic showers made the exposed chalk surface of Green Street a little slippery underfoot.
The early stretch of the Ridgeway Byway is badly rutted so care had to be taken. Later on we saw a number of signs that ban motorised vehicles using the Path during the Winter period from October to April.
The quality of the Path improved on Hackpen Hill before we reached a road crossing and views north to Swindon. We were now close to Wroughton Airfield in the valley below, which is home to the Science Museum’s overflow collection.
An easy downhill track took us to the base of the impressive Iron Age Hillfort, Barbury Castle named years later after the Saxon chief Bera. During WW2 it was also used as a defensive position. We climbed through the ramparts into an area which is now a country park and made use of the toilets and picnic benches for a lunch stop. It was a pity that a nearby cafe had burned down 2 years ago.
By early afternoon the rain stopped and we continued along a delightful broad grassy downhill path called Smeathe’s Ridge, with views across the Marlborough Downs. The Path eventually veered around Coombe Down to bring us to the back of Ogbourne St George. Bypassing this we came to a hamlet called Southend with very attractive thatched roof houses, before picking up the coach on the A346 for the journey back to Reading.
That evening after dinner we enjoyed a wine and cheese tasting party.
From Southend the Ridgeway crosses a disused railway which once linked Marlborough to Swindon, then traverses a slope to a flat ridge. Here we could look across to where we walked the day before. Despite a few more few ruts, much of the northbound Path was easy walking where repairs had been made with tarmac and stone. It was very odd to see ‘cats-eyes’ buried here and there, perhaps remaining from displaced or recycled road material.
Beyond a tree lined path the views opened out to a grassy path which took us across cropped downy farmland towards the ramparts of Liddington Castle fort. We decided not to explore this but instead pressed on downhill to the M4 crossing and great views toward Foxhill and beyond. After lunching by a copse of trees for sun shelter, our afternoon route took us on a very chalky path passing by Charlbury Hill on the left and Lammy Down on the right. We stopped to look at an unusually deep cleft or gorge with a path going down to Bishopstone. There were also remnants of hillside strip lynchets from earlier farming times.
As we came to the end of an increasingly hot day, a path from the Ridgeway down to Ashbury was taken for a sample of Arkell’s ale and other beverages in the Rose and Crown. The coach picked us up outside.
The weather report had promised the hottest day of the year so far and so we applied sun block and hats when alighting the coach at the small car park called Ashbury Folly. A short distance on, our first port of call was a copse just off the Ridgeway to see the Wayland Smithy long barrow, built in two stages from 2800BC. The name derives from the god Volund, who was said to have made shoes for the Uffington White Horse. There is an information board describing the archaeology.
Next the Uffington Castle Fort loomed up ahead and we passed through the access gate and walked along some of the ramparts. Just over the hill we came close up to the famous Uffington White Horse figure, which has now been reliably dated to 600 – 1400 BC in the Bronze Age. The Castle itself was built later in the Iron Age. This spot is very popular with families and tourists as we saw more people there than anywhere else on the Ridgeway.
The chalky Path continued to rise and fall and we decided to have lunch break overlooking the Devil’s Kitchen. As we watched model planes being flown from a nearby airstrip, suddenly a full sized De Havilland biplane came over swooping and twisting as it followed the contours of the valley. We wondered if it took off from Wroughton Airfield which we passed on Friday.
Much of the view north was now dominated by the 6 cooling towers of Didcot Power Station. Many of us were getting quite hot and tired as the long path seemed endless! On reaching the A338 we decided not to extend the walk downhill for tea and cake at the Barns Tea Room, but carried on instead to the car park on the B4494 where the air conditioned coach was waiting for us! As we boarded the coach a number of red kites were circling and diving on a freshly cut field for their late afternoon dinner.
This was to be our longest day of 13 miles and 18 of our party decided not to attend in favour of doing other things. As we got off the coach to resume our walk, the conditions were much cooler than the previous day and as it turned out there were fewer hilly bits to tackle!
The first landmark on the Path was the monument to Baron Wantage who fought in the Crimean War and developed the local Lockinge estate. This marble column, mounted on a Bronze Age barrow, did look a bit scruffy and weather beaten.
The Didcot Power Station was still in view, but as we passed through a set of trees on Cuckhamsley Hill, the Harwell Scientific Research Centre appeared in the foreground. A long broad path through open ground brought us to a car park on Bury Down, where we took advantage of straw bales to sit on while having a drinks stop. Just before, we had passed by a police car on the track with two policemen sitting inside. We couldn’t help thinking - were they skiving rather like that odd pair from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’?
Continuing on and looking north we spotted two tree-topped hills called the Wittenham Clumps. On our previous venture along the Thames Path, we had stopped below the Clumps for a lunch break. A large tunnel took us under the A34, where artists had painted a wall mural depicting local life from the Neolithic to modern times. It was a pity that crude graffiti spoilt the effect on part of it.
The Ridgeway passes by large areas set out for horse riding, although we didn’t see any horses out that day. Anxious to find a spot for lunch near Blewbury Down we crossed a bridge over the disused Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Junction railway, and sat down on banks along the Path.
With only a few miles to go we walked to the high point on Roden Down before gradually descending along a stony path to the road that leads to the A417 and A329 into Streatley. This attractive valley is more like the glaciated valleys commonly found in the Chiltern Hills, which themselves could now be seen in the far distance beyond the Thames.
It was a pleasure to walk the final road from Streatley into Goring across the Thames with flower baskets on the bridge. We had made good time at a steady pace and with nearly an hour to spare we enjoyed a few drinks, tea and ice-creams before meeting the coach at the railway station.
Overall the 4 day walk was very enjoyable in weather that turned out better than expected. We left with a taste to do a bit more of the Ridgeway, perhaps next year as day coach trips from Essex.
Photographs by John T and John C. Words by Graham H, who also planned and led the 4 day walk.