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From Prime Minister Winston Churchill to volunteer Red Cross nurses, from King Alfred to Battle of Britain aircraft assembly workers, The Ridgeway has stories to tell about all sorts of military conflicts around the world and through the centuries. As recently as 2023, the Prime Minster Rishi Sunak hosted the Ukrainian President at Chequers, along The Ridgeway, to discuss the war with Russia. Looking back in time, some of the oldest Ridgeway stories date back to King Alfred in the 9th century, when armies would have marched along the ‘herepath’ (military road) now known as Green Street near Avebury in Wiltshire and confronted Vikings along the Trail, including the significant Battle of Ashdown. Read on below….

Banner image credit: Sarah Wright

‘This house of peace and ancient memories was given to England as a thank-offering for her deliverance in the great war of 1914-1918 as a place of rest and recreation for her Prime Ministers forever’ can be read in a stained glass window at Chequers (see image gallery above). Unfortunately, the country and Chequers soon experienced another war: World War II. It was in the Hawtrey Room that Sir Winston Churchill wrote some of his famous radio speeches and where he first heard news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 whilst listening to the radio during a dinner party. Initially it was deemed unsafe for the Prime Minister to reside there but security improvements including an anti-aircraft gun emplacement on nearby Coombe Hill addressed these concerns! A special feature for Ridgeway visitors to enjoy today is the tree-lined avenue leading up to the house which is known as Victory Drive – The Ridgeway crosses this drive. Churchill planted this avenue of trees to conceal the drive from enemy aircraft and the name commemorates the end of the war.

Chequers is one of many large houses along the Trail which were put to use during the World Wars, with Ashdown House in Oxfordshire being used by the Army and Halton House in Buckinghamshire by the Royal Air Force. During World War I, Chequers was used as a hospital and then a convalescence home for officers. Mongewell Park in Oxfordshire was also a military hospital. Many hospitals were operated by the British Red Cross with volunteer staff, often local women from the neighbourhood.

The Wantage memorial (see image gallery) beside the Trail has a story to tell about alleviating the suffering of people during wartimes around the world. Robert Loyd-Lindsay, 1st Baron Wantage, founded the British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War in 1870, later renamed the British Red Cross in 1905. Aid has been provided by the Red Cross during numerous wars ever since and based upon the Geneva Conventions. The first Geneva Convention was established in 1864 when numerous countries led by the Swiss government agreed to allow organised aid and relief to be provided on the battlefield. This international movement was a response to the horrors of various wars involving numerous countries across Europe, including the Crimean War in which Loyd-Lindsay fought. It is said that the copses of trees in the vale below the Wantage monument were planted by Loyd-Lindsay to represent the battle lines at Alma.

Airfields can also be seen from various viewpoints along The Ridgeway, including the former World War II military airfield at Wroughton near Swindon which is now a landmark as a large solar farm. American troops and the British Home Guard were based there and they used nearby Barbury hillfort as a training ground. The original hillfort entrances were widened to allow access for the trucks and this can be clearly seen today. In 1942, 700 people worked in the Wroughton aircraft factory to assemble Hurricane aircraft (see image gallery) for the Battle of Britain and also later the naval planes and gliders for the Allied invasion of Europe. The aircraft hangers were constructed around the edge of the airfield to minimise damage from enemy raids.

Concerns about German Luftwaffe attacks from the air were also the reason behind several other World War II features along the Trail known as ‘Starfish sites’ and ‘Quick Light sites’. These ‘night time decoys’ were built at Barbury and Liddington to distract bombers away from nearby Swindon which was considered a strategic target because of its huge railway works and aircraft factory. The ‘Starfish’ operated by lighting a series of controlled fires during an air raid to replicate an urban area hit by bombs. To give the appearance of a factory at night, the Quick Light Site utilised lights to portray yards, locomotives, factory lighting and furnaces. It is still possible today to see from a distance a relatively intact control bunker for the Starfish and Quick Light site at Liddington Hill from The Ridgeway (see image gallery).

Another defence feature along the Trail is the ‘pillbox’ and there are several to be seen along the River Thames (see image gallery above). Two examples sit on opposite banks of the River Thames at Gatehampton Bridge near Goring in Oxfordshire – in the event of enemy invasion, the railway bridge would have been destroyed. These pillboxes were part of the ‘General Headquarters (GHQ) red line’ designed to delay German invasion heading up from the south coast.

This use of the River Thames as a natural defence line against invasion was recognised by King Alfred over a thousand years ago during the 9th century. For example, Wallingford was one of Alfred’s strategic ‘burghs’ and today the remains of a castle indicate how important the riverside town once was.

So too has the high ground along The Ridgeway been utilised for many centuries. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles suggest that the invading Vikings wanted to claim the high point of Scutchamer Knob along The Ridgeway in the belief that if they reached the hill, they would never return to the sea (i.e. they would be victorious and settle). High points such as Beacon Hill, visible from Coombe Hill near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, have also been used to alert people of invasion – in this case to alert people of invasion during the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s. Further north along the Trail, Ivinghoe Beacon has a similar history with records from 1712-20 stating that the iron beacon frame was kept at Ivinghoe church (see example in image gallery).

Today, The Ridgeway is thankfully a peaceful, safe place for all to enjoy and the features in the landscape along The Ridgeway serve as reminders of the cost of war – lest we forget.

Notes: More information about The Ridgeway’s memorials, King Alfred and battles with Vikings, hillforts, viewpoints and River Thames heritage such as pillboxes is available in other Top 50 entries (not all Top 50 entries will be available until end of December 2023).

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