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Childhoods spent exploring the countryside and admiring nature around The Ridgeway laid the foundations for Charles Rothschild, George Claridge Druce and Richard Jefferies to become leading figures in persuading others across the country and beyond to value and protect nature. In typical Victorian fashion, they collected and recorded what they found in careful detail, giving us a picture of what The Ridgeway was like then and what today’s conservation efforts could restore. Read on below to find out more…..

Just south of The Ridgeway, Dancersend was one of Charles Rothschild’s (1877-1923) first ‘good spots’ for nature where he and his older brother, as young boys, observed and collected moths and butterflies from the wildflower meadows and woods. As he grew older and explored further afield, he became aware that mechanised farming, quarrying and drainage schemes were a threat. In 1912, Charles called a meeting at the Natural History Museum in London to discuss his idea for a new organisation to protect the best places for wildlife in the British Isles. This meeting led to the formation of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves (SPNR) which boasted influential members including Neville Chamberlain who later became the Prime Minister. With this initiative, Charles had laid the foundations for nature conservation as we know it today (and the SPNR later became The Wildlife Trusts!).

Rothschild’s vision was incorporated into legislation in 1949 with the ‘National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act’ which introduced National Parks, AONBs, National Trails and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Today there are 24 Sites of Special Scientific Interest within 500m of The Ridgeway. These sites are legally designated as places of nationally important ecological and/or geological interest. They include areas which were first proposed in 1915 – Aldbury Nowers in Hertfordshire, Bacombe and Coombe Hills in Buckinghamshire, Ellesborough and Kimble Warrens in Buckinghamshire, Aston Upthorpe Downs in Oxfordshire and Hartslock in Oxfordshire. Dancersend is also an SSSI and was gifted to Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust in 1939 as a nature reserve for them to manage in memory of Charles.

Several places in the Rothschild Reserves list were put forward by George Claridge Druce (1850-1932), a leading authority on British flora based in Oxford and a friend of Rothschild’s. Their friendship had developed through a shared love of orchids and they had enjoyed collecting trips together too. In fact, sharing an interest in plants put Druce in touch with numerous people across the country and across the world through the Botanical Exchange Club – members would post each other specimens to study. Under Druce’s influence, this club evolved into the Botanical Society of the British Isles which is now one of the world’s largest contributors of biological records!

Druce was a keen walker, venturing to all sorts of places in search of plants and sometimes falling into streams in his quest to obtain specimens! In the Wild Flower Magazine of 1921, he wrote ‘‘It’s been my infinite privilege to see every species of Flowering Plant … known to exist in the British Isles”. His collections of dried plants grew into a substantial herbarium which is now looked after by the University of Oxford. Druce produced ‘county floras’ for which he is most well known and they relate to three of the Ridgeway’s counties: Oxfordshire (1886), Berkshire (1887) and Buckinghamshire (1926). These books describe all the plants to be found in these counties and also their locations in these counties – in this way, they are sometimes called ‘plant atlases’. For example, he describes how Chiltern gentians (see image gallery above) were ‘plentiful’ at Segsbury Camp (Druce calls it Letcombe Castle) along The Ridgeway – not the case today unfortunately!

Another countryside explorer and recorder was Richard Jefferies, whose stories of country life – both people and wildlife – around his family’s farm at Coate, near Swindon, caught people’s imaginations then and now. Modern nature writers such as Richard Mabey refer to Jefferies’ book ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’ (published 1879) as an inspiration. In fact, this book’s use of the word ‘wild life’ is the earliest example of the phrase being used to describe the natural world and many regard Jefferies as the first ‘nature writer’. Through creating the phrase, Jefferies was trying to convey a freedom that he sensed in nature and this is what drew him into the countryside for miles and miles, sometimes as far as Uffington in Oxfordshire and often up onto Liddington Hill. Unlike Rothschild and Druce, his emotions associated with nature were expressed freely and the human stories connected to nature considered valuable. ‘He felt the wild varieties we all know and love hold all the more depth because of the associations they build up over time, with connections and memories of our own lives’.

Conservationists today are continuing this legacy with various projects along The Ridgeway, from Plantlife’s project to help juniper thrive at Aston Upthorpe in Oxfordshire to the University of Oxford’s experimental plots at Bury Down in Berkshire. The Wildlife Trust and National Trust manage the majority of Sites of Special Scientific Interest along the Trail, with numerous skilled staff and volunteers carrying out species monitoring to keep records building year-on-year. Conservation of biodiversity is ever more important in light of the ‘biodiversity crisis’ and ‘climate crisis’ and The Ridgeway must play a key role in securing a resilient and biodiverse Nature Recovery Network for the future.

Notes: More information about writers, flora and fauna along The Ridgeway is available in other Top 50 entries (note that some entries are yet to be published – all entries will be published by December 31st 2023).

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