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With places along The Ridgeway inspiring stories enjoyed across the world such as ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Dark is Rising’, there is every reason to think The Ridgeway is a rich source of creative inspiration. Recent stories and poems weave together with older tales and legends dating back to Medieval times or perhaps further into the distant past. This creative heritage makes The Ridgeway ‘magical’ for today’s visitors such as H Christensen. Read on below to find out more.

Thanks for contributions to this Top 50 entry from H Christensen, P Niddler, ER Townsend, Julie B, G Watson, P Sanders and B Lovegrove.

J.R.R Tolkien (1892 – 1973), famous for writing the ‘Lord of the Rings’ series, died 50 years ago in 1973; the same year that The Ridgeway was made a National Trail. Tolkien knew at least parts of The Ridgeway and, rather fittingly for Ridgeway-Tolkien fans, the Royal Mint’s commemorative coin in his honour has the inscription ‘Not all those who wander are lost’ from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’.

Wayland Smithy and White Horse Hill, near Uffington, Oxfordshire, lie not too far from Oxford and, being well-known landmarks, they often draw people out from the city’s world-famous university. J.R.R Tolkien was one such writer, known to take his family out for day trips to the Downs. For example, it is said that Dragon Hill, beneath the chalk horse carved into White Horse Hill, is the Weathertop where Frodo is stabbed by a Ringwraith. Some of Tolkien’s readers make connections to his stories through walking in his footsteps, as Julie B told us: “Even as a child, I recognised the Berkshire landscape in Tolkien, especially having walked along parts of The Ridgeway, past Wayland Smithy…that feeling of being on an ancient highway…”.

Another source of inspiration for Tolkien was Seven Barrows, near Lambourn, Berkshire, (see banner image above) which apparently influenced his ideas for the Shires. Tolkien once explained that it was his memories from the early years of his life that fed his imagination and created stories such as ‘Lord of the Rings’: ‘it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read’.

Another award-winning writer who studied at Oxford university and drew on his experiences of the landscape along The Ridgeway and an interest in Anglo-Saxon history and myths is Kevin Crossley-Holland (born 1941). He grew up in Whiteleaf, near Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, beneath the chalk cross on the hillside. His father would sit with him on Whiteleaf Hill to tell stories of King Arthur and how he laid asleep beneath the hill. Crossley-Holland described the view from Whiteleaf Hill as a ‘most magnificent, vast dreamscape’. At the age of nine, he was becoming increasingly interested in archaeology and would kick over new molehills in search of coins and potsherds. He would imagine ‘traders carrying heavy, uncomfortable nubs of flint, tin, leather, walrus tusks, amber and cornelian’ along the Icknield Way below the hill. Family days out included trips to Ivinghoe Beacon, near Tring in Hertfordshire, and his father told him that Boadicea fought her last battle against the Romans in Coombe Hole nearby.

This association between The Ridgeway and writers of historical fiction can be traced back to Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) who is said to have created the genre! He featured Wayland Smithy, near Ashbury in Oxfordshire, as a location in his romantic novel ‘Kenilworth’ (first published 1821). The story is a blend of historical fact and fanciful fiction, describing the legend of Amy Robsart and her secret marriage to the Earl of Leicester during the reign of Elizabeth I.

More recently, Wayland Smithy has also featured in a novel by Susan Cooper (born 1935 in Buckinghamshire), another graduate of Oxford university, in her award-winning series ‘The Dark is Rising’. In 2022, her work was serialised by the BBC to be broadcast to a global audience by BBC World Service and later made available as a BBC Sounds podcast. Her stories incorporate British mythology, such as the Arthurian legends, and Welsh folk heroes.

Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) famously blended real places and history into his novels. ‘Jude the Obscure’ features Letcombe Bassett, near Wantage in Oxfordshire, under the fictional name of Cresscombe. It was here that Jude, hiking across the Downs, first met his future wife Arabella and her thatched cottage is today Grade II listed. Other places in Hardy’s landscape of Wessex included Oxford as Christminster, Fawley as Marygreen, Wantage as Alfredston, Newbury as Kennetbridge and Reading as Aldbrickham.

Poetry is also linked to The Ridgeway, with poet laureate John Betjeman (1906 – 1984) and Charles Sorley (1895-1915) both having memorials along The Ridgeway as local residents – in Wantage and Ogbourne St George respectively. Edward Thomas was another poet familiar with the routeway and was very much inspired by the beauty of nature.

The Swire Ridgeway Arts Prize, held every year by Friends of the Ridgeway, encourages today’s writers to seek creative inspiration along the Trail. Work submitted under the written (prose and poetry) category can be found online – perhaps a new talented writer will be discovered! The cultural heritage of The Ridgeway continues to grow with writers such as B Lovegrove and G Watson sharing their work with us during the Trail’s 50th anniversary, and Pipsticks Walks providing guided walks around the ‘literary landscape’.

More specifically, writing inspired by nature is encouraged and celebrated by the Richard Jefferies award which launched in 2015 and, in 2021, awarded the work of a novelist living near to The Ridgeway – Nicola Chester. Nicola is very much inspired by the landscapes around Newbury, just south of The Ridgeway, as she explains in this Countryfile podcast. Nicola says, “‘Belonging’ should not be about wherever we are from, but how we engage with a place and how its story becomes part of ours (and our story, its).” Sharing her work on social media and online as Country Diary columnist for The Guardian, Nicola represents a modern writer from The Ridgeway area reaching out to modern audiences.

And now to end with the evocative words of two Ridgeway poets; the first being Alfred Williams (1877-1930) chosen by one of our Ridgeway volunteers Mr Niddler. Williams lived in Swindon and shares with Richard Jefferies a memorial stone on Burderop Down near The Ridgeway (see image gallery above).

Come into the woods, the wild birds are singing,

The skylark is up and the sheep-bells are ringing,

Young Pleasure’s before and old Sorrow’s behind.

And lastly from ‘The White Horse and the Milky Way’ by Giles Watson, a winner of the Swire Ridgeway Arts Prize:

Bored of grass, the White Horse
strays onto the Milky Way.
Trodden stars clag her shoes
like Ridgeway chalk in rain.
Across interstellar voids
she trails their detritus.
Beneath her hooves
nebulae are disturbed.
Asteroids scatter.
Black holes open up.

Note: Other Top 50 entries explore wayfarer-writers (Edward Thomas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame, Robert MacFarlane, Richard Jefferies), memorials to Ridgeway writers (Charles Sorley, Penelope Betjeman, Richard Jefferies, Alfred Williams) and nature conservationists (Richard Jefferies) in more detail. The entry about Sarsens refers to poems by Thomas Hardy and the Wayland’s Smithy entry provides more information about its legends.

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