The Ridgeway National Trail a walking route in a surprisingly remote part of southern central England. It travels in a northeasterly direction for 87 miles (139 Km) from its start in the World Heritage Site of Avebury. As Britain’s oldest road The Ridgeway still follows the same route over the high ground used since prehistoric times by travelers, herdsmen and soldiers.
West of the River Thames, The Ridgeway is a broad track passing through the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and is often quite a distance from villages or towns. Here you’ll experience wide, open views of rolling chalk downland and find many archaeological monuments close to the Trail including Stone Age long barrows, Bronze Age round barrows, Iron Age forts and the figures of white horses cut into the chalk. East of the Thames, The Ridgeway travels through the more-wooded and intimate hills and valleys of the Chilterns AONB where, as well as further archaeological treasures, there are several nature reserves rich in the wildlife found in chalk grassland habitats. In the Chilterns, The Ridgeway goes close to or through several villages and small towns where refreshments and other facilities are easily available.
Overton Hill to Ogbourne St George – 9.3 miles (14.8 Km)
From the start of the Trail at Overton Hill The Ridgeway climbs gradually to Barbury Castle Iron Age fort. Along this section there are characteristic sights of small clumps of beech woodland planted by the Victorians as landscape features and to give sheep some shelter. Some clumps are even planted on top of Bronze Age round barrows, frowned upon today because of the damage tree roots do to ancient monuments.
The countryside is a mixture of arable land, changing colour with the seasons, and areas of sheep or cattle grazed grassland. Some of the best views are from Smeathe’s Ridge as you descend from Barbury Castle to Ogbourne St George.
The pretty village of Ogbourne St George in the valley of the River Og contains many lovely cottages some of them built out of blocks of chalk with thatched roofs. It also has two pubs!
Ogbourne St George to Sparsholt Firs – 16 miles (25.6 Km)
This is probably the most remote section of The Ridgeway, with some wonderful views and prehistoric monuments to enjoy.
There’s an initial fairly steep climb out of the Og Valley on a narrow, sunken, tree-lined track after which The Ridgeway remains reasonably level until the M4 is crossed. From there the Trail undulates fairly regularly making this a relatively strenuous section along a mostly hedge-lined track.
This is a completely rural section, apart from the rather shocking, but thankfully brief, interruption of the M4. You’ll find yourself mostly surrounded by large fields stretching into the distance planted with crops, but some with sheep, cattle and on occasions pigs.
There is frequently a clay cap on top of the chalk along this stretch, and because of this and the fact that The Ridgeway is a relatively narrow track here, you’ll find that quite a lot of this section has been surfaced with limestone. However in many places where it’s wide enough, the grass verge is mown and provides an alternative to the surfaced strip.
After the crossing of the M4 small villages are strung out below to the north of The Ridgeway at the spring line where water seeps between different geological layers. Many of these settlements are worth a visit to enjoy the local vernacular architecture which includes cottages built from chalk blocks quarried from the downs.
Sparsholt Firs to Streatley – 17.4 miles (27.9 Km)
Rolling open downland to the south, punctuated in places by small woodlands, and fine views north into the Thames Valley are typical of this section.
On a clear day you can see the hills in the distance behind which nestles Oxford and, further east, the Chiltern Hills through which The Ridgeway later travels. Currently (2013) dominating the view from many places are the cooling towers of Didcot power station just 6 miles (10 Km) north, sometimes menacing and inappropriate but at other times strangely beautiful, but these are due to be demolished in 2014.
This is horse racing country and an early riser will encounter strings of racehorses exercising on the numerous gallops, long ribbons of well managed grass tracks, adjacent to The Ridgeway. The turf of the downland drains easily through the chalk just below creating excellent going for horses.
The Ridgeway along this section is a broad track for a considerable distance, mostly with a natural surface and few hedges. Here the sky dominates but it can be particularly exposed in wet, cold or hot weather. Beyond Bury Down The Ridgeway negotiates the A34 north-south trunk road by an underpass. The noise of the traffic is counteracted to some extent by the colourful mural depicting local historical scenes painted on the walls of the underpass by people from nearby villages.
Streatley to Watlington – 15.3 miles (24.6 Km)
Water, woodlands and small villages are features of this part of The Ridgeway, contrasting considerably with the open and more remote countryside west of the River Thames.
England’s most famous river, the River Thames, is your companion for the first few miles when you’ll pass through water meadows grazed by cattle and the two lovely villages of South and North Stoke. On the opposite bank, another National Trail runs, the Thames Path which The Ridgeway crossed at the bridge separating Streatley and Goring-on-Thames. Then as you strike east you’ll walk on a narrow secluded path alongside an ancient Grim’s Ditch for a considerable distance, much of it surrounded by woodland bright with bluebells and wood anemones during spring.
From the village of Nuffield you turn north and soon reach the small hamlet of Swyncombe, an area which is probably one of the remotest and loveliest parts of the Chilterns. Here, the small flint church of St Botolph’s has been beautifully restored. If you happen here at the right time in February you’re in for a real treat as the churchyard displays a magnificent carpet of snowdrops and aconites each year.
Descending from Swyncombe to near the base of the scarp, The Ridgeway picks up the Upper Icknield Way and follows this broad hedge-lined track for the remaining couple of miles to Watlington.
Watlington to Wendover – 17 miles (27.2 Km)
Dominated by fine beech woodlands for which the Chilterns are justly famous, this countryside however offers more than just trees.
This section is the most undulating with several climbs in and out of valleys and is therefore the most strenuous part of The Ridgeway, but being southern England it’s not that tough! It starts out gently enough, with a few miles on the level broad track of the ancient Icknield Way at the bottom edge of the Chilterns scarp. Along this section it crosses the M40 via an underpass where the motorway slices through the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve in a deep cutting. After it leaves the Icknield Way The Ridgeway strikes across fields and over Lodge Hill to Princes Risborough. From there the terrain starts seriously to undulate as the Trail climbs in and out of valleys before finally descending to the small attractive town of Wendover.
One minute you may be walking up a sheltered slope amongst the tall, straight, grey trunks of beeches and the next you’ll have emerged into some fine unimproved chalk grassland boasting a great variety of wild flowers and insects with tremendous views across the Vale of Aylesbury.
The agriculture is varied with crops grown in places, and sheep, cattle and horses grazed elsewhere. Many places are in fact nature reserves managed by Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust where the sheep and cattle are essential elements of the management to ensure the traditional chalk grasslands remain free of scrub and rich in wild species. The woodlands, too, are not just places for leisure as many are managed commercially for their timber.
You’re never far from settlements, although the woodlands tend to screen them from you so it’s easy to feel you’re away from the bustle of life. There’s a choice of villages or small towns to venture into for refreshments and to enjoy the local vernacular architecture of brick and flint common to the Chilterns.
Wendover to Ivinghoe Beacon – 11.8 miles (18.8 Km)
This relatively short final section is the most wooded of all The Ridgeway. Here you’re deep within the Chiltern Hills, justly renowned for its wooded landscape which looks particularly spectacular at the end of October and early November when autumn colours are at their best. However the last couple of miles are a complete contrast; an open landscape reminiscent of the rolling downlands west of the River Thames.
From Wendover as far as Wigginton you are almost always either passing through woods or along the edges of them. In many places you’ll be surrounded by magnificent beech trees, their smooth, straight, silver trunks reaching upwards towards the sky. In other woodlands you’ll find there’s a greater variety with a mix of broadleaf and coniferous trees
As you descend from Wigginton you’ll find that road, water and rail transport routes are all squeezed into a valley, as they were in the Goring Gap earlier. First you reach the busy A41 trunk road, but you cross it high above on a footbridge built specially to carry The Ridgeway and it’s soon forgotten. Next comes the Grand Union Canal, once a thriving commercial waterway but nowadays primarily a peaceful recreational route for boaters and walkers, and finally the railway at Tring Station.
The last few miles are delightful. After Tring Station you’ll pass through Duchies Piece nature reserve and Aldbury Nowers wood before emerging onto Pitstone Hill where, in good weather, the views of the rest of your journey to Ivinghoe Beacon are outstanding. From here The Ridgeway undulates for the next two miles on springy turf until the final climb to the top of Beacon Hill itself. Managed by the National Trust as part of its Ashridge Estate this is a splendid place to finish and to savour the views of the Vale of Aylesbury, or to look back from where you have come.