There was no sound but the rustle of the breeze and the faint hum of insects. Brightly coloured butterflies flitted between the flowers and a red kite circled overhead: a perfect English summer’s day. I was on The Ridgeway, Britain’s oldest road and a route used by travellers for 5,000 years. Traders, armies and herdsmen with droves of cattle had trudged along this path and now it was my turn to follow in their footsteps.
Ancient Monuments on the Ridgeway
“Look at this,” said my husband, scooping a tiny piece of worn metal from the chalky ground. It was a Roman coin, dirty and battered but its markings still clearly visible. We speculated that it had been dropped by some unknown Roman soldier many centuries earlier. Proof, if we needed it, that others had passed this way before us.
Throughout the 87 miles of The Ridgeway you encounter numerous prehistoric and Iron Age remains, especially at the western end of the trail. The walk starts at Overton Hill, just opposite The Sanctuary, one of the prehistoric sites that make up the UNESCO heritage of Avebury. From here you can see the mysterious Silbury Hill rising in the distance, or make a short diversion to Avebury itself.
But there is more. Iron Age forts and the atmospheric Wayland’s Smithy (a neolithic burial chamber). The further you are from a car park, the fewer people you encounter: At the earthworks of Liddington Castle we ate our lunch in splendid isolation, gazing over the empty countryside. We could have been alone in the universe.
Then there are the chalk figures carved into the hillsides. Some, like the famous White Horse at Uffington (a short detour from the path) are ancient; others are more recent. A 20th-century chalk lion visible from Ivinghoe Beacon advertises the nearby zoo, while the quirky White Mark at Watlington was built by a 17th-century squire to create the illusion of a steeple on the village church when viewed from his manor house!
Through the Chiltern Hills
This is a walk of two halves. The first few days are spent on the high chalk ridge, but then you come to the Chiltern Hills, where the scenery is more varied. The change is startling. We started the day on the lonely chalkland, meeting no-one but a lone horseman along the way, then descended suddenly to the Thames-side town of Streatley, which was bustling with morning shoppers.
From here the walk passes along the side of the Thames, through woodland and into quintessential English villages. Less predictably, it also takes in a couple of golf courses and a path through the grounds of Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence.
Spotting Wildlife on the Ridgeway
It was August, the sun was shining and the flowers were in full bloom. We walked past crops of beans and through fields of ripe corn. These were ideal conditions for wildlife spotting and, indeed, several nature reserves have been created along the route.
We had the occasional glimpse of a hare or a deer in the distance, and counted hundreds of butterflies in a myriad of colours: peacocks, painted ladies and common blues. And dozens of red kites. Extinct in England for many years, the birds have been reintroduced to this area with surprising success. One afternoon we counted more than twenty kites picking over a newly ploughed field.
The sunshine stayed with us almost to the end. As we toiled up the hill to Ivinghoe Beacon we passed some dedicated wildlife enthusiasts working to preserve the native flowers. “Look out for the wild flowers at the top,” said one as we passed. We just had time to observe the multicoloured carpet of flowers as the first drops of rain began to fall.
The Ridgeway: A Few Practicalities
- The Ridgeway is an 87 mile route from Overton Hill in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. The path is easy to walk, and could be completed within a week, but you may wish to allow extra time for detours to places of interest along the way. Most walkers start from the western end, so that the prevailing winds are behind them.
- Accommodation and places to eat and drink are available along the route. Several companies can arrange accommodation and baggage transfers. We used Celtic Trails but others are listed on the official trail website.
- Some parts of the trail can be used by cyclists and horse riders. Small sections are also accessible to vehicles.