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Sunday, Feb 28, 2021

Britain at its best: Chalk up a walk along the ancient Ridgeway track

Britain at its best: Chalk up a walk along the ancient Ridgeway track

Kate Eshelby embarked on an ancient walk between Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire known as The Ridgeway. For more than 5,000 years, drovers, traders and invaders have travelled this 87-mile-long route. She passed the prehistoric Uffington White Horse, which is made of trenches filled with chalk

The path is as white as Elvis Presley’s jumpsuit, edged by grass illuminated in the golden dusk light. I’m walking The Ridgeway, the ancient track between Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire, feeling as free as a bird, alone with the wind and the wide horizon.

This 87-mile-long path crosses four counties, connecting Iron Age hill-forts, Bronze Age burial mounds and Celtic chalk figures. For more than 5,000 years, drovers, traders and invaders have travelled this route — and today it’s one of Britain’s 15 official national trails.

Six meditative days, beginning at Avebury and finishing near Aylesbury, lie ahead. And there’s a sense of history hanging in the air.

My favourite section is the first half, which mainly traverses Wiltshire, crossing wild landscapes, entering villages and stopping at lovely panoramic lookouts across the Chilterns.

The freedom of the old way is intoxicating, an enjoyment shared by fellow hikers, into whom you cannot help bumping. Shortly before Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic long barrow near the Wiltshire village of Bishopstone, I pass two women with cow horns poking out of their rucksacks.

We start talking and I discover their love of wild camping in Britain’s primeval places.

‘Our ancient sites aren’t often worked on or brought alive,’ one of them says, referring to how special The Ridgeway feels. ‘These spots are on dragon lines [also known as ley lines] and are healing and energising,’ says the other.

The path curls onwards to atmospheric Wayland’s Smithy, a cave-like tomb set in a beech clearing and named after a legendary Saxon blacksmith.

Nearby is the mysterious Uffington White Horse, with its front legs shaped like those of a praying mantis, as if perpetually prancing on the hillside.

Atmospheric: Wayland’s Smithy, a cave-like tomb set in a beech clearing, is named after a legendary Saxon blacksmith

While you hike, there is no need to worry about where to stay; there are plenty of choices including some excellent inns, most just a short walk off the track. You soon fall into a rhythm and each day has its own joys, from picking blackberries to spotting a glittery-green beetle with legs that look as though it has been dressed in old-fashioned knickerbockers.

Clusters of punk-pink mushrooms lie by the path. Red kites glide above, their tails flashing fox-like in the sunshine.

There is plenty of time for Grand Thoughts: how incredible it is that millions of years ago this chalk was forged by billions of crushed sea creatures; how today these grasslands are so rare, yet ecologically vital with their wide open spaces, butterflies and wildflowers. The diversity is spectacular: moon daisies, lilac field scabious, clumps of mustard-yellow lady’s bedstraw, candy floss-pink dog roses, ghost-white hawthorn flowers.

One tip. While passing the village of Bishopstone, be sure to stop for a meal at the quirky Royal Oak pub. Or grab a homemade brownie from the Flying Pig, a van on the verge of the route next to the pub’s organic Eastbrook farm.

Here, I bump into Tim, one of the owners. He explains how Eastbrook is a hybrid: a farm mixed with wild spaces. The results are clearly terrific as I watch bees buzz over great clumps of sunflowers and lacy phacelia.

‘We had a great bustard in one of our fields,’ Tim says. ‘And rosy starlings, a shocking sight with their completely pink bodies.’

Walking The Ridgeway feels a bit like following the yellow brick road, but instead of an Emerald City at the end, the greens and golds are all around in nature.


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