(Walked on 13th March 2017 – 15 Miles + 3.5 getting lost)
On a chilly March morning, we pulled into the small carpark at Overton Hill – the start of The Ridgeway. I hauled my rucksack from the boot, clasped it to my back, hugged partner, hugged son, said my goodbyes and waving over my shoulder took my first steps toward Ivinghoe Beacon.
I hadn’t set a timescale for completing the 87 mile Ridgeway Path but thought it would take five, perhaps six days. Unusually, I’d booked no accommodation, and so, unlike previous walks, I wasn’t tied to any pre-determined schedule. Instead, and for the first time in about fifteen years, I carried camping paraphernalia and a tent to erect in some discreet corner each evening.
A map-board in the carpark showed my route, and I wondered idly where I would sleep for the next four or five nights.
For much of the Wessex Downs, the path isn’t a footpath but a runway. It’s broad and white, sometimes carved into deep ruts by 4x4s and tractors, and as distinct a route as someone with my disappointing sense of direction could wish for. (Spoiler – I still got lost).
And where it crosses other bridlepaths, tracks and footpaths it’s clearly signposted – if not with the lovely old wooden fingerposts I remember so well.
Like this one on The South Downs Way. I thought the new signs jarring and garish but hey? What do I know?
Within a few hundred yards of leaving the carpark, I realised just how bloody heavy my rucksack was and began to worry. Though my nephew, Richard, had lent me a lightweight stove, lightweight cooking gear, lightweight inflatable mattress and lightweight sleeping bag, the combined weight of everything I carried, lightweight or not, was almost 40lbs. Richard had smiled indulgently at me when I showed him my 1980s ‘lightweight’ Saunders Jetpacker II tent. At 3lb, it weighed more than twice his own modern tent. Stubbornly, foolishly it turned out, I cheerfully turned down this new-fangled, thistle-down tent. Hubris? Yep.
But I was in those start-of-walk high spirits: it was a beautiful day and the going was easy as the world unrolled at my feet.
There isn’t much sense of adventure in my life, but I always get a thrill from starting a new path, wondering what I would see, whom I would meet and, on this occasion, where on earth I would end up sleeping. And also whether the dried food I carried was tasty. (2nd Spoiler – it wasn’t).
The Ridgeway – ‘the oldest road in Britain’ – is at least 5000 years old. The Saxons used it during and after their conquest of England, and later the Vikings did too. From the mediaeval period, it was the main route for drovers herding livestock from the west of England and Wales to London. And in 1973, part of this high road was linked to the equally ancient Icknield Way east of the Thames to form one of our fifteen National Trails – or, as I still prefer to call them, Long-distance Footpaths.
Starting a multi-day walk is often a trial. My body forgets the rigours of carrying a rucksack, and my feet do too. But I also knew from previous long-distance walks that even if my backpack was too heavy for me, as the miles and days passed, I’d find the going easier, less uncomfortable. (Another spoiler – it didn’t).
In the meantime, I enjoyed traipsing along the empty trail looking for things to photograph and vaguely remembering stretches of the path from many years before.
In no time, and a little over four miles from the start, I arrived at Hackpen Hill, where I studied another confirmatory push-a-long map. There’s a white horse carved into the hill’s flank, but I didn’t detour to take a look. I don’t know why.
Which is a shame as Wikipedia shows it to be a good one, carved in 1838. It’s also known, confusingly, as the Broad Hinton White Horse. One name would suffice, people.
Beech tree hangars are a regular, defining feature of the Wiltshire Downs.
And I have associated them with chalk downland since I first read Watership Down in the early 70s and I first walked here in 1982. These copses are light, airy and, I think, beautiful – and provide a discreet pee break should the path be busy.
Two and a half hours in and I approached my first Iron Age hill fort and the only one which the path passes through.
Barbury Castle is an excellent example. It is relatively small, but that helps to show how beautifully crafted it is. Some hill forts, like Cissbury Ring near The South Downs Way, are so massive that it is difficult to appreciate their form.
First colonised 2500 years ago,
Barbury was still a bit busy today. I wandered through the embankments and sheep pens, said hello to several dog walkers and imagined life here before and after the Roman conquest. Muddy, cold and short I should think. When the BBC recreated Iron Age settlement life, for the fascinating Living in the Past series, they asked one of the participants what she had most missed about modern life. “I think life would be even happier here, if only … we had rubber boots.” Of all life’s modernities and luxuries, it was the humble Wellington boot that she chose. A very cold and muddy life indeed.
It’s only from the air that one can truly appreciate the geometric beauty of this ‘castle’ and just how difficult, how bloody any assault would be. Had I been ordered to join an attack, I might’ve feigned a really bad headache.
After Barbury, the path continued as straight as a bendy arrow. Or so I thought. But I made that schoolboy error to which I’m prone:
becoming distracted by thoughts, by the views and taking photos on an unerring footpath,
rather than double-checking the route in my guide book.
A mile swept past before a slow doubt flickered, dimmed but finally flared.
“I’m not sure this is right.”
I looked in my guidebook.
“I’m not sure this is right at all.”
I tried to make repeated sense of the small map in my ‘book, but even by turning it upside down, I couldn’t make it match the landscape. I also ignored a massive clue. The big fail mark in the sky.
But I hadn’t passed a sign directing me off this track, had I? No, I most certainly had not. I’m not a fool.
I pressed on.
I continued my Carry On Hopefully delusion for another half mile, still stubbornly believing that I must be right, that the guidebook must be wrong.
Eventually, sheepishly, I asked two girls on horseback whether I was actually on The Ridgeway. They kindly told me no, and gave me a smile they might have saved for a befuddled care-home escapee. Laughing as if it didn’t really matter where I was, I swung about and retraced my steps. I acknowledged that I am indeed a fool when, almost two miles back, I found the missed fingerpost, partly shrouded by branches, pointing off to the right.
Another sign mocked me as I rejoined the One Way. I had added three and a half miles to my day.
It was a great relief to be back on track, and, sticking my nose in the guidebook, I made sure not to go astray again.
A red kite winged past but didn’t come so very close. Never mind, I would take a better photo of one tomorrow.
My legs and hips were feeling the strain of lugging my rucksack and body over rolling countryside, and I grumbled over the almost four miles I’d added to my day. Four miles I’d never get back.
But I wasn’t too upset. Not on this glorious March afternoon with far off, soft views
and pleasing geometry.
The sheep could’ve been prettier.
The high, green path fell toward the village of Ogbourne St George.
I tried not to think about any welcoming and cosy B&B’s in the village nor of piping hot showers, plump pillows and hearty breakfasts; of pints of bitter and piled high pub food.
Morosely dismissing such fripperies, I topped up my water bottles at a garden tap, climbed back to the ridge and began my search for a secluded spot for the night.
I returned to typical broad Ridgeway, through drab, too-wet-for-camping arable fields. Eventually, as I climbed, I arrived at a small wood which seemed as perfect a hidden site as I could hope for. I didn’t want to advertise my plans for spending the night alone under 2 thin layers of nylon so, before ducking through the trees, I looked about to check that the coast was clear. Damn. It wasn’t. A lone walker was coming toward me from the direction of Ogbourne St George. I took off my rucksack and sat down on a handy bench, waiting for him to pass.
The chap walked up to me, said hello and sat next to me. “Damn, again,” I thought, plastering on a welcoming smile. He’d come up from Swindon to sleep in the wood and as he told me about his bivvy bag and four-pack of lager, his eyes flicked from my Nikon to my rucksack and back again, rarely meeting my gaze. He asked where I planned to overnight. Usually, I would have been glad of the company, but you know how it is when you meet people? You either click or you don’t. I didn’t click. I didn’t like this guy, nor did I trust him. Hiding my annoyance at being bumped off my pitch, I said that I had several more miles to cover yet, and wishing him good night, walked on. I wanted to put a couple of miles between us, and, as I pulled away, I checked a couple of times that he wasn’t following me.
I had almost reached another hill fort, Liddington Castle, when to my right, a big field sloped away to the west. I left the path and followed a hedge line for fifty yards till I dipped out of view of any walkers. It wasn’t a perfect site, but it was free-draining, and I was too bushed to walk anymore.
I hadn’t erected my Saunders tent in years, but it’s straightforward and slipping off my boots, I wriggled inside feet first. There is very little space in this one-man tent and unable to sit up even, I lay on my chest to boil water for a remarkably unpleasant pasta and broccoli dried thing. Thanks, Sainsbury’s. You might have said, “This is remarkably unpleasant” on the packet.
Tonight was up there with the worst nights of my life. At 17, I spent a night on a park bench in a Stuttgart park. And on the same trip, I slept on a railway platform at the Gare du Nord. Both nights were memorably awful. Then there was that bus station in Izmir, and the freezing air-con night-bus to Bangkok from Phuket was a particularly bleak twelve hours. And how about that sewage-stink beach in Salerno with the sandflies? Yep, that had been the worst. Well, now I could add a cold, condensing tent on the Wiltshire Downs to my horrible-nights-of-my-life list. I don’t know why I didn’t just nod off – I was tired enough – but at 1am I was still wide awake, still staring into the black. The inside of the tent was sopping, and fat drops intermittently splashed on my cheek or in my eye.
Eventually, in the early hours, I slipped away into disturbed sleep, dreading the prospect of several more nights like this on my way to Ivinghoe Beacon. And dreading the second packet of Sainsbury’s Delight in my rucksack.
See you in the morning.