The Ridgeway Path: Day 1 – Overton Hill to Liddington

(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.

Start of The Ridgeway

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.

Ridgeway Map

A map-board in the carpark showed my route, and I wondered idly where I would sleep for the next four or five nights.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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).

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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.

South Downs Way Day 1

Like this one on The South Downs Way. I thought the new signs jarring and garish but hey? What do I know?

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (6)

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

Looking toward Avebury

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 Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (8)

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (9)

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).

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (10)

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.

Ridgeway Map

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.

Broad_Hinton_White_Horse,_Hackpen_Hill

Hackpen White Horse – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

Beech tree hangars are a regular, defining feature of the Wiltshire Downs.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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.

Barbury Castle The Ridgeway (1)

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 The Ridgeway
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.

Barbury Castle The Ridgeway (3)

First colonised 2500 years ago,

Barbury Castle The Ridgeway

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.

Barbury Castle

Barbury Castle – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (13)

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:

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

becoming distracted by thoughts, by the views and taking photos on an unerring footpath,

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

rather than double-checking the route in my guide book.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (16)

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.”

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (17)

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (21)

Another sign mocked me as I rejoined the One Way. I had added three and a half miles to my day.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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.

Red Kite on The Ridgeway

A red kite winged past but didn’t come so very close. Never mind, I would take a better photo of one tomorrow.

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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.

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But I wasn’t too upset. Not on this glorious March afternoon with far off, soft views

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (25)

and pleasing geometry.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

The sheep could’ve been prettier.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington (27)

The high, green path fell toward the village of Ogbourne St George.

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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.

The Ridgeway Day 1 Overton Hill to Liddington

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.

Wildcamping The Ridgeway

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.

Wildcamping The Ridgeway (2)

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.

Wildcamping The Ridgeway

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.

17 thoughts on “The Ridgeway Path: Day 1 – Overton Hill to Liddington

  1. Nice to see you still have legs. Given Charles’ habit of getting lost before he even sets out, he’s a fine one to criticise! You might also remind him that, generally, the ads one sees are influenced by browsing history. Hair loss? Erectile dysfunction? Hmmm! And as for pack weight, you might take a leaf out of his book on multi-day walks and pay someone else to shift your suitcase to your next overnight accommodation. And stuff the “ready meals” ; ditch the stove and prioritise with some bars of chocolate, a 4-pack and a map of cafes en route.

    Looking forward to day 2.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello John, I’ll leave Charles to address your particular points re ad targeting, I think. I reckon my use of a baggage carrying company is imminent – actually, I’ve already been checking out a couple. Shame though, I like the sense of independence that lugging everything on my back gives me. My body increasingly disagrees. D

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  2. What a wonderful post. It brought back a foggy morning I walked the little stretch between Hackpen and Barbury Castle. The horse isn’t that great close up, by the way. Involves a lot of anatomical puzzling – is that a leg? No, it’s an ear. I don’t think you missed much by powering past. Best seen from the distance. My theory is that those beech trees hangars are ancient way markers as they are so evenly spaced on that stretch. Am probably way off beam here. Not surprised you didn’t get any sleep after your encounter with the local with the lager. Really looking forward to the next instalment.
    (And Charles – I got rather gruesome ads for dental implants rather hair loss products. What does that say about our interests, as gleaned by the interweb?)

    Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, my lord but there is a lot of personal information coming to light here. For all our sakes, I’ve removed ads from this blog but I’ll have you know that I earnt 55 cents in December, so I’ve made quite the sacrifice.

          Thanks for making me feel better about not bothering to see the horse, Ceri. I made up for it with the incomparable Uffington horse the following day. And it was a shame about the bloke in the wood. We might have become good friends drinking his lager and me telling him all about my very interesting Biggles book collection. But, I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t stab me, you see. So I thought it best to run away.

          D

          p.s. I wouldn’t dream of telling you the ads I see!

          Liked by 1 person

    • Delusion? Foolishness? Both of those but also, I’d walked The Ridgeway three times before this attempt and had always wild-camped. So it seemed natural to do so again. Plus, I was curious to see whether I still could camp and would still enjoy it. I think I know the answer to those questions now.

      I hadn’t planned to go away this spring but in the past few days, I’ve wondered whether I can get away for a few days in the next couple of months. I hope so. D

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      • The Ridgeway and the Cleveland Way are next on my list but although I’d like to, I doubt I’ll be camping — not that you’ve put me off or anything (honestly….), I just can’t carry the gear.
        I recently had bunion surgery on both feet and recovery takes some months, but can’t wait to get my boots back on. Friends’ photos and accounts are so welcome! Keep it coming!

        Liked by 1 person

        • No, I don’t think I can carry the gear anymore either 😦

          If it’s a straightforward flip of a coin between your next 2 choices, I’d plump for the Cleveland Way. No hesitation. It’s definitely one of my favourites and far more satisfying than the Ridgeway, as fond of the latter as I am D

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  3. Great to have you back on a walk. But gosh, so many things that you were struggling with! That far too heavy pack for one. Someone should have given you a firm talking to about that. Mind you even pared back to the minimum carrying ones home on ones back is hard. And then getting off track so quickly. And on such a clearly marked path, too. A few hundred yards is one thing. Half a mile perhaps. But the Golden Rule has to be that when in doubt, stop and check. I loved the litany of previous awful nights. Brought back several memories of ending up in smelly ditches. I hope this sad story picks up. BTW thanks for the many ads for hair loss gunge, but it looks so disgusting I’ll hang on for a bit and go straight to the razor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Charles. All sorts going on here, so I haven’t had much time for anything, let alone blogging. I did see your rainy walk on Offa and my heart went out to you. Sorry, I meant to leave a comment but my new dog probably demanded something of me. It’s usually the case. Yep, far too heavy a rucksack. I’m obviously still convinced that I’m stronger and younger than my reality. The forsaken route was daft, wasn’t it? I kind of hoped that if I continued, I’d meet a path that would take me back in roughly the right direction northwards but then that’s eternal, foolish optimism for you. Sorry, about the ads. Tbh, they’re not worth the cluttering up they do – I’ve got them on the lowest level of intrusion but it’s still too high for what they bring in. They make more financial sense on The Anxious Gardener. And how rude. Hair loss, indeed. Harrumph. I shall remove them. D

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      • Hair loss is spot on actually. But mostly noticeable from above so the Ad algorithm must have just been delving into my deep fears. Or perhaps reckoning that at my age Male Pattern Baldness is very likely.
        Thanks for the Offa empathy. I’m definitely getting less tolerant of crap weather walking.

        Liked by 1 person

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