(Walked on 14th March 2017 – 15.5 Miles)
I woke to a grey sullen dawn, in a grey sullen mood.
OK, OK, I admit it, OK? I wasn’t having fun. This was not the best walk of my life. After only four or five hours’ sleep, I was tired and I was despondent. And sullen. My legs and hips ached, my back hurt. I smelled of someone I didn’t recognise, but not in a good way.
Pulling on damp walking clothes over a smear of deodorant and a fresh tee-shirt, I unzipped the inner tent, pulled on damp boots and crawled onto dew-sodden grass. I filled the kettle, lit the stove and mixed cold water with Marsden’s Dry Muesli and Milk Powder Breakfast Mix. (I devised this easy backpacking marvel long ago but had forgotten what a joyless start to the day it is. Don’t bother trying it. No. Really).
As I rolled and packed away the tent, both flysheet and inner were sopping with a), dew and b), condensed air from my lungs. I sighed and decided that no way, no way friend, would I sleep in either until both sleeping bag and tent were thoroughly dried. Soft lad? Yep. I’d book into a B&B this night.
Liddington Castle, the second iron-age hill fort on my route was a few minutes walk off-path. But I didn’t divert. I’ve seen a great many hill forts over the years and, according to my guidebook, Liddington didn’t sound so exceptional. Besides, today I’d visit… drumroll… Uffington.
Descending to cross the M4, I passed the spot where I’d camped in 1982 after walking the longest day of my backpacking life – just shy of 27 miles. And with a ridiculously heavy rucksack too, far heavier than the one I carried today. After a meal in The Shepherd’s Rest pub, I’d barely had the will or means to stagger up onto the Downs, erect my tent – virtually on the path – and instantly pass out.
Wild camping in England isn’t strictly legal. Actually, it isn’t legal. Full stop. Unless that is, you have the landowner’s prior permission. But I’ve never considered sleeping somewhere quietly and unobtrusively a heinous crime. I arrive late, set off early and leave no sign of my trespass other than flattened grass. I’ve wild-camped more times than I can remember but I have yet to be challenged… or feel guilty.
Shortly after the motorway, I walked through the hamlet of Foxhill and passed The Shepherd’s Rest – the pub that had revived my 19-year-old’s body and spirit. Sadly the pub is no more (it is now a restaurant, The Burj) and, feeling older in an everything-changes-world, I left traffic drone behind and climbed once more into the peace of the Downs.
My right hip and knee were really painful, people, and I worried about irreparable joint damage and a foreseeable end to long-distance walking. For the first time, I considered abandoning the walk.
But hell, what was I thinking? Was I a man or a squeaky, half-lame mouse? Undecided, I carried on, lamely squeaking, thumbing through my guidebook for a B&B to aim for – in lieu of wet tent and wet sleeping bag.
This wasn’t how I’d foreseen my walk: hobbling along through a drab landscape under dark thoughts. I hadn’t found a long-distance walk as painful as this since I bought mail-order walking boots in the 80s to walk the Cleveland Way. Those boots carved up my feet something lovely. One day I’ll tell you all about them… in grisly, bloody detail.
Here’s more on that drab landscape. A grey sky is never going to set my heart racing but that wasn’t the problem. Rather, I grew weary of ugliness and a disregard, a disdain even, for nature. And I fought against a slow realisation of a growing disappointment. I have a long, fond relationship with The Ridgeway but I couldn’t ignore this flickering disappointment in the face of reality. Long stretches of The Ridgeway simply aren’t as beautiful or charming as other paths. Or rather, long stretches of the path on this day, in my state of mind weren’t charming enough.
I remember dispiriting farms on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast but in Yorkshire, somehow, the magnificent landscape, or promise of a magnificent landscape, helped cast them in shade.
Here, on this long stretch, and on parts of the previous day, the widespread flytipping and interminable immense fields soured my mood even more.
But it wasn’t all bad. I was approaching a thing I wanted to see. An extraordinary thing.
Wayland’s Smithy is remarkable. On a still summer’s afternoon in 1982, I visited the site alone.
There hadn’t been a soul about and on entering the tomb, I was suddenly overcome with an utterly irrational but overriding fear. I jumped back into the daylight, heaved on my rucksack and scuttled away, checking over my shoulder that nothing was following me. There wasn’t. But it felt like there had been something in the tomb with me. That’s the only time in my life that have I experienced ‘Greek’ panic or, as Merriam-Webster puts it: ‘Panic’… from the name of the Greek god Pan, who supposedly sometimes caused humans to flee in unreasoning fear.‘ Normally, if I’m frightened, I have a damn good reason.
I’ve been back to Wayland’s Smithy a few times since that first scary encounter – if never alone. But today, this five-and-a-half thousand-year-old burial chamber didn’t scare the bejeezus out of me. So, that was a relief.
Shortly afterwards Uffington Castle heaved into view.
The hillfort, though impressive, isn’t what I was excited to see again.
I wanted, of course, to see the White Horse. A carving that my brother once hitchhiked all the way from Essex to see… only to find the chalk covered by an inch of snow. He can laugh about that wasted journey now.
The horse isn’t seen well from the ground and so I present:
Magnificent isn’t it? The White Horse of Uffington is the oldest chalk-cut figure in the British Isles and, for me, the best. It is possibly over 3000 years old; which is pretty old but a Johnny-come-lately compared to Wayland’s Smithy.
As I munched a surprisingly good day-old sandwich, a bird swept over my head. Faster than a speeding bullet, I lifted my camera and got the shot of a red kite I’d missed the day before. Huzzah.
Strapping on my rucksack, wincing at back pain, groaning at hips and knees,
I rejoined the path eastward toward the Thames.
But the pain only intensified and I thought again about where to spend an early night. This morning, in the guidebook, I’d found a handful of prospective B&B’s just off the path, in villages like Compton and East Ilsey. But when I phoned three or four of them, to my surprise, they were fully booked – on a Tuesday night in March.
It seemed that a decision about whether to continue my walk was being made for me. My brain did that curious quick switch from planning a B&B and continuing the walk, to studying a National Trail Map and planning a route off the path to the nearest bus or train back home.
I had had enough. I don’t give up on paths easily but, as you will have gathered, I wasn’t enjoying myself. And neither was my body. (I’ve since learnt, that I have developed arthritis in my neck – which explains a lot of my discomfort – and probably spells an end to my walking with a big rucksack).
I had a final brew and, just after Segsbury Castle, I left The Ridgeway (with a final backward glance) and followed a lane down to Wantage; from where I caught a bus to Oxford and then a train back home. I’d given up, failed. But, on the sunny side of the street, I didn’t have to endure the second pack of last night’s unpleasant pasta and broccoli dried thing from Sainsbury’s. That cheered me up.
My failure goes some way in explaining why it’s taken me so long to write this account. It’s not easy admitting defeat and I’m not proud of giving up on any path, but hey. Not every long distance path is a joy, not every attempt a success.
I’d planned on returning to complete The Ridgeway soon- staying in B&Bs for the remainder, obvs – but a house move followed by a house renovation, followed by building up a gardening business, followed by Covid, followed by starting university, pushed that plan ever more beyond the horizon. One day, one day I’ll go back and complete the blasted thing. Just don’t hold your breath.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate The Ridgeway. I’ve known it too long, spent too many days treading its chalk and mud for such peevishness. But since first walking ‘the oldest road in Britain’, I’ve walked so many other paths that The Ridgeway has slipped away from my list of favourites. Going back to complete the remainder feels somewhat of a chore.