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Walk the Ridgeway National Trail with a Cicerone Guidebook

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Published
5 Mar 2013
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9781852846947
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17.2 x 11.6 x 1.3cm
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208
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The Ridgeway National Trail

by Steve Davison
Published by Cicerone Press

A guidebook to the Ridgeway National Trail, an 87-mile (139km) route described in both directions between Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. It passes through two AONBs, the chalky North Wessex Downs and the wooded Chiltern Hills. With information on many historic sites as well as trips off the trail to nearby villages.

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Description

Would you like to follow in the footsteps of over 5000 years of human history? This guide to the Ridgeway National Trail in south east England allows you to do exactly that. Discover the extraordinary sights our ancestors have left us here, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Avebury’s Neolithic stone circle and the famous Uffington White Horse.

The trail is an 87-mile (139km) route that typically takes between five and seven days to complete. It is well waymarked, follows good tracks and paths and, by not exceeding 300m, is fairly low-level throughout. The guide is written as a 12-stage west-to-east route, but also gives details of the trail in reverse.

The Ridgeway has been here for thousands of years, and follows old tracks that have been in use since prehistoric times. Passing Neolithic burial mounds and Iron Age hill forts, the landscape really is steeped in history.

The guidebook also offers information on historic sites and details of excursions to nearby towns and villages, as well as practical information on useful contacts and accommodation.

  • information on historic sites, details of excursions to nearby towns and villages and practical information on useful contacts and accommodation
  • pass through two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: the chalky North Wessex Downs and the more wooded environs of the Chiltern Hills
  • ideal for day trips as well as long-distance walks
  • Seasons
    the Ridgeway can be undertaken at any time of the year, although the weather and ground conditions are better from spring through to the end of autumn (from colourful displays of flowers in spring to the dramatic tree colours of autumn); a frosty or snowy day on the can be magical - but the hours of daylight are fewer
  • Centres
    Avebury, Swindon, Marlborough, Wantage, Streatley, Goring, Wallingford, Watlington, Chinnor, Princes Risborough, Wendover and Tring
  • Difficulty
    the Ridgeway is a fairly low-level (never going above 300m) waymarked walk that follows mostly good tracks and paths suitable for all abilities
  • Must See
    two contrasting AONBs: the wide open, chalky North Wessex Downs and, after a peaceful river section following the River Thames at Goring, the more wooded, intimate landscape of the Chilterns; the stone circle at Avebury to Wayland's Smithy Neolithic burial mound and the Uffington White Horse, great views, short excursions to picturesque towns and villages

Contents

Contents
Introduction
Plants and wildlife
Geology
When to walk
Planning your walk
Getting to and from the Ridgeway
Where to stay
Food and drink
Waymarking, access and rights of way
Using this guide
Maps
Cycling and riding the Ridgeway
The Ridgeway online
The Greater Ridgeway
The Countryside Code
The Ridgeway (West to East)
Stage 1 Overton Hill (Avebury) to Ogbourne St George
Stage 2 Ogbourne St George to Ashbury Folly
Stage 3 Ashbury Folly to the A338 (Wantage/Court Hill Centre)
Stage 4 A338 (Wantage/Court Hill Centre) to Bury Down
Stage 5 Bury Down to Streatley
Stage 6 Streatley to Mongewell Park
Stage 7 Mongewell Park to Watlington
Stage 8 Watlington to Chinnor
Stage 9 Chinnor to Princes Risborough
Stage 10 Princes Risborough to Wendover
Stage 11 Wendover to Wigginton
Stage 12 Wigginton to Ivinghoe Beacon
The Ridgeway (East to West)
Stage 1 Ivinghoe Beacon to Wigginton
Stage 2 Wigginton to Wendover
Stage 3 Wendover to Princes Risborough
Stage 4 Princes Risborough to Chinnor
Stage 5 Chinnor to Watlington
Stage 6 Watlington to Mongewell Park
Stage 7 Mongewell Park to Streatley
Stage 8 Streatley to Bury Down
Stage 9 Bury Down to the A338 (Wantage/Court Hill Centre)
Stage 10 A338 (Wantage/Court Hill Centre) to Ashbury Folly
Stage 11 Ashbury Folly to Ogbourne St George
Stage 12 Ogbourne St George to Overton Hill (Avebury)
 
Appendix A Route summary tables
Appendix B Useful contact information
Appendix C Facilities near to the Ridgeway
Appendix D Accommodation near to the Ridgeway
Appendix E Further reading

Introduction

Walking the Ridgeway National Trail takes you on a journey through a landscape steeped in history, following old trackways that have been used since prehistoric times past the remains of Neolithic burial mounds and Iron Age hill forts with commanding views. On the way there are plenty of distractions just off the route, from picturesque towns and villages with thatched cottages and cosy pubs, to historic churches and interesting museums.

The Ridgeway has been here for thousands of years, so take your time and enjoy the journey. Rest a while and listen: high above the skylarks sing, far off a church bell rings, the wind rustles through the trees, sweeping views stretch out over the rounded chalk hills with wide open skies. Imagine the travellers that have been this way before, where were they going and why. Whether you do one continuous walk, or prefer to spread the pleasure over weeks or years, you’ll never forget your journey along the Ridgeway.

As for describing the Ridgeway, maybe that is best left to local naturalist Richard Jefferies in his book Wildlife in a Southern County (1879):

A broad green track runs for many a long, long mile across the downs, now following the ridges, now winding past at the foot of a grassy slope, then stretching away through a cornfield and fallow. It is distinct from the wagon-tracks which cross it here and there, for these are local only, and, if traced up, land the wayfarer presently in a maze of fields, or end abruptly in the rickyard of a lone farmhouse. It is distinct from the hard roads of modern construction which also at wide intervals cross its course, dusty and glaringly white in the sunshine…it runs like a green ribbon…

Sample Route

STAGE 1
Overton Hill (Avebury) to Ogbourne St George
StartOverton Hill car park on the A4 (SU 118 680), or the Red Lion in Avebury on the A4361 (SU 101 699)
FinishJunction of the Ridgeway and a minor road (SU 192 746) near Ogbourne St George, or Ogbourne St George village
Distance14.6km (9 miles); cumulative 14.6km (9 miles)
Time4–5 hours
Height gain200m
MapsOS Landranger 173; OS Explorer 157; Harvey Ridgeway National Trail Map
RefreshmentsPubs at Avebury, Beckhampton, West Overton, Winterbourne Monkton, Winterbourne Bassett, Broad Hinton and Ogbourne St George; shop and café at Avebury
Public transportBus – Avebury to Swindon (trains), Devizes and Marlborough; Ogbourne St George to Swindon (trains), Marlborough and Salisbury (trains)
AccommodationAvebury, West Kennett, Winterbourne Monkton, Ogbourne St George

The official start of the Ridgeway, at Overton Hill, is not very inspiring – being just a car park beside the rather busy A4 with a track heading north out across the rolling Marlborough Downs. Soon a short detour leads to the fascinating sarsen-strewn fields of Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve. However, the Ridgeway continues northwards, passing the Hackpen White Horse hill figure, to reach Barbury Castle, the first of several Iron Age hill forts along the Ridgeway. After admiring the extensive views the route heads south-east along Smeathe’s Ridge before dropping down to Ogbourne St George, where there is a choice of accommodation and a pub.

For anyone interested in exploring Avebury along with Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow and The Sanctuary before starting the Ridgeway from Overton Hill, it is well worth taking the option of the alternative start from Avebury, which adds 5.2km (3¼ miles).

Alternative start

From The Red Lion (01672 539266) – the 400-year-old inn is claimed to be haunted by the ghost of Florrie, a former landlady who was murdered and thrown down the well by her husband for being unfaithful – in Avebury (SU 101 699) follow the High Street south-west past the village shop and soon turn left along the enclosed path; a small gate on the left gives access to the stone circle and a track on the right gives access to Avebury Manor and the Alexander Keiller Museum and café. To visit St James’ Church (which, although altered by the Normans, still retains its tall Anglo-Saxon nave), continue along the High Street.

Part of the stone circle in Avebury

The most impressive feature at Avebury is the large ‘henge’ (a ‘henge’ is a type of Neolithic earthwork consisting of a circular or oval bank and ditch) dating from 2600BC. Within this structure is the outer stone circle, one of Europe’s largest stone circles, originally marked with 98 sarsen stones along with two smaller stone circles, and part of the present village. Along with Stonehenge, the Avebury henge and associated sites have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Alexander Keiller Museum is named after Alexander Keiller (1889–1955), heir to the Dundee-based marmalade business, who was responsible for excavating many of the sites at Avebury in the 1930s (the museum houses archaeological finds from the area). Nearby is the Manor House, once the home of Alexander Keiller, which dates from the 16th century (01672 539250; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/avebury).

Keep ahead through the car park and turn right along the A4361 for 40m. Turn left to cross the road and go through the gate. Keep to the path beside the River Kennet for 1.3km (¾ mile), passing some small gates and stiles; over to the right is the unmistakable outline of Silbury Hill (there is no access to the hill).

The 40m (130ft) high Silbury Hill is the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, built sometime around 2400BC (late Neolithic), at a similar time to the Avebury ‘henge’ stone circle and West Kennet Avenue. As for why it was built, no one really knows, although local legend attributes the mound to the devil. He was planning to dump a load of earth on nearby Marlborough, but was stopped by the priests at Avebury, while in another version it is a cobbler who thwarts the devil.

The unique outline of prehistoric Silbury Hill

Go through the gate and carefully cross the A4, then turn left for 30m. Turn right through the gate to follow a track southwards, and shortly after crossing the Kennet bear left along a path to a large oak tree. Some people believe the tree has ‘special’ powers and have tied ribbons to the branches. Here a 400m detour to the right (south) leads to the West Kennett Long Barrow.

The West Kennet Long Barrow, dating from 3600BC, is one of the largest and most impressive Neolithic chambered tombs in Britain. During excavations the partial remains of at least 46 individuals along with pottery, beads and stone implements were found.

From the oak tree follow the fence along the left edge of the field to a stile and continue along the track. Cross the lane and stile to follow the hedge on the right as it curves right to a stile and follow the tree-shaded path to a track junction. Cross slightly left and go up the bridleway to a cross junction; here the White Horse Trail goes straight on. Turn left towards East Kennett, go through a gate and follow the track between the buildings of Manor Farm and continue past Christ Church to a T-junction. The present, Early English-styled church, which was built on the site of an earlier 12th-century church, dates from 1864.

Go right and just before the house on the left turn left along a narrow path before turning left at the next lane. Keep straight on at the junction (the road to the right heads to West Overton and The Bell Inn (01672 861663)), and after crossing the River Kennet follow the track as it bears left and then heads northwards to reach the A4; to the left is a gate giving access to The Sanctuary.

The Sanctuary, which originally consisted of timber posts, dates from 3000BC. Later a stone circle was added around the time that the West Kennet Avenue, a 2.5km (1½ miles) avenue of standing stones connecting The Sanctuary with the Avebury henge, was constructed. As with most prehistoric sites its purpose remains a mystery, although numerous examples of human remains have been found. The site was first recorded in 1648 by John Aubrey and at that time many of the stones were still standing; however, within 100 years the site was destroyed. All that remains today are concrete blocks marking where the wooden posts and sarsen stones that formed the concentric circles were located.

Overton Hill car park beside the early Bronze Age round barrows – the official start of the Ridgeway

Carefully cross over to the car park at Overton Hill – this is the official start of the Ridgeway.

Official start

Head north along the track from Overton Hill car park (SU 118 680). From here it is 139km (87 miles) to Ivinghoe Beacon and the end of the Ridgeway; somewhat nearer it is Hackpen Hill (7km/4¼ miles).

On the right at Overton Hill are some well-preserved early Bronze Age (about 2000BC) burial mounds or round barrows in an area known to the Saxons as Seofan Beorgas (Seven Barrows). Just to the north the Romans built a road connecting Cunetio (near Marlborough) to Verlicio (near Chippenham).

After 2.8km (1¾ miles) the Herepath, or Green Street, which is also the Wessex Ridgeway joins from the left on Overton Down (SU 125 708). This was an Anglo-Saxon army route – ‘herepath’ literally means ‘army path’. From here a short detour leads to Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve (1.4km return). Turn right through the gate heading eastwards across the open field, go through gates either side of a gallop to reach a viewpoint just south of Delling Copse.

Here the chalk grassland is littered with the largest collection of sarsen stones in Britain. Known locally as ‘grey wethers’, as from a distance they look like sheep (a ‘wether’ is a castrated ram), these stones are all that remains of a hard silica sandstone layer that was formed over the underlying chalk during the early Tertiary period, 50 million years ago. Subsequent erosion broke the layer into pieces, creating the sarsens. Used in ancient times for building purposes, today they support communities of rare lichen and moss.

After exploring Fyfield Down head back to the Ridgeway and turn right. Continue northwards with views to the west, including the Lansdowne Monument.

The monument, on Cherhill Down about 8km away, was built in 1845 by the Third Marquis of Lansdowne and commemorates Sir William Petty (1623–1687), a well-known 17th-century economist, scientist and philosopher. Heed the saying on the perfectly located seat ‘stop and rest a while, enjoy the view, and be glad we can’.

After a dogleg the White Horse Trail joins from the right and follows the Ridgeway for 2.5km (1½ miles) over Hackpen Hill. The 145km (90-mile) White Horse Trail meanders through Wiltshire, visiting eight white horse hill figures.

A bridleway at SU 125 729 heads west to Winterbourne Monkton (6.1km/3¾ miles return) and The New Inn pub (01672 539240; accommodation), while a byway at SU 123 738 heads north-west to Winterbourne Bassett (5.2km/3¼ miles) and The White Horse pub (01793 731257).

Just before the minor road at SU 129 747 a short detour leads to the White Horse on Hackpen Hill. To reach it, turn left through the gate and head down past a small copse, with views out to the north-west.

Looking up to Hackpen Hill white horse from the road to Broad Hinton

The hill figure – known as either the Hackpen Hill White Horse or Broad Hinton White Horse – was cut by Henry Eatwell, Parish Clerk of Broad Hinton and a local publican to commemorate the Coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838.

Retrace your route and turn left. The Ridgeway crosses the minor road – to the left is Broad Hinton (3.1km/2 miles) and right is Marlborough (8.9km/5½ miles) – and continues through the car park (SU 128 747). Keep ahead past three picturesque circular beech copses.

The White Horse Trail goes left at SU 131 752 and heads for Broad Hinton (4.8km/3 miles) where there is the Crown Inn (01793 731302), the Barbury Inn (01793 731510) and the late 12th-century Church of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) – one of only 15 churches in England with this dedication.

Soon after the copses is a gentle rise from which the earthworks of Barbury Castle come into view. A short descent leads to a surfaced track; turn right for 40m and then left through the gate, following the track past the information boards and up through the earthworks of Barbury Castle.

Imposing Barbury Castle is the first of several Iron Age hill forts that we meet while travelling along the Ridgeway. Standing on a spur of the Downs at 265m, the double ditch and earth ramparts, first occupied some 2500 years ago, offer commanding views. Jump forward to the sixth century and Barbury Castle is thought to have been where the Britons were defeated at the Battle of Beranburgh (Beran Byrig) in AD556.

The surrounding landscape has inspired many including local naturalist Richard Jefferies (1848–1887), who lived at Coate, and the poet Alfred Williams (1877–1930), who lived at South Marston, both near Swindon. A memorial stone, with quotations to both men, is located nearby on Burderop Down (SU 158 762) from where there is a great view (go north down the access road for 200m then right through a gate).

It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the Sunshine

from Richard Jefferies’ autobiography The Story of my Heart

Still to find and still to follow, joy in every hill and hollow – company in solitude

Alfred Williams

The memorial stone to Richard Jefferies and Alfred Williams on Burderop Down looking towards Liddington Castle

Continue through the centre of the hill fort, although a short detour along the ramparts is worth it for the views.

To the north, below the Downs, is the former Second World War Wroughton Airfield. The six hangars have been home to parts of the science, engineering, transport and agricultural reserve collections of the British Science Museum since the 1970s.

Pass through the eastern side of the earthworks and continue in a south-easterly direction, following the fence and hedge past the toilet block and car park at Barbury Castle Country Park (SU 156 760). There are plans to develop new facilities here that should include a café, visitor centre, accommodation (including camping) and stabling. Keep along the hedge-lined path to a track at Upper Herdswick Farm and go right for 200m.

Turn left through the gate and keep left (straight on) at the split following the broad outline of Smeathe’s Ridge in a south-easterly direction with lovely views of the Marlborough Downs. On reaching a gateway and cattle grid (SU 175 752) consider resting a while at the seat to admire the view before continuing down alongside the fence to a dip. Go on for a short distance before forking left at the marker, following a path downhill to pass a gateway. Keep straight on towards Ogbourne St George (where there is a pub and accommodation), passing a Ridgeway map, to join a road (SU 192 746).

Ogbourne St George, along with neighbouring Ogbourne St Andrew, has a long history stretching back to Saxon times – the name Ogbourne is derived from the Saxon Oceburnan (‘Oca’s stream’). In the 12th century the manorial rights of Great and Little Ogbourne (now Ogbourne St George and Ogbourne St Andrew) were donated by Maud of Wallingford to the Benedictine Abbey of Bec-Hellouin in Normandy and the monks built a priory near to the present Manor House.

In the reign of Henry V, almost 300 years later, all alien orders were suppressed and in 1422 the estate passed to the Duke of Bedford, and on his death in 1435 the manor passed to the Crown. During the reign of Henry VI the land was granted to King’s College in Cambridge, which held the land until 1927. The present church, which stands on the site of the former Saxon church, dates from the 12th century, albeit with extensive Victorian renovations; inside is a brass memorial to Thomas Goddard and his wife, dated 1517.

Alternative finish

To finish the stage in Ogbourne St George, either turn right and follow the road into the village, or else cross straight over the road here and head through the trees. Cross a couple of stiles and keep ahead across the field, then go through the churchyard. Go right along the lane and turn left up the main street to the T-junction: to the left is The Inn with the Well (01672 841445).

St George’s Parish Church in Ogbourne St George

Maps

Front Cover The Ridgeway follows the broad grassy outline of Smeathe’s Ridge down towards Ogbourne St George (W–E Stage 1; E–W Stage 12) A light covering of snow on the Ridgeway near the Devil’s Punchbowl (W–E Stage 3; E–W Stage 10) Looking north-north-east from Pitstone Hill to Steps Hill (straight ahead) and Ivinghoe Beacon (left) – the end of the Ridgeway (W–E Stage 12; E–W Stage 1) Part of the stone circle in Avebury Looking up to Hackpen Hill white horse from the road to Broad Hinton From Nuffield the Ridgeway heads across open fields
Maps

Harvey Maps produce the Ridgeway National Trail Map, a 1:40,000 (2.5cm to 1km) scale waterproof map covering the entire route and all but a few of the short detours described in this guide. The map is also good for anyone cycling or riding the Ridgeway as it shows both the Swan’s Way and Icknield Way Riders Route, which need to be followed for the eastern section after crossing the River Thames.

The Ordnance Survey offer two series of maps: the 1:50,000 (2cm to 1km) Landranger series and the considerably more detailed 1:25,000 (4cm to 1km) Explorer series. The OS maps covering the Ridgeway are:

  • Landranger: 165, 173, 174, and 175
  • Explorer: 157, 170, 171, and 181.

This guide contains extracts of the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 Landranger series of maps with overlays showing the route, along with any detours.

The grid references given in the guide are generated from the National Grid. Each map is overlaid by a grid with a spacing of 1km. A grid reference is made up of two letters, which correspond to the 100,000 metre square in which the grid reference lies, and six numbers. The first two numbers correspond to the vertical line (known as ‘eastings’) to the left of the point of interest: the third number is the tenths of the square (equivalent to 100m). The fourth and fifth numbers locate the horizontal line (‘northings’) below the point of interest, and the last digit is again the number of tenths moving up through the square. Always remember – the horizontal numbers come before the vertical ones.

Horse riders on Fox Hill (both cyclists and horse riders are allowed to use the Ridgeway from Overton Hill to Goring) (W–E Stage 2; E–W Stage 11)

Further Reading

Burl, Aubrey Prehistoric Avebury (Yale University Press; 2nd Revised edition, 2002)


Carter, Ian; Whitlow Gerry Red Kites in the Chilterns (Chilterns Conservation Board; 2nd edition 2005)


Cleare, John The Ridgeway  (Frances Lincoln, 2011)


Dillon, Paddy The National Trails (Cicerone, 2007)


Joslin, Jos (Editor) The Ridgeway National Trail Companion: A Guide for Walkers, Horse riders and Cyclists to Accommodation, Facilities and Services
     (National Trails Office, 7th edition, 2012)


Leary, Jim; Field, David The Story of Silbury Hill (English Heritage, 2010)


Pevsner, Nikolaus (founding editor) The Buildings of England, a series of guides split by county including Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire
     (Yale University Press)


Pollard, Joshua; Reynolds, Andrew Avebury: Biography of a Landscape (The History Press, 2002)


Quinlan, Ray The Greater Ridgeway (Cicerone, 2003)


Smith, Esther White Horses of Wiltshire and Uffington (Forward Publications, 2004)
 

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Reviews

'Probably not the most attractive of National Trails, The Ridgeway at last has a book that reveals what it does have to offer. As one would expect from a Cicerone guide, this is a beautifully produced work with an abundance of photographs, mostly taken by the author.

...As well as descriptions of the route in detail, along with points of interest, there are numerous short diversions to neaby towns and villages included. These will prove useful when needing to find overnight shelter, as there is very little actually on the route. The introduction includes some interesting notes on the flora and fauna you might see during your walk, as well as the geology of the area. The appendices, with their route sumary tables, list of accommodation and useful contacts, provide all you need to plan you trip.'

David Findel-Hawkins, Strider - the Journal of the LDWA, August 2013

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