Though both the Chilterns and the Wessex Downs are part of the extensive chalk downlands of south-east England, they are very different in character.
The Chilterns are far more wooded, whereas the Wessex Downs have seen little tree-cover return since prehistoric clearance; and the modern accessibility of the Chilterns to London, and indeed a succession of north-south transport links, has stimulated the development of several urban centres, from which the western part of the Ridgeway trail is almost absent.
7 October 2007. Icknield Beacon to Pitstone Hill, one-and-a-half miles.
No, not a full day out. This was part of my walk along the Icknield Way Path, and in particular was a short seven-mile stage that had started at Whipsnade. I was walking, as often, with my long-term walking partner Dave Travers as we completed that path, and as much less often, my then 15-year old son Adrian. Dave’s wife Rachel met him at the Beacon, they went off to suss out pubs, but Adrian and I wanted to continue a little further, so we just dropped down to a nearby car park, on a path that is the start of both the Icknield Way Path Extension and the Ridgeway.
23 January 2009. Tring station to Pitstone Hill, two miles.
This wasn’t a full day out either. But I’d by then decided to walk the Icknield Way Path Extension all the way to Bledlow Cross. The extension takes a different line to the Ridgeway between Pitstone Hill and Tring station (and indeed throughout their routes the two trails play hide-and-seek), so I decided to walk back up to Pitstone Hill by the Ridgeway – not with a view to facilitating the Ridgeway, but very convenient it proved to be when I started my Ridgeway planning. By the way, the official determiners of these things, the Long-Distance Walkers Association, have no problem with people walking bits of a trail ‘backwards’, so that’s OK then.
11 January 2015. Tring station to Wendover, eight miles.
My first ‘intended’ stage of the Ridgeway, on a grey winter’s day that was free for walking but not worth taking photographs for the London book, on which I had not long started work. From crossing the busy A41, there’s a slow climb up onto the Chiltern ridge north of Wigginton, here around 700ft high. The Ridgeway then heads through the upper part of Tring Park, on an old carriage road dating back to Restoration England. This has sweeping views north, and the eponymous Wren-designed mansion of 1685, now a school for performing arts, is in clear view below.
After the carriage road there’s a short section on a quiet country road through the hamlet of Hastoe leading into woodland then, after a more open section, an ancient holloway leads down to Hale Lane.
Finally, the trail heads through Hale Woods, eventually twisting north-east to the valley floor. There’s a great view of Boddington Hill from the farm lane that takes you into the prosperous town of Wendover, and for me its London train.
27 March 2017. Wendover to Lewknor, 16 miles, 15 on Ridgeway.
Two years flew by before I resumed the Ridgeway. I had walked Wendover to Chinnor before, on the Icknield Way Trail extension, but the routes rarely coincide, so I could not claim familiarity as an excuse for delay.
It was a grey start but with the promise of better things. The day begins with a stiff climb through a nature reserve to the summit of Coombe Hill (852ft), which bears one of the first war memorials of this or any other nation to individuals fallen in war, in this case the Second Boer war of 1899-1902: the war that introduced the term ‘concentration camp’ to language. The monument has since been annexed for protest, as it bears neat little slogans (no spray paint here, this is the Chilterns) against the planned HS2 rail line that will plunder the plain below.
Coombe Hill was once part of the Chequers estate, to which descent is now made. Chequers is the country residence of the prime minister of the day, and in these uncertain times I half expected the right-of-way through its grounds to have been diverted to the road, but thankfully no. There are however plenty of warning signs, and CCTV cameras on the driveway. I felt pretty sure that someone would have tracked me along the path.
Another little rise takes you to the hamlet of Little Cadsden, whose pub the Plough is essentially the ‘local’ for Chequers and indeed was shown off in 2015 by that bottom-ranker among British PMs, David Cameron, to a bemused Xi Jinping, the Chinese president. It’s since been bought up by a Chinese investment group.
No sheepish pint for me though – I was before opening time. Up instead, steeply, to Whiteleaf Hill, a Neolithic barrow close by. The hill overlooks the town of Princes Risborough, which the Ridgeway skirts round, and in an untidy moment leaves by the main A4010 out of the town.
The greyness was however now dispelled by early spring sunshine. The road, and the present-day rail line which shadows it, take advantage of a gap in the Chilterns, beyond which rises Lodge Hill, a fine spot for lunch. On the descent, the route joins up with the Chiltern Way for a short while, bringing back memories of my time on that in the early 2000s.
Not far beyond, the Icknield Way Trail extension joins the Ridgeway after having played hide-and-seek all day – at first, it had gone south of Chequers, to Little Hampden, and then taken a dull road march west out of Princes Risborough instead of using Lodge Hill. However the terminus of the IWT is barely a mile away at Bledlow Cross, not that there is anything there; its walkers (me once included) mostly have to continue by the Ridgeway towards the nearby large village of Chinnor for onward transport. One more stretch now, an hour by a green lane below the Chiltern ridge, nice enough (and with industrial heritage interest in the vast disused chalk pits to either side) but prosaic in its levelness after the ups and downs of earlier.
The Princes Risborough to Watlington railway comes close by, but as that closed to passengers in 1957 it would not help me get home. There is excellent public transport nevertheless, one of the few places where a coach service is an acceptable rail substitute, with the Oxford Tube service that runs every few minutes a mile from the route at Lewknor.
10 May 2017. Lewknor to Goring, 18 miles, 17 on Ridgeway.
Farewell to the Chilterns, and for me, farewell to the Ridgeway: this stage came after I had walked the Wessex Downs section the month before. It wasn’t planned like that, it just happened. Still, it’s not a bad stage to finish on, with its central section in particular including some of the most delicious fastnesses of the entire walk. That’s not entirely in evidence early on, as you trundle along a green lane beneath Watlington Hill, though there is a space to the countryside that is immensely appealing.
On this stretch the first of the ‘alternative footpaths’ appear – they feature quite frequently in Wessex. These take you off the main green lane into narrower paths in the surrounding hedgerows. They can be a refreshing change from what are sometimes monotonous tramps, but I found many of them rather overgrown.
After about four miles a sharp left turn takes you back up into the hills for the first time since Bledlow. On the way up an ancient earthwork heads west down a little ridge – it’s not for us, but a precursor to something grander that will take us out of the Chilterns for the last time. Instead we head for the tiny hamlet of Swyncombe and its ancient little church, one of the great treasures of the Ridgeway.
A glorious mile then follows, one of the best in all the Chilterns, terminating at the arts-and-crafts wonder of Ewelme Park House.
Beyond though there are two large featureless fields, a main road and a golf course to cross, so the idyll ends too soon. In the woods before the road, a strolling couple were startled when I passed them – as I told them, if they didn’t have the radio playing, they would have heard me. So much for being at one with nature. Over the golf course is the church at Nuffield, all but the equal of Swyncombe, and excelling it for the tea and coffee making facilities, plus cake supply, expressly for walkers!
A short link path takes you to a three-mile section of the Chiltern Grim’s Ditch, one of at least six earthworks bearing this name across southern England, probably dating to the Iron Age. In its upper stretches especially, it is still impressive today, and there is the chance to walk on both its southern and northern banks as well as in the ditch in between.
The ditch itself seems to be heading for an encounter with the Thames just south of Wallingford, but the Ridgeway turns abruptly south at Mongewell Park. From the map this looked like a pleasant walk through parkland, but it has a rather scruffy feel, before crossing a golf course on a hedged path which seems designed to keep walkers out of sight and out of mind for the golfers. Things improve at the village of North Stoke – another pretty churchyard – and here the Ridgeway reaches the Thames for a four-mile riverside stretch to Goring. This was busy today with rowing crews out practising.
You go beneath one of Brunel’s fine viaducts for the Great Western Railway before a brief diversion through the village of South Stoke, picture-postcard-pretty so scarcely a hardship. From here you’re hemmed in a bit between river and railway, but as the latter is in a cutting it’s barely noticeable. After all that has gone before, Goring feels quite a metropolis: here, Thames Path and Ridgeway intersect, so for walkers, it’s very nearly a Clapham Junction.
Forward to the Wessex Downs