On a royal holiday – or any other day — there’s no better activity than walking along a ridge, monarch of all you survey. And Oxfordshire has one of Britain’s crowning glories – the Ridgeway.
Most people drive up and park in one of the hilltop car parks. But to enjoy the extensive views it’s better to copy the example of our ancestors and walk slowly uphill, turning round every so often to admire your progress.
We caught the X30 Wantage bus, which leaves St Aldate’s in Oxford every half hour (hourly on Sundays and Bank Holidays). Alighting next to the library at Seesen Way, we walked up Lark Hill, which soon becomes a chalk track.
We had missed the dawn chorus of larks, but the sight of soaring red kites and swallows lifted our spirits for the climb. In ten minutes the landscape began to open up, with views stretching from the Chilterns at Princes Risborough, past Didcot Power Station and Wytham to Faringdon Folly and Badbury Hill, with the Cotswold scarp stretching across the horizon beyond.
It is easy to imagine King Alfred, born in Wantage in 849, surveying from his Wessex stronghold the land conquered by Viking invaders. This landscape has represented quintessential old England for writers from Thomas Hardy (his Jude the Obscure used the surname Fawley, after the downland village just south of here) to GK Chesterton, whose Ballad of the White Horse portrayed Alfred’s tiny kingdom as the last bastion of Christianity.
We decided not to follow the dog-leg uphill route to the Ridgeway, but crossed Chainhill Road (probably named after the French word for oak tree, chene, rather than the chainmail armour of Alfred’s warriors) to continue on a level track, one of the many green lanes that criss-cross the Downs.
To the left is one of the area’s many old chalk pits, dug for building and to make lime. Chalk is porous and the lack of water on the Downs deterred people from settling here or ploughing the soil, creating a rich habitat for flowers and insects. More recently, we can thank our royal family’s love of horseracing for saving the chalk grassland from the plough. The springy turf is perfect for delicate racehorses, and this area has grown wealthy from racing rather than agriculture.
We were heading for Court Hill, a hostel and café created by former Wantage GP Dick Squires, who had the idea of moving redundant barns to the site of a former rubbish tip with wonderful views. It is open seven days a week from April, and serves light lunches and homemade cakes (delicious and not burnt, unlike Alfred’s). Once run by the Youth Hostel Association, it is now owned by a charitable trust.
Its picnic spot is surrounded by Sarsen stones, hard rock left when the soft chalk eroded. The one below here at Kingston Lisle, known as the Blowing Stone, was supposedly used by Alfred to call the local militia to fight at the Battle of Ashdown. Sarsen stones are also known as Grey Wethers, as from a distance they can resemble sheep (a wether is a castrated ram).
After a short stretch up the A338, we reached the Ridgeway itself, walking in the footsteps of travellers, herdsmen and soldiers from pre-history. It boasts of being the country’s oldest route (3,000 BC) and is one of Britain’s finest national trails, covering 87 miles (139km) through ancient landscapes.
There are plenty of clues that Ridgeway was already old when Alfred was born. To the right is Segsbury, an Iron Age hillfort also known as Letcombe Castle, which provided Oxford archaeologists with evidence about how our ancestors lived.
Excavations in the 1990s established that it was densely occupied by roundhouses throughout the Iron Age and used for sheep fairs.
The ramparts offer tremendous views and the undisturbed soil provides amazing displays of cowslips and ox-eye daisies. Some people believe the Ridgeway was as much a fortified boundary between rival tribes as a communication route, but our ancestors believed that unknown earthworks were the work of Woden, Grim (a Norse god) or the Devil.
We took a right turn from the Ridgeway across open access land providing views of the Devil’s Punchbowl, a dramatic dry valley or coombe typical of chalk downland, sculpted several millennia ago by rainwater or ice. Now it is a great grassy amphitheatre, one of the largest expanses of unimproved chalk grassland in the area, much of it protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
As you descend the footpath to Letcombe Bassett, springs seep up along the line where the porous chalk of the hillside meets the Thames clay. The clear water is perfect for growing cress and Letcombe brook was once a major source. The old London street sellers’ cry of ‘Bassett cress’ may have inspired Thomas Hardy’s village of Cresscombe in Jude the Obscure. Walking over the Downs on an errand, Jude meets his future wife Arabella washing pigs’ innards in the stream.
The timber-framed, thatched cottages no longer smell of piggery, but are outwardly unchanged. The church dates from the 12th century and has a Norman doorway and chancel arch. We followed a network of paths to Letcombe Regis, recently improved thanks to the developers of a new ‘retirement village’.
A nature reserve is being managed here by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust around the brook, one of only two chalk streams in Oxfordshire. Horse chestnuts have been cut after becoming infected with Phytophthora, a destructive parasitic fungus, and the dead wood will create habitats for insects, small mammals and amphibians. New trees will be planted at a community event next winter. For details of volunteer work parties tel 01865 775476 or email email@example.com.
Thanks to the developers, Letcombe Regis now has a village shop and café, but sadly the Greyhound pub has closed. An obelisk in the churchyard is a memorial to a Maori chief, George King Hipango, who died of tuberculosis at the vicarage aged 19 while training to be a Christian missionary.
Also of interest is Antwick’s Manor, built in the 19th century by ‘boss Croker’, a racehorse owner who had made his money thanks to New York’s corrupt local government system. A famous cartoon states his political philosophy: “I am in politics working for my own pocket all the time.” From the steps of the Greyhound, the Riot Act was later read for the first time in England, after villagers burned an effigy of the unpopular owner of the manor.
We took the direct route back to Wantage, turning right off the main road through a housing estate, where a tarmac path leads across fields to the town. Crossing the busy B4507, we followed Priory Road to Wantage churchyard, exiting opposite Alfred’s statue in the Market Square, where the X30 was waiting to take us back to Oxford. The bus stop is just outside Costa coffee, convenient if you need to wait for a bus.
OS Map Explorer 170.