Day 1 of The Ridgeway National Trail: My Experience
Avebury to Ogbourne St George
The Ridgeway National Trail – What have I taken on?…………… and background music!
As I set out early one August morning in 2015 from the friendly, safe setting of the Old Forge in East Kennet, satisfied by my smoked salmon breakfast bagels I knew that as well as an 87 mile physical challenge I was facing the mental task of finding my way along the route and an emotional challenge of being a woman walking solo, carrying all my own luggage. It was also only fours years since I had recovered from a serious illness and to complete this walk alone would show that I was back on form, a different but hopefully better version of myself.
I had spent the day before starting the walk in the village of Avebury, feeling awed by the history and mystery behind the standing stones. I said goodbye to the lovely T, to the background music of Peter Gabriel under the shadow of Solsbury Hill, and spent the evening in the setting of “The Sanctuary”, which although alongside the busy A4 I found strangely peaceful. I left East Kennett and climbed the first mile to the start of the trail at Overton Hill full of excitement that I was finally beginning the long-planned walk and calmly confident that I would be able to face whatever the next six days had in store for me. I knew that I had trained hard physically and had triple-checked all the accommodation details, but I did secretly hope for a few little adventures along the way that I would be able to tell others about. The challenges and adventures, thrills and achievements which were to follow were to prove a surprise.
Once away from the village of Avebury I became quickly aware of the seclusion of this trail ; a feeling which was to stay with me for many of the days. When flying over Britain I am always pleasantly surprised at how much of our “green and pleasant land” remains, but it still hit me down on the ground how quickly and for how long I felt myself very much physically alone in a vast landscape.
The early part of The Ridgeway National Trail is pleasant, undulating walking, on fairly easy terrain. The presence of Ancient History is felt continuously with the presence of round barrows, sarsen stones or map-markings of old Iron Age field works.
For the first four or five miles of my day’s walking my only human contact was one tall lean man, with a large backpack grunting a hello as he confidently strode past me and out of view. He looked like one of those “professional walker types” something I certainly did not yet feel. This only served to increase my sense of isolation. I was not overly anxious at being alone as the route is well marked and I knew that I was heading towards Barbury Castle, where there was a car park and hopefully human contact. It was re-assuring to know that I was not too far from civilisation at this stage.
The guidebook describes the “lush turf and imposing ramparts of Barbury Castle” as providing “an ideal spot to sit and muse on an ancient Saxon victory”. Ah, yes, in fine weather, maybe, but on this mid-August day the sky was now turning omninously dark as I made the steep climb to the top. I ate an early lunch sitting on a bench in what turned out to be a deserted car park; got cross when I found that the “Ladies” was locked and got moving again quickly before I began to get too cold.
Many years ago when out walking alone in Dorset I had scared myself on one of the “range walks” west of Lulworth Cove. I had set off in glorious sunshine, and without a coat, and not passed a soul for several hours, when I reached a challenging steep open climb. As I struggled upwards I needed to rest and the sky turned overcast and very quickly the damp, warm perspiration on my body from the climbing turned to cold shivers and I was without any extra clothing to keep out the chill. I quickly realised what a dangerous situation I had put myself in. I lived to tell the tale, but since that time, whatever the weather promises, I have never set off without a jumper or coat. Fortunately, therefore I had an extra layer to put on this time.
With no one to talk to on these early days of walking the Ridgeway, one of the things which took on an exaggerated importance for me, was what was in my packed lunch. Each place I stayed in on the journey was different and accordingly each lunch held different delights. One thing that became apparent was that everyone overfed me! I was carrying all my own luggage and space in my backpack was at a premium and quite often I began eating some of my lunch straight after breakfast so that I did not have to carry it. The early part of the Ridgeway Trail also does not pass through any villages and there are only a few water stops and I also had to be careful that I was carrying enough water to get me through to the next top-up tap. I discuss this further in my review of Day 2 of walking the Ridgeway.
After leaving Barbury Castle I was soon back out in the open fields, away from anyone. I scouted around a place called Upper Herdswick Farm and saw a large number of cattle straight ahead of me on the path. I am not generally afraid of cows, but I have to confess, that whilst knowing that generally bulls have horns so do some cows and that without looking at their undercarriage, I don’t really know the difference. So if I see something with horns, then I am indeed wary……. and these all had horns! It was perhaps not a major challenge, but I knew that if I was to complete the trail I had absolutely got to get rid of this fear because this was unlikely to be the only time I would come across cattle. I have learned that the only way for me to cope with fear is to centre myself, pray to whatever God protects me and helped me to recover and walk straight through it. It has always worked so far.
After passing the cattle I entered onto Smeathe’s Ridge. This is a wide grassy track, thought to have been used originally as an old trackway when the older Ridgeway below was too wet. There was a great expansive sense of openness here. It rises over 700 feet and gives wide-sweeping views over the surrounding downlands. My main memory of it is unfortunately the cold and the wind and the fact that it seemed to go on and on for ever. Although checking my guidebook it only runs for 1 ½ miles towards Coombe Down. I was quite glad when the path started to descend downwards into farm trackways and towards the road to Chiseldon. It would only be a short walk from here into the village of Ogborne St George, where I was staying for the night, but as it was still early and I knew that the next day’s walk was a long one I carried along the Ridgeway Trail and bypassed the village for another three miles to give myself a head start the next day.
The Ridgeway – too much of a challenge for me?
Well, somewhere between my egg sandwiches at Barbury Castle and passing the cattle on Smeathe’s Ridge, I felt a familiar wave of depression coming down on me. That wave of depression sometimes visits me sitting in my lovely sunny conservatory at home in the village of Harlington looking at the birds outside, for no reason whatsoever. But I know there how to deal with it and it passes. Dealing with it out alone, in the wind and the cold, knowing that I have absolutely no option but to get through it is a different ball game. But I did. I pushed through the fear and the waves of sickly gloom and continued on the trail and turned back to Ogbourne St George.
The sun started to peep through as I reached the village and as it was still a little early to book into the B and B found a hotel serving coffee and quite happy sat in there for a while reading the free paper. My spirits lifted and an hour later I checked into the Inn with the Well .What a lovely little place. A well had been discovered to the side of the Inn and an extension built over the top so that rather disconcerningly when entering the bar one could step on a see-through panel on top of the old well and see down into the old workings.
How did I find Day 1 walking the Ridgeway?
I was met with a bottle of ice cold water straight from the fridge and shown to my very comfortable room. I spent a pleasant evening there and rested well ready for the next day’s challenge. All feelings of depression had passed and as I reviewed my day, as I always do before sleep, I felt content that I had coped well with connecting with people in the accommodation and being with my own company for many hours, despite feeling challenged up on the ridge physically and mentally. I had walked12 miles (the first 9 miles of the Ridgeway National Trail, and 3 more so that I could leave the village by the other exit and somewhat shorten a longer walk the next day.)
The signposting on this section of the Ridgeway had been very good and I felt satisfied and a long way distant from my everyday life. I slept well, ate a hearty breakfast and was ready for the next day’s challenge. Day Two was to prove to be one of my hardest days.
For further posts on the Ridgeway National Trail, please see:
The Ridgeway National Trail – my experience – a full index of posts is given here.
To subscribe to my blog detailing my walking journey trudging local paths and exploring national trails please click here and add your e mail details in the box at the foot of the page or visit my Facebook page: Jackie McAll – “About the Journey”