(Attributed with thanks to https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Philipjelley)
DAY 2: of Walking the Ridgeway: My Experience
The Ridgeway – Ogbourne St George to Letcombe
How wonderful to climb DOWNHILL from day one of the Ridgeway Trail into the comfort and friendliness of Ogbourne St George last night! I faced a rather different prospect climbing several miles UPHILL a 1 in 5 slope out of the village, with a full backpack towards Liddington Hill the next morning. I had a gruelling 18 miles ahead of me and it was not an easy way to start the day. So often is overnight accommodation, of necessity, down in a coastal village or river valley, so I should be used to starting the day with a climb but I still find it a challenging way to begin the day.
Liddington Hill was yet another of the old Bronze or Iron Age Hill forts I was to come across on my trail. It was beloved by Richard Jeffries who in his short life sought a spiritual connection with nature and published books and essays on the natural world. In his book, “The Story of My Heart” he writes about being in the “Now” and his search for his soul’s awakening.
This was something which I reflected on long and hard particularly during this second day’s walk. It was a day when I spoke to no-one and only spied two people in the long-range distance in seven hours walking and was a pivotal day in turning my consciousness inwards. I found that trudging alone through countryside with no human contact or indeed signs of occupied human dwellings was a long while to live in my own head. I was very conscious of my own thoughts and my smallness in the landscape around. Taking step by step, mile after mile along this part of the Ridgeway National Trail I began to become aware of every ache and pain and twinge in my physical body. To distract from that I tried to take each of my senses in turn and become mindful of all the sounds I could hear around, then of the cooling feeling of the wind on my skin or the soothing warmth of my fleece. I savoured every bite of the snacks provided in my lunch and tried to focus on the chalk and stones beneath my feet. I was so aware of my insignificance in the landscape and then this feeling was magnified by realising the connection to the incomprehensibility of my place in the Universe.
The closest I came to “civilisation” was passing under the M4 after 3 or 4 miles, but after this the path climbed again and my walk took me across undulating chalk downland through wide open prairie type farming for mile after mile after mile. I had not realised how generally when walking I look ahead to see cottages, animals or lanes to aim for, but there seemed to be little here to concentrate on. I knew that just beyond Idstone Hill there would be a water tap and I kept this focus in my head for a long while. Just in the same way that the contents of my packed lunch held my interest on several days, so did the existence of water taps. In these early days of the Ridgeway Trail it is very important to know where the few taps are placed and to fill up the water bottle each time you meet one. I had read on the National Trail website just before leaving that a couple of the water tanks were empty, so when I found clear fresh water coming from the Idstone Hill tap I really did give thanks.
I had seen the signpost to Wayland’s Smithy some miles back but came across it all of a sudden to the left of the trail. There was a plaque by this Neolithic burial chamber which told of its old legend. It is reputed that if you leave your horse, together with a suitable payment, by the tomb the animal will have been reshod on your return the next day. I had no horse but as I sat down on the grassy bank, the sun peaked through the clouds. It warmed me through inside and out and I found a wonderful peace and calmness. I pondered on the lives of those ancient people buried below me. I fell asleep for a while and awoke with a profound sense of connectedness and being part of the great eternal cycle of things. I felt that at that time I was experiencing one of Maslow’s “Peak Experiences” – It came to me uncalled for and drifted away without regret. However hard the rest of the trail may prove to be I knew then that it would be worth it just to have experienced that moment of complete joy and freedom.
I had many miles still left to complete that day and after leaving the shelter of the woods near the burial chamber was back on the sometimes deeply rutted chalky open path of the Ridgeway. Before long Whitehorse Hill and the ramparts of Uffington Castle were in my sight. It is a long slow climb, 140 feet in half a mile to the top of the hill near the castle. Turning left off the trail and crossing into a field I walked in seclusion around the castle ramparts and was able to see the spectacular area known as The Manger, a dry valley formed by a melting glacier in the Ice Ages. There were superb views from the top of this very windy hill and I inwardly celebrated the fact I had walked about 12 miles and had broken the back of this day’s walk.
My mental struggle!
And on it went and on and on. At this point the singing started! The contents of my lunchbox long consumed, I had to do something to keep myself going forward. Oh, how different it is singing alone out in the open, with no background track, no radio or others to help keep the melody going! I thought I could hold a half decent tune but if there had been anyone around in that wide open countryside where the sound carries for miles, I don’t think they would have agreed! The other difficulty was thinking of what to sing. Again, I thought I knew thousands of songs, but with no-one to talk to and bounce ideas off of, I found it hard to conjour up a melody. The sad news that Cilla Black had died had come on the radio the morning I left Avebury and so I tried to work my way through her repertoire. I got quite philosophical singing “What’s it all about, Alfie”, then tried to remember that song about the “mucky kid” in Liverpool. What eventually happened is that one song led on to another, with some sort of link by subject a bit like a party game. I don’t take long to fall into a routine and eventually it became a tradition for me that every time I started the walk after a rest or every time I got a bit down, in order to raise my spirits I began again with a song called “The Road Never ends”……………. listen to it here…………… and you may understand!! It seems to fit in well with my walking pace and I used it as my theme tune for my daily trudging………..
In retrospect that afternoon of the second day was a very special time for me and I have very fond memories of how I was carried through mile after mile. However, at the time, it was the toughest walk I have ever done. The undulating path was manageable but at times the terrain underfoot was very chalky and as the wind got stronger my clothes were getting covered in chalk dust and I was starting to worry about what I was breathing in. Whitehorse Hill led to Rams Hill, led to Blowingstone Hill, lead to Hillbarn clump and then Sparsholt Firs. When planning this journey (The Ridgeway National Trail: My Experience) I had originally thought of staying this second night at Hillbarn, which I knew was just off to the right, but to save a days’ walking (and money!), had decided to carry on several miles to Wantage instead. Oh, how at this point, I regretted that decision. However, after trudging along a mile or so beside racehorse gallops the route reaches the wonderful natural spectacle of the Devil’s Punchbowl. This was over on my left for a couple of miles and the sheer size and powerfulness of this landscape kept my spirits up. But why is it that whether I am walking two miles or twenty miles, the last little bit of the walk seems the hardest? That held true again this second day. I knew I only had three or four miles to go, but the ruts in the pathway and the chalk dust seemed to get worse and worse.
The skies were beginning to turn black and as I eventually reached my destination of the Court Hill Centre, near Wantage, (deserving of its own separate blog post) I was desparate for the hot chocolate and absolutely wonderful welcome which awaited me.
The Ridgeway, Day Two, the End of the Road
Further posts on The Ridgeway National Trail can be found at:
To subscribe to my blog and read about my walking journey trudging along local paths and covering national trails please click here and subscribe by adding your e mail address in the column on the right or “like” my Facebook page: Jackie McAll – “About the Journey”