The day started early at 06:30. I’d been tossing and turning for the half hour before my alarm went off, obviously too excited to sleep. A quick wash and out the door ready for a 08:30 train for Paddington.
Although this trip is a bit about getting away from the stress of modern life, I really must give a quick mention to how impressed I was by the Gt Western Trains, and the in-seat entertainment in standard class. Just like an aeroplane set-up but on a train! This is definitely the future for train travel. After a quick and smooth journey to Swindon I was soon dashing through endless golden corn fields on the 49 Bus to Avebury.
Glorious sunshine, beautiful clear blue sky and fluffy white clouds, Avebury is a very picturesque way to start the Ridgeway, and is worth a visit just for the Henge and Sarsen Stones. And unlike its much more famous neighbour Stonehenge (which you can’t get near unless you make up some ridiculous claim that being the Great Druid Ogg the Wise re-born), you can get really up close and personal, and touch the stones. After feeling suitably energised by the ancient mystical powers and Ley lines coursing through this pre-historic site (that or the coffee I’d had on the train), I set off on the walk through the avenue stones to the beginning of the Ridgeway.
There are a number of alternative routes to get to the Ridgeway from Avebury, but only this route takes you directly to the beginning without having to double back on yourself. There is also the added bonus of including the Sanctuary in the walk, which has lots of concrete markers for a former stone circle. Although this description may not sound particularly inspiring, it has been very well done and gives a great sense of the intricacy of the design. I would have taken a picture but there were a couple meditating in the middle and I didn’t want to disturb them.
Just a short skip across the road and you are at the (and I know that almost everyone says it), rather uninspiring start to the Ridgeway. But it is what it is, and it is both sobering and exciting to see the first marker, looking at the big ’87’ miles that you have in front of you.
The trail starts with a long slow incline, with a wide chalky path that provides panoramic views across the Wiltshire farm land. Seas of golden, waving wheat are interspersed with green fields left to go fallow, the odd flash of red from a lone poppy, and small islands of dark mysterious woods.
Past Hackpen Hill and along down past the first of the many gallops on this part of the walk the Iron Age Fort of Barbury Castle comes into view. The steep climb up to the fort is proof enough of why this spot was chosen for a defensive structure. Opting to go through the middle of the fort rather than walk the circumference of where the palisade wall once stood, you get a real sense of the scale of the fort. It also reminds you that you’re walking through history, treading where so many other feet have trod on Britain’s oldest road. A short stop for a pasty and some flapjacks (both from the excellent value community shop in Avebury), on the banks of the fort provided a scenic and welcome rest.
In what seems like no time at all the wide open avenue of Smeathes Ridge has passed by and the path descends slowly towards the end of this leg of the journey, Ogbourne St George. At this junction there is a dilemma. Do you take the road straight into Ogbourne St George, which is the most direct route to the pub and campsite, but means that you have to retrace your steps to fully complete the Ridgeway? Or do you keep to the Ridgeway through Southend, with an extra 30 minutes walking, and the turn off for the campsite, this avoiding the need to go backwards to walk the entire route? On the basis of short-term pain for long-term gain (well very mild discomfort), I continued on the path and went through Southend. As the guide book says this an exceptionally pretty little hamlet. Through the slightly forlorn looking railway arches and it is less than 10 minutes to the Fox Lynch camp site.
The family at the farm is very friendly and at £5.00 per night it is very good value for money. I was shown through to the field, which is used for horse eventing practice, and left to set up my tent.
In my work at erecting the tent I was joined by the most fearless and inquisitive chickens I have ever met. Having satisfied themselves that my peg bag did not contain food they decided to slink off and peck the ground elsewhere, or so I thought. Having sorted through my equipment and made the tent ready for sleeping, I decided that a lie down, book, and coffee were in order. This was also a great opportunity to test out my new Hi-Gear camping stove a test. Within 7-8 minutes my coffee was ready and I was enjoying my book. Then in the corner of my eye, against the wall of the tent, a shadow of a terrible pre-historic monster at least 20 ft high came into view. Oh no, wait, it’s just the curious chicken back for another peck of the tent. Minor coronary averted, I discovered that there was actually a real emergency. I had forgotten my Spork, so I didn’t have anything to eat with.
Thankfully I didn’t starve as the charming and very accommodating Inn with the Well is a short stroll down the road and serves superb bar food and quality ale at a very reasonable price. Plus they have a very friendly black labrador which is always a bonus. They also provided me with a spoon and a pot of sun cream to make up for my mistake in forgetting to pack them in my rucksack. After a very pleasant evening it was then time to turn in ready for a long second day of 20 miles to Court Hill.