/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on March 31, 2010 at 8:11 am
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The Ridgeway – the oldest hike

It’s that time of year again, when the snowdrops have gone and the daffodils are beginning, when the sun shines between showers and it’s time to get the hiking boots out of the cupboard again. Time for the Ridgeway, at its best in spring.

The Ridgeway is probably the oldest track in England. Running along the crest of the chalk ridge that runs across Southern England, for prehistoric man it was the only road that ran free of the marshes and huge forests of the lowland. Megalithic remains crowd the route – the huge earthworks of Uffington Castle, the abstract figure of the Uffington White Horse [map], long barrows and causewayed camps, and at the end of the path, the huge stone circles and avenues of Avebury [map].

That’s one of the attractions of the walk – but not by any means the only one. The landscapes of the Ridgeway vary between the grandeur of bare chalk downland – at this time of year, the earth shows bare where the fields have been ploughed, or there are the bright green shoots of young crops – when you’re on the top, and, when you dip down below the escarpment into the valleys, the picturesque world of watercress beds and old inns and thatched cottages, or woods full of the shimmering haze of bluebells (from April on) and moist green moss on old wood.

I’ve walked a lot of long distance paths and this is one of my favourites. It’s not the most easily accessible by public transport – from London, you’ll be looking for trains to Tring (Chiltern lines, from Marylebone, or from Euston) or Henley or Goring on the Thames (from Paddington), and at the western end the nearest station is Swindon, so you’ll depend on a bus or taxi to get you back to civilisation.

And this really is the best time of year for it. In summer, it’s parching; there’s no shade on the downs, and the springs are all down below, so there’s no water, either; but in spring, everything seems freshly made, the air is sweet and fresh, and the warmth of the sun is still gentle. There might even be dew scattering the grass with jewels in the low, sloping sunlight of early morning.

Yet the Ridgeway isn’t wilderness. Far from it; Henley, Oxford, Swindon are never far away. You can be up on the ridge and think you’re a million miles from human habitation, but drop down into the vale and you’ll find a village and a pub, or even the great cooling towers of Didcot power station. It’s a strange contrast.

There are other long distance paths equally accessible from London – the South Downs Way, for instance, which tracks the Seven Sisters before running inland, or the North Downs way running the hilltops from Guildford towards Canterbury and the coast near Dover. But I don’t think either of these are quite as splendid – quite as awe-inspiring – as the Ridgeway. And for me, they have different seasons, too; the North Downs is forsummer-going-on- autumn, when the wheat fields are golden and the poppies are out; and the South Downs is for winter, when it’s crisp with frost and the sea is fierce. But right now, it’s the Ridgeway for me, the road to the West.

Photo by net_efekt on flickr

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