Segsbury Camp to Watlington Hill
A promising sky greeted us as we made our early morning meander from Basingstoke to Letcombe Regis to begin the second phase of our walk from Segsbury Camp. Having parked her car at the bottom of the hill it wasn’t until we were two thirds of the way up that our sister realized she’d left her phone in the car and my brother obligingly set off back down to get it. Ho hum.
This didn’t look to be the most promising part of the walk in terms of ancient sites, barring the Way itself, but at least it was going to be easy on the feet. With the ever-present cooling towers of the Didcot Power Station as a progress gauge, most of the walk was on level ground, especially the section that follows the Thames northwards from Streatley, but that was for day two and in walking, talking and laughing terms, some way off.
The first site that appears on the map, but which proved eminently indiscernible was Grim’s Ditch. This Iron Age boundary marker comes and goes along almost all of this section in fits and starts, but proved much more interesting on the second day. The first non-prehistoric feature you come across is the monument to Baron Wantage who seems to have spent a large chunk of his early life slaughtering Johnny Foreigner on behalf of his fellow Victorians. However, on post-walk reading I learnt that the monument was erected on top of a Bronze Age barrow. Shame.
Next up is the quaintly named Scutchamer Knob hidden discreetly in a small copse on the southern side of the ridge. This is a sizeable round barrow, but because it’s been burrowed into on its north side it looks slightly like a Cotswold Severn Long Barrow with turtle-like flippers sweeping around in front. Only the lack of a tail end suggests otherwise, but there again who knows whether it wasn’t ploughed out centuries before? Despite the joke-worthy name this is a very enigmatic spot with tremendous views and was a historic meeting place in the past.
After this the track begins to dip down some before crossing beneath the thundering A34 whilst surrounded by numerous gallops. Horseracing is BIG in this part of the country and the sweeping downland provides excellent training facilities for the local stables, obviously why they were there in the first place. Shortly after an abrupt left turn at Compton Downs the track crosses a disused railway line which is of some significance to my siblings and me. If we’d followed it south back to Newbury it would connect us to the road we lived in back then as youngsters. I can just about remember the steam and noise of steam trains as they puffed along the track on an irregular basis before Beeching put an end to all that. Ah, nostalgia!
So, on to a slight diversion to Lowbury Hill which, according to the map, has a R***n temple on top of it and where there’s a temple there’s almost always something of earlier interest. My sister and I decide to go and investigate while my brother lies down in a field after his earlier exertion with her phone. The temple proves to be a huge disappointment with only the barest traces of anything visible on the summit. There is however a low and lonely barrow and the inevitable view of the DPS cooling towers. “That was amazing!” we lie to him at the base of the hill, “You really missed out there”. “No I didn’t”, he replied, “There’s nothing up there because I asked someone coming back down”. Smartarse.
We are now coming to the end of our days walk and the track slowly descends into Streatley, a posh little town on the Thames and my brother and I are wondering if we can get to a pub showing the Man U v Spurs game before the 5.00 kick off. One of the few things of notable interest, other than the outstanding natural beauty of the valley on the way down, is an amazing field system that I would guess to be medieval, though there’s no reference to it on the map. There’s also a large sarcen stone near Thurle Grange on the side of the road but little to relate to it. A word of warning! If you are on the right hand side of the road, as we were, when you come into the town the pavement suddenly stops and you have to face speeding oncoming traffic as it comes round the corner. We encountered a twat in a hatchback who showered us with expletives and to whom we replied with suitable hand gestures only to be followed by, we assume, his father in a minibus. He passed so close that I put my hand up to avoid his wing mirror taking my head off and thus caused his mirror to be bent back. More verbals ensued but I don’t think he fancied his chances against our sister.
The YHA in Streatley is run by very nice people and I thoroughly recommend it. They even told us where we might catch the game and so we sped off to locate the only pub in town likely to be showing it. Sadly there was something wrong with their TV but they redirected us to a workingmen’s club down the road where we ‘might’ get in. Imagine our surprise when we walked in to see that Spurs were 2-0 up! Now imagine our disgust as we were ejected from the premises for not being members!! So we had to make do with lovingly relayed scores from Mrs. Cane while we sat through a ‘more tense than usual’ pub dinner. Well, Spurs 3 – 2 Man U! Who’d have thought it and what a superb day.
Singing Andre Villas-Boas’s praises we set off the next morning into a not quite as sunny day. There are some interesting sarcen stones next to ‘The Bull’ pub which is located near the YHA in Streatley and another sarcen built into the corner of the adjacent house. Whether they’re of any significance or not I don’t know, but these and the large stone we’d seen at Thurle Grange the previous day were the only sarcens we saw along this stretch. The track was now heading north following closely the course of the Thames which seems a little unnatural as you presume that for some parts of the year in past centuries it might largely be underwater and therefore unwalkable.
Passing through South Stoke and heading for North Stoke I decided to make a slight solo detour to investigate what looked like (on the map) large barrows in the corner of a nearby field at Barracks Farm. This proved to be another huge disappointment on a similar scale to the Lowbury Hill R***n Temple. Whatever had been there in the past was now long gone, ploughed out by some merciless farmer. I strained to see the slightest of bumps but it really wasn’t worth the effort and so I departed to catch up with my brother and sister in North Stoke.
Arriving at Mongewell the path veers east again away from the river and after crossing the A4074 you suddenly find yourself walking along a raised path across level fields - the resurgence of the Grim’s Ditch! Only it’s a dyke here rather than a ditch and becomes bigger and more impressive as you progress. Also, strangely enough, there’s a trig point on the track about half a mile in and as you look across the fields you can’t help wondering why you’re not on the low hills to the south (presumably the beginnings of the Chilterns)? After a few miles the ditch begins to climb and grow in size and character and at some points there’s a good twenty-foot difference between the path and the bottom of the ditch. It’s strange that this is so overlooked, as it’s just as impressive as, say, a hill fort and the amount of manpower needed to create it would have been almost equal to the largest of those forts. Nobody seems to know just what its function was. Certainly not defensive as it’s far too small and generally misplaced to be of any practical use. A boundary marker perhaps? There is a similar structure, the Devil’s Ditch, which runs along a section on the southern side of the South Downs Way and that has been described as such though it’s certainly not as impressive as the larger sections of Grim’s Ditch.
We finally departed company with the ditch at Nuffield and here you have to be quite watchful as the path crosses a golf course and although it tells you to ‘follow the markers’, presumably to stop you getting into fights with irate idiot golfers, we managed to get lost and it took about twenty minutes to regain our bearings, throw away miscellaneous golf balls that we came across and get back on track. The reward is a nice pub, The Crown, on the edge of the common and we stopped for a quick one before beginning the final ascent.
Crossing the A4130 we found ourselves crossing a large open field with a very faint footpath. Over our heads soared at least a dozen Red Kites. These beautiful birds had been present throughout our journey but not in these numbers. Until relatively recently the Red Kite had been in terminal decline in England with only a handful of surviving pairs in Wales, but successful introductions of continental birds have now made it one of the most prevalent species in the area. They really are wonderful to watch.
The remainder of the walk to Watlington Hill was pretty routine. Nothing much in the way of pre-history, just a burning desire to put our feet up, particularly our sister who’s feet were beginning to hurt due to new boots which she’d not worn in beforehand and the prospect of a long drive home. We had one last glimpse of those damned cooling towers at DPS and a good view of the Wittenham Clumps from near Ewelme Park which made us appreciate how far we’d traveled and then it was just a quick final dash to Watlington Hill and back to my car. The next section of the walk in December will be back in hill territory, the Chilterns, and hopefully we’ll encounter more and interesting sites, certainly ones that we’ve never visited before.