The Ridgeway - Part 3 / by Stephen Speller

Watlington Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon


Although we were leaving it a bit late in the year for all day walking my brother, sister and I decided that it needed one more tumultuous effort to conquer The Ridgeway. Things had been further complicated for Mrs Cane and myself by our having to go to a memorial service for an old friend in Manchester on the Friday before the walk. I’d only got about four hours sleep and had to get up very early to meet up with my brother and sister at the Cobham Services on the M25 before heading up to Ivinghoe to leave my car and then make the quick cross-country dash to Watlington to start the walk. As it was we didn’t begin walking till almost 9.30 with the knowledge that we had seventeen miles to cover to Wendover and only seven hours of light. That probably doesn’t sound like an excessive distance to cover in that amount of time, but if you spend too much time laughing, joking and stopping to try and photograph ancient monuments you soon begin to realise that you’ll be wondering around in the dark at the end of the day.


It has to be said that the initial part of the walk from Watlington Hill is not terribly exciting. In fact you’re not even on Watlington Hill, but skirting along the bottom of it with few, if any, good views to be had. This was a similar scenario to a couple of months earlier when we were repeatedly asking ourselves why we were almost always looking south at inviting hilltops and wondering why we weren’t walking on them? Possibly this has something to do with land ownership and a lack of freedom to wander where we please, but judging by the amount of tracks and footpaths that criss-cross the landscape, perhaps not. I don’t know enough about how the route was designated earlier in the last century to understand the logic of it other than it consisted of a loose arrangement of tracks and paths which was then unified. There are parts where there are ‘alternative’ tracks, notably the section near Ogbourne St. George. All I can feel is that if I’d been walking 5,000 years ago from the Marlborough Downs to Ivinghoe Beacon I’d rather be doing it along ridges of hills than in low lying damp areas! 


So, lack of a good view besides, the first thing of interest, but perhaps insignificant, are two large sarcen stones which sit in the undergrowth next to a disused railway line which must have once served the gravel/chalk pits at Chinnor. Both are about three feet high, un-worked as far as I could tell and the first I’d noticed since Streatley. After passing Chinnor the route twists and turns taking you down to Lodge Hill where there are a couple of barrows (apparently), but they must have been worn away as we didn’t notice them. Again the way dips down and heads north towards Princes Risborough and the crossings of the two railway lines. You need to be a bit careful at the crossing as it’s on a bend and we were a bit surprised, having just crossed, that a train came hurtling around the bend at about 80 mph, and seemed to be on top of us before we knew it! The other crossing is thankfully some sixty feet beneath you through the Saunderton Tunnel. After this we made our way North Eastwards towards the edge of Princes Risborough and on to Whiteleaf Hill.


With the low golden sunlight sweeping across the hillside we made our ascent to some of the best views we’d had all day. At the summit is a Neolithic barrow, slightly misshapen from the odd excavation and well trodden by locals for that ‘slightly more elevated’ view. A wonderful place to be buried no doubt. Maintaining our North Easterly direction we then proceeded to Pulpit Hill, an Iron Age hill fort, but at this point the Ridgeway was ‘closed’ due to tree clearance. Flimsy bits of plastic tape denied our way with the advisory notice that ‘heavy machinery’ was in the vicinity and could be a health risk if we tried to encounter it and would we kindly walk an extra mile around the edge of the hill. Reasoning that it was a Saturday and unlikely that anyone would be working there we boldly climbed the stile only to hear someone in the distance shouting “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” As it was just another walker (peeved because they’d obviously just walked the diversion) and not anybody in authority we told them to f**k off and mind their own business. As it transpired there wasn’t even any machinery up there, but we didn’t really want to hang around to look at the hill fort in case someone turned up.


Onwards, ever onwards, we next found ourselves walking past a very big house with polite notices asking not to enter the grounds on pain of sudden death. Consulting the map we were all a little surprised to find that it was Chequers, the PM’s country retreat. We really ought to do more research when we do these walks. Here you certainly don’t want to try and take a shortcut as it’s probably protected with land mines and there were certainly a lot of security cameras dotted about and we used every opportunity to wave in a friendly way to them. By now it was definitely darkening and we knew we still had a good two and a half to three miles to go till we reached Wendover. Stumbling through Fugsdon Wood we eventually found ourselves looking down on the bright lights big city landscape of Aylesbury from the Boer War Monument near Wendover. At this point we could no longer see any Ridgeway path signs, but we figured that if we followed the tarmac path from the monument it would lead to a road up from Wendover and, although we wouldn’t have strictly speaking done the whole ‘way’, it was a toss up between that and freezing to death. A few minutes later we came to a small car park where the last of the evening’s dog walkers were shoving their soggy hounds into the back of their estate cars. Asking which was the quickest route down to the mile and a half away Wendover we were given quite complicated directions when the husband of one couple said, “Actually, would you like a lift?” “I thought you’d never ask”, replied my brother!


Thanking our saviours and their nice warm car we checked into the Red Lion in Wendover with only a slight feeling of guilt for not having done that final mile and a half. Having perused the football scores (Fulham 0-3 Spurs in case you were wondering, yeahhh!) and texted Vickie, a friend of mine from college days, who now lives in Wendover inviting her to join us for a drink, we headed on down to the bar for a meal leaving a trail of drying mud in our wake.


The Sunday morning greeted us with bright sunshine and a very heavy frost, perfect walking conditions for this time of year in my opinion. In the courtyard of the Inn is a curious stone, sarcen I think, which has obviously been there a long time, unmoved and painted white to stop motorists and drunken guests banging into it. It also has a water-filled depression in it so may have functioned as a natural drinking trough for horses or dogs. Wending our way out of Wendover and, counter to expectations, heading south-east, the big hill fort of Boddington Hill overlooked us to our left and unfortunately the Ridgeway path doesn’t go through it, like some of the other hill forts which had been just out of reach in earlier sections of the walk. Oh well, maybe that’s another day out in the future. It’s very pleasant walking here through the sun-drenched mixed woodlands and there are all sorts of earthworks along the way some from obvious quarrying, others maybe ancient boundary markers and possibly linked to our old friend The Grim’s Ditch which was meandering to the south of us and that we’d meet up with again closer to the end. 


Having made our way past the A41, Grand Union Canal and railway main line at Tring the path once more ascends towards Pitstone Hill. As you come towards the top of Pitstone Hill there is what appears to be a barrow cemetery, but on closer inspection the ‘barrows’ turn out to be the spoil heaps of a quarry, hence the name Pitstone Hill (durrrr!) On this particular day we were also the guests of some spectacularly shaggy and incredibly docile ‘Belted Galloway’ cattle that were grazing at the top of the hill. It’s at this point that you find yourself once more in the company of The Grim’s Ditch and you follow it right across the hill until you spot on the horizon your final destination, Ivinghoe Beacon shining in the afternoon sun like a…. well, like a beacon! 


Although in some ways it looks tantalisingly close, it’s still almost two miles away and we think back to the start of our walk some eighty-five miles ago in the Spring realising that it’s all about to end. I think the main thing that comes to mind is the shear variability of this walk compared to, say, the South Downs Way that is almost exclusively along hill ridges and definitely a more defined and logical path. Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise for walkers to go over the maps and plan their own Ridgeway path. Only this very last section of The Ridgeway feels remotely like our beginning at The Sanctuary on the Marlborough Downs, high chalk hills overlooking flat plains below with the occasional barrow or hill fort dotted along the path. 


Dropping down for almost the last time we pass the end of the Grim’s Ditch as it curves around the base of the hill, cross a minor road and a field and then begin to climb Steps Hill. Almost at the top of here is a dramatic view down a dry valley, Incombe Hole, looking southwest back across the way we’ve come. Then comes a succession of boundary markers or cross dykes and a couple of barrows atop the knoll directly south of the beacon indicating just how important and populace a place this once was. We can make out the other Sunday afternoon strollers on the beacon and with a slight tinge of smugness we know that they probably haven’t done the whole walk, but we have (well almost)! With the end now in full sight, we walk the final few yards and on the count of three we all put our feet onto the lip of the hill-top map and congratulate ourselves. We spend a few minutes admiring the spectacular view and then it occurs to us, with a slight feeling of panic, that we can’t remember whether we left my car in Ivinghoe or Ivinghoe Aston? We plump for Ivinghoe and decide to go the direct route down the steep slope before it can get dark. Halfway down I almost trip when I see something out of the corner of my eye. It’s a coin, but sadly nothing really old just a 1919 George V penny. Maybe it was dropped by someone doing exactly what we’d done, but ninety years earlier. For me today it’s a nice reminder of our year’s walk.