The wonder of Wessex: walking the Ridgeway in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire

<span>Photograph: Nigel Noyes/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Nigel Noyes/Alamy

I’m settled in the shade of a hawthorn bush at the edge of the trail. Banked cow parsley waves in the breeze, elderflowers are breaking bud and the white chalk line of the footpath draws the eye on through the landscape. As I sit, a hare hops out of the hedge just metres away and pauses on the path. For a long moment it is still and calm, eyes shining golden. I hold my breath. Then it notices me and bursts into action, launching off the track and through the undergrowth to the field beyond, quicker than my eyes can follow. I exhale. Walks are made for moments like these.

I’m walking a stretch of the Ridgeway national trail across the high chalklands of the North Wessex Downs, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Sometimes known as Britain’s oldest road, the whole route is 87 miles between Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire and Avebury in Wiltshire.

The Ridgeway is all about rolling chalk hills, rare grasslands, ancient woods, quaint villages and intriguing history

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Ridgeway being designated a national trail, joining the likes of the Pennine Way, Offa’s Dyke and South West Coast Path in a family of trails designed to showcase the variety and beauty of our national landscapes. The Ridgeway is all about rolling chalk hills, rare grasslands, ancient woods, quaint villages and intriguing history.

An aerial view of the Uffington White Horse.
An aerial view of the Uffington White Horse. Photograph: Iconpix/Alamy

The whole path is accessible to walkers, and the western half is a bridleway and restricted byway, so open to horse riders and mountain bikers, too. Hikers walking the trail in one go usually take six days to complete it, but the beauty of the Ridgeway is that it’s easy to break into chunks of shorter day walks and weekends, or to combine it with other paths to make a circular route. And despite being relatively close to towns such as Swindon, Reading and Luton, it delivers breathing space and a real sense of escape. Hares included.

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I’ve got a couple of days so I’ve picked a stretch in the middle that takes in the Uffington White Horse and neighbouring Wayland’s Smithy, Segsbury Hillfort and plenty of gentle rolling hills. By weaving some extra footpaths, public transport and a taxi together to deliver me to one spot and get me home from the second, with a B&B stay en route, I’ve created a two-day adventure that feels much further from home than it actually is.

From Swindon, it’s a 20-minute bus ride east to Hinton Parva, which, like so many other villages on this route, sits on the low ground below the Ridgeway, with holloway paths and green lanes that lead uphill to meet the trail. Since the first farmers arrived in Britain some 6,500 years ago, communities have settled around natural springs and streams in the valley floor that offered shelter, reliable water and better land for agriculture. They used the sweeping chalk downlands above them for seasonal summer grazing, and the Ridgeway itself for travelling – during conflict, for trade and for pilgrimage.

Once off the bus, I start my march north-east, following the path. It’s well marked, with fingerpost signs located at every junction. They’re emblazoned with the distinctive acorn symbol showing you’re on a national trail. In principle, it should be possible to walk the whole route without relying on a map, but just in case I’ve got the lightweight Harvey Maps Ridgeway map, as well as the OS Maps app on my phone.

My first stop is Wayland’s Smithy, four miles from Hinton Parva, near Ashbury. This chambered tomb was constructed about 5,500 years ago during the late stone age, and consists of a long earth mound with a grand edifice and stone-lined tomb at its southern end. A narrow passageway leads to three cramped compartments where the jumbled remains of men, women and children were placed. I clamber along the passage and feel the weight of the stone and earth around me. The tomb is now surrounded by a stand of majestic beech trees and at this time of year, it’s like you’ve entered a green cathedral. The breeze whispers ancient voices and it feels otherworldly.

The ancient horse is still visible in the landscape because people have maintained it for 3,000 years

As I continue my journey, I see a distinctive hill ahead. Its edges are shaped, clearly not natural – these are the ramparts of Uffington Castle, an iron age hill fort (although probably never actually defended as a “fort”, rather used as an enclosure for gatherings, and re-used by the Romans, who built a small shrine in the middle). Below the fort, on the shoulder of the hillside, is one of the most iconic archaeological sites in southern England: the Uffington White Horse. Sinewy and abstracted, this hill figure, or “geoglyph”, has been dated to around 1,200BC. The ancient horse is still visible in the landscape because people have maintained it for 3,000 years – weeding out the grass, and packing the trenches with fresh chalk to keep the outline sharp and the colour bright. If a generation of people had neglected it, the horse would have grassed over and been lost. Nowadays, National Trust rangers invite members of the public and local schools to help clean the horse every year and be part of the tradition. Turn up, do some grooming, be part of history.

A view of Dragon Hill, below the Uffington White Horse
A view of Dragon Hill, below the Uffington White Horse Photograph: Stephen Iles/Alamy

I head back to the trail and stride on. As the temperature creeps up, the birds quieten and my pace slows. By virtue of it following the tops of the high ground, the Ridgeway is exposed. In winter this means it can be wind-blasted, and the chalk underfoot slippery. In high summer, you’re more likely to find yourself sunburned and thirsty. Today, the warm currents bring honeyed air wafting up from yellow fields of oilseed rape below me and I wish I’d brought a hat.

A map of the route Mary-Ann Ochota walked part of.
A map of the route Mary-Ann Ochota walked part of. Photograph: geogphotos/Alamy

There isn’t an abundance of accommodation along the route, so it’s advisable to plan your overnights and book in advance. I’ve called ahead and though I’ve not walked an exhausting distance, I’m still happy to reach Hill Barn Farm (doubles £100 for two) at Sparsholt Firs, four miles east of Wayland’s Smithy. The trail is at the top of the driveway, a satisfying proximity after a day walking. Padding after bright-eyed and practical proprietor Jo in my socks, I feel like a houseguest rather than a paying guest. Portraits featuring well-loved hairy ponies and jolly grandchildren adorn the walls. After a gloriously hot shower, I don my clean top and spare socks, and pad back downstairs. Over dinner I chat to Craig, a fellow walker who’s also doing a chunk of the trail. We agree that, compared with hiking in more challenging terrain, the Ridgeway lets you switch into a more meditative rhythm. The white line of the clear path leads you along, freeing your mind to wander where it likes.

Wayland’s Smithy neolithic long barrow, Ashbury
Wayland’s Smithy neolithic long barrow, Ashbury Photograph: David Chapman/Alamy

After a hearty breakfast, I’m on my way again. The hedgerow birds are trilling and chirruping, skylarks ascending to the blue heavens. This is racehorse country, and the rolling hillsides are dotted with gallops. I see a few flighty thoroughbreds heading out for exercise, jockeys perched on top. Part of the Ridgeway marks the edge of King Alfred’s Wessex, and some of the bridleway routes are likely to have also been used by soldiers hurrying across territory to defend their lands against Viking attack. On a day like today, you can see how useful this high level trail would be – clear views, swift movement, space enough to organise yourselves.

In later, more peaceful eras, these same routes were used to gather and drive livestock to market, from as far afield as Wales, Cornwall and the Scottish borders. Now, farmers are managing these chalk grasslands for wildlife – hundreds of bird, insect and plant species need these habitats to survive. I walk for a few more hours, devour my sandwiches and pick a village to walk down to, to be collected by taxi and deposited at Didcot Parkway train station. It’s been 36 hours but I feel I’ve been away for ages.

Just as for the generations before us, this rolling chalk route can serve whatever purpose we need or choose. People of the past were nipping over to the next hillfort, or making pilgrimage to the great stones of Avebury in the west; heading to the coast or city, with goods, people and ideas. Nowadays, folk run the Ridgeway for charity or personal challenge, others picnic and paint with friends just a few yards from the car. For me, it’s a route that can be all things – wild and windy, or a source of quiet and contentment, family jaunt or archaeological adventure. Follow the acorn icon and the white chalk line, and see where your mind takes you.

• This article was amended on 19 July 2023. An earlier caption on an embedded image said it was of Uffington Castle, when it showed Dragon Hill.

Mary-Ann Ochota is a broadcaster, archaeologist and keen walker. She’s patron for the Ridgeway National Trail’s Anniversary year. If you want to help National Trust rangers weed and re-chalk the horse, join them on 22 or 23 July (“scouring” or cleaning the horse) and 26, 27, 28 August (chalking the horse)