First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Aldworth slumbered along its sunny lanes. A tiny cream-and-green car stood outside the bike shop. ‘An original Fiat 500, 1937,’ said the owner proudly. ‘They called it the Topolino, the Little Mouse – rather a good name.’
The long lane to the Berkshire Downs ran between hedges thick with the summer’s growth – angelica, cow parsley, pale pink blackberry flowers, docks brown and crisped by July heat. A comma butterfly with raggedly scalloped wings settled on a stinging nettle and opened its wings to catch the sun. At Starveall cottage a patch of wild ground was bright with flowers – purple mallows and knapweeds, blue powder-puff heads of scabious, a bubbly yellow froth of lady’s bedstraw.
Here the motor road expired as if it couldn’t be bothered to crawl any further. A stony lane took over, the dusty flints crunching and knobbling underfoot. We crossed the ancient Ridgeway track and took the road less travelled, a grassy way between cornfields where the fat ripe ears of wheat and barley drooped earthwards on their short stalks as though already bowing their necks for the harvester’s blades.
A marbled white butterfly went kettering over a bank of thistles in a tarry blur of wings. We passed Lowbury Hill, a slightly swelling dome amid the oilseed rape. Was it here that the future King Alfred dealt the Danes a terrible beating on a winter’s day in 871 at the Battle of Ashdown? Or was it on Kingstanding Hill, at the far end of the splendid old grass track called The Fair Mile that runs straight and true, west to east along the spine of the Berkshire Downs? There’s no telling the battle’s exact location now, but the views from Kingstanding across Berkshire into Oxfordshire are something to savour.
We dropped down above Starveall Farm – another Starveall! This must have been a grim area to farm in times past. After the heat and dust of the downland cornfields, the cool green light under the beeches of Unhill Wood was delightful. When we emerged to follow the flinty trackways back to Aldworth, a whitethroat in an elder bush sang us by as though in private raptures.
Start: Bell Inn, Aldworth, Streatley, Berks RG8 9SE (OS ref SU556796)
Getting there: Aldworth is on B4009, signposted from Streatley (M4 Jct 12, A340, A329)
Walk (8 miles, easy, OS Explorers 158, 170): From Bell Inn, right to junction; right on Ambury Road. In 1 mile pass Starveall cottage (546809); in another half mile, Ridgeway track crosses and forks left (540815), but take right fork (grassy central strip). In ¾ mile, just past ‘Ridgeway closed to motor vehicles’ notice, right (544826) along The Fair Mile for 2 miles. Just before A417, turn right through right-hand of 2 gates (573837). Half right down field slope to bottom right corner (571835). Right along drive; in 75m, left up roadway. In ¾ mile, at sharp left bend (564823), ahead on grass track (fingerpost), forking left into woods. Uphill; at start of next descent, right at pheasant feeder (564821) on grass path. In 150m, at pheasant pen (562821), left down to tarmac lane. Right; in ½ mile, at fork, ahead between waymark posts (555817). Path to stile onto driveway (553814); right to gate; right along trackway. In 200m, left (550812, ‘Byway’); in ½ mile, bend right (552805, ‘Byway’) to road (551804); left to Aldworth.
Lunch: Bell Inn, Aldworth (01635-578272) – a rural delight (NB closed Mondays)
Accommodation: Bull Inn, Streatley RG8 9JJ (01491-872392, bullinnpub.co.uk) – comfortable, friendly pub