First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A cold and blowy midwinter’s morning over the chalk downs where Oxfordshire meets Berkshire. The racehorses exercising near Sparsholt Firs blew steamy breaths, and a brisk south-westerly wind shook the hawthorns and shivered the puddles along the upland tracks.
We squelched through mud as pale and glutinous as pancake batter to reach the grassy track of the ancient Ridgeway across Hackpen Hill. Long views opened across downland fields clipped and stubbled for winter, with leafless beech spinneys, rounded by the wind, standing along the ridges.
A redwing flew up into a bush and then straight and level across the stubble, displaying a dusky red flash along its flanks. Berries not yet plucked by the birds hung wrinkling in the thorn trees through which the strong breeze came whistling.
The roll of the land hid the depths of the dry chalk valley to the north. Down there at Childrey Warren archaeologists recently made an extraordinary discovery. Among the remains of 26 people, buried some two thousand years ago, they found the skeleton of a woman placed in a bizarre ritual position, legs splayed, hands on head, feet amputated and placed beside her. Beneath her body lay another, that of a new-born baby.
We walked on along the Ridgeway, speculating on all the births, deaths and ceremonies this 5,000-year-old track must have seen. Bygone travellers took their lives in their hands when they set out in winter along the Ridgeway, where after prolonged rain the mud could lie deep enough to trap or even drown the unwary. Today a spattered trouser leg was the worst inconvenience we faced.
Down in the vale the clustered houses of Letcombe Bassett lay below chalk slopes corrugated and hollowed by the storms and floods of millennia. The Ridgeway dipped and rose, a broad green ribbon, to reach Gramp’s Hill. Here we turned down a farm road, southward into a sheltered valley where the wind dropped to a gentle sigh in the sycamores.
A flock of fieldfares, slim grey cousins of the redwings, flew purposefully across the way with cackling cries. Beside the path pale green catkins jigged on hazel twigs and dried heads of cow parsley nodded stiffly, animated by the wind.
The rutted track snaked up again to pass the rusty barns and sheds at Stancombe Farm. Opposite, by contrast, lay the organically farmed, immaculately kept domain of Sheepdrove Farm – a dewpond with a duck house, tree plantations with permissive paths, new hedges, wildlife corridors. An agricultural landscape ahead of the curve, as wildlife-friendly farming begins its journey to becoming the norm across our countryside.
We turned for home through the Sheepdrove fields. Jackdaws congregated raucously in the trees, and half a dozen red kites went sideslipping over a beanfield, their chestnut backs glowing in the low winter sun.
How hard is it? 6½ miles; easy; clear downland tracks
Start: Sparsholt Firs car park, near Lambourn, OX12 9XB (OS ref SU 344851)
Getting there: Sparsholt Firs is on B4001 between Lambourn and Wantage
Walk (OS Explorer 170): Walk east along Ridgeway. In 1¾ miles on Gramp’s Hill, right along road (370840). Beyond Parsonage Hill Barn keep ahead on grassy track (367834). In ¼ mile, at ‘Ridgeway closed to motor vehicles’ sign, fork right (367830). In nearly 1 mile pass Stancombe Farm entrance on right (356820); in ½ mile at red barn, right (349816, ‘Byway, No Through Road’). In 700m by houses (346823), keep left on grassy byway; in 1½ miles at B4001 (341845), right to car park.
Lunch/Accommodation: Greyhound Inn, Letcombe Regis, Wantage OX12 9JL (01235-771969, thegreyhoundletcombe.co.uk