First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A cold morning of cloud rolling low above the wintry landscape of the Berkshire Downs. Glints of blue hinted at a less gloomy afternoon as we set off from Great Shefford along the shallow valley of the River Lambourne.
At East Shefford Farm the Dutch barn was stuffed with hay for the winter. A pair of red kites hunting the valley planed with easy grace across the ploughed fields. We climbed gently on an old farm lane between fields of pale flinty soil under the reedy twittering of skylarks. When we looked round at the crest, the houses of Great Shefford had vanished, sucked down into a fold of ground by perspective.
Along a golf course hedge, through a stand of cherry trees that had carpeted the ground with their red and gold spearblade leaves, and down to Chaddleworth across paddocks where horses in padded winter coats blew jets of steam from their nostrils.
A mass dial was incised in the door jamb of St Andrew’s Church, the doorway decorated with Norman dogtooth carving. Under the tower arch some sly stone-carver had inserted a fat pagan face with a knowing grin. Superb needlework on the pulpit cloth showed a skylark rising as ecstatically as those over the fields outside, the song represented as gold flames flickering out of its wide open beak.
In medieval times a widow who was ‘unchaste’, in other words remarried, generally forfeited the rights that went with her deceased husband’s land. However, at Chaddleworth she could reclaim them on performance of a forfeit – namely, riding into the manorial court seated backwards on a black ram while chanting a ‘ribald rhyme’. I would have loved to hear that little ditty, but no-one in Chaddleworth seemed to know it.
In the parkland around Chaddleworth House we passed shaggy cattle with enormous horns, munching peacefully and scratching their necks on low-hanging branches. Out on the downs again the wind roared, seething in the beech trees and sending gold leaf showers whirling across the winter wheat.
Back in the Lambourne valley we turned along a disused railway line thick with sloes and bearded lichens to find the diminutive Church of St Thomas beside the river opposite East Shefford Farm. Decorative tiles floored the building, the walls were painted with faded texts, and a medieval Nativity fresco was surmounted protectively by a spiky sun and a crescent moon with a calm expression of absolute serenity.
How hard is it? 8½ miles; easy; field paths
Start: Great Shefford PH, Great Shefford, Hungerford RG17 7DW (OS ref SU 384752)
Getting there: Bus 4 (Newbury)
Road – Great Shefford signposted at M4, Jct 14
Walk (OS Explorer 158): Follow A338 (“Wantage”). In 350m, right (386753, “Lambourn Valley Way”/LVW). In 500m, left past barns (390749), up track. In ½ mile, right (395757, Finger Post/FP, yellow arrows) across field, then golf course to cross road (407764). On along hedge; in 900m, half-left across fields (412772) to road (411778) and Chaddleworth church. Back to road; left; in 100m, left (412778, gate, FP) across parkland. Cross road (415777) by village hall. On across field; dogleg right/left across road (414774, FP, “Waylands”). In 500m at three-finger post (412771), half-left across field to road (413767). Right to road (412762); right; left past golf clubhouse (411761). On beside golf course, then Elton Lane south for 1½ miles. Right at Elton Farm (398741); left (397743) on railway path (LVW) to Great Shefford.
Lunch: Great Shefford PH (01488-648462, thegreatshefford.com)
Accommodation: Queen’s Arms, East Garston RG17 7ET (01488-648757, queensarmseastgarston.co.uk)
Info: Hungerford TIC (01488-682419)