The Norman invasion of 1066 must have been a devastating blow to the Saxon landowner who lent his name to today’s downland village of East Garston. First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Not only was Asgar – ‘Spear of God’ – severely wounded at the Battle of Hastings; he also lost his extensive estates on the Berkshire downs and his prestigious position as procurer of horses for King Harold, slain in the battle.
Asgar’s tradition, though, lives on hereabouts. These wide, rolling downs with their lush grass are still prime horse-training country. Strangely enough, though jumps and grass courses and railed gallops seemed everywhere, we saw not one actual horse all day as we tramped the downland tracks. Maybe they were indoors, taking it easy or in light training for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The first creature we saw was more exotic and certainly more unexpected than any horse – a marsh harrier, dark and enormous against the cloudy sky, balancing on long-wings as it quartered the Lambourn valley looking for unwary mice. Two red kites wheeled not far away, forked tails spread on the wind. When we were able to tear our gaze away from these dramatic sailors of the sky, it was to find ourselves in a dappling landscape of valleys whose farmhouses lay sunk in shelter trees among fields crisp with stubbles.
From Maidencourt Farm a gravelly track rose between thick hedges, climbing the face of the downs before dipping over to run down through the meadows to Whatcombe. A few humps and hollows showed where a medieval village had stood close to Whatcombe monastery, before history cleared both away. Now a beautifully-appointed stables stands in the hidden valley – stalls, barns, sheds and a great covered exercise ring.
Beyond Whatcombe it was ploughland and big skies all the way to South Fawley, another famous racing establishment. We went west under gently stirring shawls of cloud, ambling along a quiet road to nowhere. On Washmore Hill there was time to picnic and watch a sparrow pretending to be a stone in the furrows, so well camouflaged it was hard to distinguish bird from soil. Then we headed for home, south across a grassy gallop and down past lonely Winterdown Barn in its roadless hollow, down to the old thatched and timbered cottages of Asgar’s settlement once more.
Start: Queen’s Arms, East Garston, Berks, RG17 7ET (OS ref SU 366764)
Getting there: Bus service 4 (newburyanddistrict.co.uk), Newbury-Swindon
Road – M4 Jct 14, A338 to Great Shefford, left (‘Lambourn’) to East Garston.
Walk (8½ miles, easy/moderate, OS Explorer 158 and170): From Queen’s Arms, left along road, first left into East Garston, cross River Lambourn, and turn right along Lambourn Valley Way (fingerpost). In 50m, left up fence (368765) and follow ‘Permitted Path, Shefford’. At Maidencourt Farm (373761), left up stony track for 1 mile. Just beyond Furze Border thicket, fork right (376777, fingerpost) for three quarters of a mile to signal mast on Kite Hill. Ahead through hedge (388783, fingerpost); follow BAs for ½ mile down to Whatcombe (393789).
Right (BA) for 150m. Just past house, left before horseshoe-shaped pond (394789) up hedge. Left at top of garden (yellow arrow/YA); right up path in hedge (YA) and on with hedge on right. Nearing South Fawley, cross 2 paddocks (391799, stiles, YAs); cross stile on right into lane; left to T-junction (390802). Left (‘Eastbury, Warren Farm’) on tarmac lane, then stony track for 1½ miles to junction of tracks on Washmore Hill (367804). Pass a line of conifers on your right; just before a waymark pole on left, turn left along the side of a thicket.
In 700m, at T-junction of tracks (366797, ‘Restricted Byway’), turn left for 30m; then right on grassy path/track with bank and gallops on your left. In ⅓ mile, track bends right; in 150m, go left (363792, fingerpost) across field. Pass through wooden fence (364790, YA); keep same line ahead, crossing gallop (365788 – take care!) and grassland, aiming for left-hand of three trees on skyline. Recross gallop (366784 – take care!); descend to fingerpost (365783). Down across field, then through grassland down to track (365778). Left into East Garston. Just before first buildings, left (363772, fingerpost). At field end, right (365771, fingerpost) down fenced path to road. Left into village.
Conditions: Please look out and take care crossing gallops!
Lunch/Accommodation: Queen’s Arms Hotel, East Garston, Berks RG17 7EE (01488-648757, queensarmshotel.co.uk).