First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A clear morning after a night of steady rain, with the sun diffusing a pearly light over the Vale of White Horse. Crossing the sodden paddocks on the outskirts of Woolstone, we caught a glimpse of the chalk-cut Horse herself, cavorting with dismembered limbs across her hilltop above the vale at full and gleeful tilt as she has done for 3,000 years or more.
By Compton Beauchamp church a pot-bellied Shetland pony tried to squeeze through the paddock gate behind us to join his long-legged cousins in the next field. From Odstone Farm – another tremendously handsome house of brick and chalk clunch – an old road took us south up the steep face of the downs to join the Ridgeway. The ancient track ran broad and pale along the crest between hedges of lipstick-pink spindle berries where scarlet bryony fruit hung tangled in long necklaces.
The great Neolithic tomb of Wayland’s Smithy lay beside the Ridgeway in a ring of tall beeches, its southern portal guarded by four immense, roughly-shaped boulders. The gold and silver trees, the weighty stones and the sigh of the wind made this a solemn place. Here the blacksmith Wayland would shoe the horses of travellers if they left a silver coin along with their steeds. Wayland, a figure from Norse mythology, was a murderer, rapist and drinker of blood from his enemies’ skulls, and something of his dark spirit seems to cling to the old tomb in the trees.
The Ridgeway forged on east, hollowed and slick with trodden chalk as it rose to the crest of Whitehorse Hill and the ramparts of the Iron Age camp built up here to command a 50-mile view north over the Vale. We stopped to stare at the enormous prospect, with the chalky squiggles that compose the White Horse entrenched in the turf at our feet. Once every hundred years, old tales say, the Horse leaps up and gallops across the sky to Wayland’s Smithy to be shod by the bloodthirsty blacksmith. Now that would be something to see.
Start: White Horse PH, Woolstone, Oxon SN7 7QL (OS ref SU 293878)
Getting there: Bus X47 (Swindon-Wantage)
Road – M4 to Jct 15; A419 towards Swindon; in 1 mile, right on minor road via Bishopstone to Ashbury; B4507 towards Wantage; in 2½ miles, left to Woolstone.
Walk (6 miles, moderate, OS Explorer 170. NB: online maps, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Leaving White Horse PH, left for 150m; at right bend, ahead (‘Knighton’) across 2 fields. Dogleg left/right across Hardwell Lane (289875); on across fields (yellow arrows/YA) to cross road at Knighton (283873). On (‘Darcy Dalton Way’) to road at Compton Beauchamp (281871). Follow ‘To the Church’ past barns and church; across 2 paddocks (YA, red discs), then field edges (276876) towards Odstone Farm. Just short of farm, left (270863) up track; across B4507 (273860); up for ⅔ mile to the Ridgeway (280851). Left, following Ridgeway east past Wayland’s Smithy (281854) for 1½ miles to Whitehorse Hill. At summit, left through gate (301862, ‘Bridleway’) past NT sign to trig pillar. Fork right beyond on grass path to White Horse (301866). Left above Horse on path, down to cross Dragonhill Road at map board (298865, gate). Half left down to gate; over left-hand of 2 stiles; downhill with fence on right. At bottom, left to gate into road (294871); right across B4507, down to Woolstone.
Lunch/Accommodation: White Horse, Woolstone (01367-820726, whitehorsewoolstone.co.uk)