The Ridgeway, July 14 Day 2, 22 miles
An early breakfast at the Bear (eggs, bacon, tomatoes, and blood pudding) and a bus back to where I had left off the trail, I slipped into a hiking rhythm immediately. There are the regular encounters with Iron and Bronze Age barrows— some just rounded hills, others with some visible stones and such. Apart from an insistent history pressing with each step, what struck me most was how intense the contemporary agriculture is in this region. Often I get the impression farming in tourist areas is subsidized decoration, but the farmers here are active— particularly in wheat production. I stopped a while watching a combine emptying its grain in a wagon.
My overall plan remains tentative— just need to average 20 miles over the next 4 days. The guide book tends to draw a distinction between the first half of the path and the second, with accommodation more scarce (or at least at greater distance) in the beginning. I set out today with no clear end point, trusting I’d find a place to sleep and perhaps some food. The latter involved serendipity as up on the ridge approaching the Uffington White Horse nearing lunch time, I crossed a road which had the familiar post and poster of a bus stop. Turns out a bus was due in five minutes that would take me to Avebury, home of the Rose and Crown pub. I soon found myself tucking into whitebait and a roast beef sandwich. Returning to the path required some walking which was soon rewarded by the Uffington White Horse (900 BCE), which is only partly visible from the ground, but shows the stability of the chalk downs environment and the skill of some very early inhabitants.
As there were no nearby villages to find accommodation, I resolved to wild camp, hoping one of the many beech copses would turn up near the end of the day. I’m not sure if beeches ward off competition with chemicals, but their forests rarely have thick (or any) underbrush, making for ideal campsites. In the afternoon I fell in walking with a man from Wantage, the closest large town, who (like Thoreau) tried to walk at least 4 hours per day. Many of the paths are linear, so it takes some ingenuity to walk out a good loop, but he has worked out many. Like everyone I’ve me thus far, he has a deep sense of the history of the area, particularly the geology. He pointed to a series of villages off to the west of the ridge, noting they has been built near the springs that bubble up because of the permeability of the chalk and density of the clay underlying it.
As the day wore on and my feet wore out, I began to despair finding the perfect beech hanger. The area the trail was crossing was heavily farmed and the woods tended to be pine plantations. On crossing a car park, I ran into two shirtless, tattooed, very drunk young Englishmen who were inordinately interested in my trek. After a fist bump or two, they recommended I seek out an abandoned hunting lodge just down the path. Although the structure was still habitable, they recommended I tent in the field near it. Apparently the lodge has a lot of “weird energy.” I hoped I wasn’t heading toward some Wiltshire version of the Red Lodge in Twin Peaks, but I never got to feel that weird energy as their directions were as fuzzy as their brains. Pressing on, I found myself near the Great Bottom Woods, a promising name for a place to trespass, and after a bit of a wander, I discovered a spot for my tent, with my night’s sleep regularly disturbed by deer tramping past.
T. Hugh Crawford