Walking the Ridgeway: National Trail for Beginners

By Catherine Sempill

Walking, as with anything in life, tends to bring out a love-hate dynamic. A long climb can be boring at best, tiring at worst, but the rewards at the top are worth it; with views across the fields, the satisfaction of making it to the top, and relief at the prospect of a tea break or some level walking ground. It’s why so many people start walking in the first place. There is always some kind of reward for your efforts.

Untitled-2 (12).jpgI had to remind myself of this as I trudged up the long and steady hill within my first hour of setting off on the Ridgeway. The journey to my start point in Avebury had not gone according to plan, and it took a while to reset from grumpy-with-public-transport-failure mode, to happy-to-be-outside-walking mode. It didn’t take long though, as the exposed chalk track made its way uphill and into an avenue surrounded by bright flowers and chirpy birds that flitted between branches.

I was undertaking the walk in May, after many months of walking-dormancy. Not only was it my first walk since winter hibernation, but it was also the first time I’d be walking a multi-day trail solo. I was in the beginner’s mindset and having completed just under half of the trail, I'd wager that it is indeed a great long-distance walk for beginners.


Day One - Imagining History

My first day took me from the standing stones in Avebury, up that long hill, and then along a few miles of largely flat chalky path. I’m not usually a history buff, but as the Ridgeway is one of Britain’s oldest roads, I did make the effort to read up a little on the path’s past before I set off. As a result, much of my first day’s walk was taken up imagining what it would be like to move across these chalky ridges in the olden days, donkey in tow, laden with goods to be bartered down the road.

Untitled-32.jpgI stopped for a snack break at Barbury Castle, overlooking some classic British countryside scenery, and let my mind wander. Today the castle is really just a few mounds of grass, distinct enough though to give an idea of what it once was. I didn’t try too hard to picture what it would’ve been like, instead enjoying the sensation of being ever-so-slightly connected to the past. After the break, I ambled down the hill into Ogborn-St-George, ending day one’s walk.


Day Two - Enjoying the changing scenery and the camaraderie of the trail

Day two was an ambitious one for me. I aimed to walk from Ogborne-St-George to Sparsholt Firs, a distance of 25 kilometres. I was up and on the Ridgeway by 8am, alone on a leafy piece of track.

This morning was one of my Ridgeway highlights. It had all the things a nature-loving city-dweller misses - quietness, emptiness, greenery and fresh air. Plus it was well sign-posted and easy to navigate. I had a map with me for reassurance, but on this morning I would’ve been just fine without it.

Untitled4-2.jpgAs the day wore on, the remnants of history made more and more appearances. I made mental notes of the white horse and a number of old castles, but didn’t linger over them too long. Day one was my day of dwelling in the past. On day two I was far more taken with the scenery.

Long stretches of empty fields would pass, and then up a hill and round a corner, I’d suddenly find myself skirting some woods, and come across a perfectly-situated bench in the middle of nowhere.  

On busier stretches I was delighted by the willingness of fellow Ridgeway users to stop and chat, or offer words of encouragement. This day offered a couple of surprisingly steep climbs, on which I was shamelessly left in the dust of some impressively fit trail-runners.

Even though they were doing my day’s distance in a couple of hours, two out of three told me I was doing well, and offered that there was some lovely scenery up ahead.

They weren’t lying. I spent the day passing through little forests, slogging up hills to be rewarded by awesome views, and on lovely tracks lined with plump, flowery bushes.


Day Three - Mindful walking through the mist

My final day on the Ridgeway dawned misty. So misty that I completely missed some of the day’s main sights. Early on I spent half an hour walking next to the Devil’s Punchbowl. I couldn't see more than a metre or so in front of me though, so I just had to imagine it.

A few hours in, when it was still misty and may have become tedious, I instead found myself in a sort of walking meditation. There wasn’t much else to do but focus on putting one foot in front of the other. I got so absorbed that as the mist started to clear and I could make out the scenery again, it felt like a bonus.

U3ntitled-2.jpgUnfortunately, the mist was soon replaced by rain. I’d had a good run of sunny walking so I decided to end on a high note. I didn’t walk all the way to Goring & Streatley, instead ducking out at a conveniently placed village and catching public transport back to London.

The Ridgeway is certainly not the most adventurous of English walks, but it has a lot going for the beginner walker.

It’s flat for much of the pathway (note that even on flat ground, long distance walking without prior training can end badly), and more than that, it’s mostly straight and well sign-posted. If you’ve had some practice map-reading and pay attention at intersections, it’s difficult to lose your way.

As it’s a ridge, water is the only slight challenge. There are a number of designated water points en-route which are marked on maps and in guidebooks. With a little pre-planning, even water isn’t an issue.

Finally, you'll encounter a number of other Ridgeway users. It’s a friendly, well-trodden path and a heart-warming reminder that the countryside and walking is for everyone. And this makes the Ridgeway a great beginners walk.

Originally published 19/02/19

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