Into the Berkshire wilderness

Matthew Brace walks along the Ridgeway ... straight into a row over the ancient track's future
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The Independent Online
One of the most rewarding stretches of the Ridgeway is the 10- mile hike from Streatley, on the Berkshire bank of the Thames, west to the pretty village of East Ilsley up on the Downs. First locate the Bull Inn at Streatley and head north along an A- road for a few hundred yards. At a fork, follow the A417 to Wantage and after 800 yards branch off left on a side road which, after some houses and a farm, turns into a rough, tree-lined, chalk track - unmistakeably the Ridgeway.

In a natural break in the trees 300 yards up the rough path, I looked down on a perfect English farming scene - a field of crops swaying in the breeze, a small clump of beech trees isolated in its centre and, in an adjacent field, a tractor making its way up the slope, followed by a bushy-tailed dog. As you follow the path past two Warren Farms and rise towards the top of the Downs, the trees that line the Ridgeway give way to shorter, stouter hedgerows, at least 400 years old by a rough calculation of counting the number of tree and shrub species - elder, hawthorn, cherry, and more.

Out on the open downland you get a sense of wilderness. For miles in all directions the Downs reveal only the occasional farm. Between fields stained red with poppies, a sun-bleached chalk scar marks your route,

This being famous horse-training country, you will find yourself walking alongside gallops, especially on Blewbury Down; if you are lucky you may see a posse of riders putting their horses through their paces, thundering across the soft grass overlying the chalk.

Follow the excellent Ridgeway signs and you will reach the roaring A34. The path takes you under the road and on to slightly more boggy ground where, after 100 yards, you will see a footpath sign beckoning you south off the Ridgeway and across Hodcott Down. Take it and pass a huge warren where, if you approach with stealth, you can see scores of rabbits playing.

When you reach a side road, turn left and walk into East Ilsley (up a steep hill) and enjoy a well-deserved pint of Old Speckled Hen at the Swan Inn in the centre of the village, where the landlord, Michael Connolly, will tell you about the ancient sheep fairs that used to take place in the main street. There were once 20 inns catering for the sheep traders, but now there are just three. Black-and-white photographs on the wall of the Swan's bar record the bustle of sheep-fair days long gone.

To get back to Streatley, take the good Ridgeway Explorer bus service, which runs on Sundays and Bank Holidays until late October. (It is harder to bus it on weekdays and Saturdays and it might be better to ask a willing driver in your party to fetch you.) There is a stop in East Ilsley and another in Streatley, so you can leave your car in Streatley and get dropped back there later (80p to pounds 3 for adults; children and OAPs half price). The last bus east from East Ilsley is at 7.26pm and gets to Streatley at 7.44pm.

For a full Ridgeway Explorer timetable and details about all public transport and other information about the Ridgeway Path, contact The National Trails Officer at: The National Trails Office, Countryside Service, Dept of Leisure and Arts, Holton, Oxford OX33 1QQ (01865 810224).

Directions

Start from Bull Inn at Streatley, head north on the A-road. Branch off on A417 to Wantage and then left on to side road, signposted "Ridgeway" with an acorn.

Road becomes track and leads up on to the Downs - follow Ridgeway signs. Cross old railway bridge. Trace the edge of a gallop up a rise to a paved road, turn right and continue for two miles to the A34.

Walk on 100 yards and take footpath left (south) off the Ridgeway across Hodcott Down to a side road. Turn left and walk into East Ilsley.

You will need

Suncream and hat (chalk reflects the sun). Water (none on route) and lunch. Stout boots (the track can be rough)

OS Landranger map 174, Newbury and Wantage (pounds 4.95)

For an ancient path, the Ridgeway is having to deal with some very modern disputes. It is one of Britain's 12 national trails, stretching almost 90 miles from Ivinghoe Beacon near the Hertfordshire-Buckinghamshire border to Avebury in Wiltshire. It runs through some of southern England's most ravishing country - crossing downs, and passing chalk horses and Bronze Age camps where wolves once roamed. In midsummer week, when I walked the path, it was peaceful. I saw 30 walkers, 20 dogs, six mountain-bikers and one motorcyclist.

But in a recent survey of 1,300 Ridgeway users, co-ordinated by the National Trail Office, complaints about four-wheel drive vehicles were vociferous. A third of all users (of which almost 60 per cent are walkers) cited recreational vehicles as spoiling their enjoyment through noise, speed, dust and inconsiderate, dangerous or aggressive behaviour.

One group that participated in the survey, Friends of the Ridgeway, would prefer to see no recreational four-wheel drives (excluding farm vehicles) on the track, claiming they damage the path and that their very presence in an untamed place is obtrusive.

They have a point. Even the scrambling motorbike that passed me high up on the Lambourn Downs destroyed the peace, scattering the butterflies, silencing the birds and leaving a trail of blue fumes. But the Friends are up against an old law that shows much of the route between Streatley and Avebury has been used for many years by vehicles of one sort or another and so allows vehicles on them today.

The motoring organisations' Land Access and Recreational Association has drawn up a code of conduct for Ridgeway users which requests them to stick to the defined track, to travel quietly and unobtrusively, alone or in small groups, and to respect the countryside and be courteous. And on occasions of severe weather softening the track, signs are posted requesting drivers to use restraint to protect the surface.

The national trails officer in charge of the Ridgeway, Jos Joslin, says the dispute is well-known and looks like rumbling on. "The conflict worries me, but what is most important is that everybody should be reasonable about it," she says. "It's not that drivers are evil and walkers are good."

The Ridgeway is having to face other modern dilemmas, too. The Friends' survey makes for disturbing reading, showing to what extent we have become spoilt by urban living and how our sense of adventure is becoming increasingly reliant on the modern world. One respondent even complained of "unpleasant cows".

When asked whether there were any services or facilities that could improve the quality of their visit, the overwhelming majority said yes. Only 3.5 per cent wanted the trail left as it is. Demands included better availability of water, toilets, litter bins and even refreshment stalls. Maybe this is a sign of the next step in the evolution of the walker - we will lose our ability to carry a water bottle and some chocolate bars, become unable to carry our own litter or even take a leak in the bushes. And with it, we will tame and ruin our last few patches of wilderness.

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