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Virtual Walk The Ridgeway

Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are exploring the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire.

Welcome, everyone. This week we’re going on a scenic ramble along one of the most well-known walks in Oxfordshire– the ancient Ridgeway, known as Britain’s oldest road. For thousands of years this track has cut its way across the chalk downs of Southern England, part of a longer trade route linking the Dorset Coast to the Wash in Norfolk.

We’ll be visiting three of the most famous landmarks in the Oxfordshire section of the Ridgeway,  all of which stand within a few miles of each other: Wayland’s Smithy, Uffington Castle and the Uffington White Horse.

We start in the White Horse Car Park and begin to make our way along the ancient track. It’s a landscape of ancient standing stones and rolling grassy hills, like something out of a fantasy novel. You can imagine hobbits ambling along the road here, munching on cheese sandwiches, or a dragon sheltering behind the nearest hill, waiting for prey.   

It’s a blustery day today, even though it’s July, and the wind is stirring the long grass and meadow flowers that line the path.  As we walk, there’s an irresistible sense of going back in time. How many people have trodden this path before us? It would have looked much the same through all the long centuries.  We could accidentally go back a thousand years, and perhaps we wouldn’t notice, until some medieval farmers came walking the other way and pointed and stared at the strange garb we were wearing. 

You can spot a solitary kestrel flying overhead, hanging suspended in the air, scanning the ground for the slightest flicker of movement that would signal some sort of small creature for it to pounce on.  

Finally we come to Waylands smithy, an ancient barrow grave site, where over 15 ancient skeletons were found buried. It’s a mound surrounded by several standing stones, guarding an opening like the mouth of some great beast.The place gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon mythological figure Wayland, who was said to have had a forge here, but the actual structure is much earlier even than that, dating from around 3500 BC.  It’s a quiet, secluded spot, set in a grove of trees, and you can see how the Anglo-Saxons might have thought it a magical place, when they found it. 

We turn around and double back towards Uffington. Sheep are grazing in the green fields by the side of the path. The lambs are nearly grown now, having spent the spring growing plump and healthy at their mothers’ sides. The ewes regard us curiously, chewing peacefully on long tufts of grass.

Soon the path starts to climb, up towards Uffington Castle. It is not in fact a castle, but an ancient hill fort, sitting on top of the highest point in Oxfordshire. It’s a huge enclosure, 220 metres by 160 metres, surrounded by earthen ramparts. Once upon a time, this fort must have dominated the surrounding countryside, a sign of the local ruler’s power and prestige, but now all that remains is the bare outline of what was once here.  

The famous Uffington White Horse is just to the north of the castle ramparts. It is possibly the oldest oldest chalk-cut hill figure in Britain, perhaps over 3,000 years old. It’s actually better to view it from a distance- up close here you can only see a bit of the head. But if you view it from the valley below, the flowing lines are cut so cleverly that the horse seems to gallop across the hill. You can see why it’s become an emblem of this part of the world, giving its name to the Vale of White Horse.

As we stand here the sun comes out briefly, shining down on the grass  and the exposed white chalk of the White Horse.   For a second the world is transformed, lit up by the shaft of gold that breaks through the gap in the clouds. This seems a good point to end our stroll for the day. See you next week for another walk!