The Ridgeway is an 85-mile long trail that follows the chalk ridge from Ivinghoe Beacon in Hertfordshire, through parts of Berkshire and South Oxfordshire before finishing at Avebury in Wiltshire. It follows ancient trade and drove routes and is reputedly the oldest road in England, if not the whole of Europe. As befits this status, it passes through landscapes that are punctuated by relics of our Neolithic and Bronze Age past including many barrows and hill forts. The Ridgeway is designated as a National Trail and I first came up with the idea of backpacking it several years ago, encouraged by a half-day spent walking the Oxfordshire section once when Nicola was visiting a friend in Didcot. This year, following a particularly trying period at work, I booked two weeks off at the end of September with the idea that I would spend the first week doing the walk and then we would spend the second week touring the West Country via two of our children in Salisbury and Plymouth.
Planning and Preparation
Having decided that I would aim to wild camp on at least some of the five nights I would be on the trail, I turned to Google to see what advice the internet had to offer as regards the feasibility of this approach. As the general gist of the accumulated wisdom of the worldwide web was “go for it”, the next step was to assemble some suitable kit.
Previous experience of labouring up and down hills carrying heavy weights had taught me that, in view of my advancing years and lack of training, less would definitely be more when it came to putting together a kit list. I reasoned that, as this would be a lowland walk in autumn as opposed to a mountain walk in winter, I could cut a few corners in the interests of keeping the pack weight down, the first of which would be to manage without a tent and instead bivvy using a tarp shelter pitched on the walking poles to which, after years of mocking other walkers who used them, I had become a committed convert. I borrowed a 3m x 3m DD tarp from Son #2 who uses it with a hammock, so it came complete with generous lengths of para cord attached to each corner. This, together an unmatching pair of cheap walking poles and a handful of tent pegs, would do for accommodation. The beauty of this approach is that, instead of having to be carried all day, the “tent poles” are in productive use 24 hours a day and the rest of the “tent” weighs less than 1kg.
Having decided that my 35-litre daysack would enforce a bit too much frugality for a 5-6 day trip and that my 85-litre Army bergan would be overkill, my rucksack of choice was a 60-litre budget Eurohike number left over from the kids’ DofE days. Continuing the low-budget theme, cooking equipment was a basic screw-on gas burner purchased from an army surplus store 15 years ago, a couple of gas canisters, a pair of cheap mess tins from Go Outdoors, plastic KFS set, plastic bowl and trusty old British Army plastic mug.
Sleeping bag was a Vango 2-season lightweight down number teamed with a full-length Thermarest mat and lightweight groundsheet.
In terms of food, I decided to allow for a couple of pub or chip shop stops when passing through civilisation and to carry sufficient food for the rest of the trip. I discovered I still had a couple of meals’ worth of MOD-issue “boil-in-the-bag” rations left over from previous expeditions and a trip to Go Outdoors for more “boil-in-the-bag” meals and to the local Co-op for instant porridge sachets, cereal bars, tea bags and hot chocolate powder completed the catering procurement, apart from a couple of tins of Spam to be fried when needed to provide the ultimate morale-boosting breakfast indulgence when on the trail.
Water is an issue on the Ridgeway which, as the name suggests, follows the chalk ridge and is therefore above the springline: naturally occurring water sources are therefore all but non-existent. Fortunately the good people at the Countryside Commission (as was) National Trails Office foresaw this problem and have arranged with farmers to provide occasional water points along the route. These are marked on the excellent Ridgeway National Trail Map produced by Harvey Maps and I had no trouble in locating any of the ones that I looked for and all were in working order. Based on an estimated water consumption of 2 litres per day, I decided that carrying 1.5 days’ worth i.e. 3 litres, would be sufficient. In the event, I could have managed with less but I prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to water, even if it means carrying a bit more weight. Obviously, doing the walk in hot weather or using dehydrated rations will increase water requirements.
Total all-up weight of the pack, including food and water, was a little under 40lbs.