Most people, it seems, walk the Ridgeway from West to East and that is how the official Ridgeway National Trail guide book is written, so naturally I decided to do the walk ‘backwards’ from East to West. This was not entirely out of sheer perversity: I quite liked the idea of walking away from civilisation to arrive at Avebury and its stone circle on the Autumn Equinox, so the walk took on something of a pilgrimage-like quality. Doing the route this way also meant that Nicola could pick me up at the end and we could spend the weekend with our daughter in Salisbury before travelling on to see eldest son in Plymouth by way of a gentle few days’ touring Dorset and Devon.
Anyway, before any of that there were 90 or so miles (it is very hard to find a definitive figure) of Ridgeway to be walked and Avebury seemed a long way away as Nicola and her friend Julia set me down in the layby on the B489 at the foot of the first hill.
I don’t like walks that start with a steep climb and prefer a few gentle miles for heart, lungs and legs to get into the swing of things, feet to settle into boots and final adjustments to be made to rucksack straps before tackling the first hill. Still, since the official start line of Ivinghoe Beacon was at the top of this hill, the only way was up. One sharp 240-foot climb later, I was across the start line and officially walking the Ridgeway.
The beauty of backpacking a multi-day walk with a view to wild camping rather than using camp sites or other accommodation is that you are free to stop wherever the mood takes you and a suitable patch of ground presents itself. In practice I always find that I have a deadline by which I have to complete the walk and this means that, in order to meet this deadline, there is a more or less strict schedule for every day of the walk in order to avoid the situation of having to make up extra miles on tired legs on the final day or two.
The target for the end of the first day was to be Wendover with a view to finding an overnight bivi site on the inviting (on the map anyway) open but wooded ground of Bacombe Hill.
The route soon entered what was to become a very familiar landscape of chalk grassland and Beech woods typical of the Chilterns countryside and, to the eyes of one more accustomed to the acid soils and Oak woodland of Charnwood Forest, a landscape full of unfamilar plants in unaccustomed cololurs – all the flowers seemed to be shades of purple.
The first day was, in view of the fact that I didn’t get going until 1pm or so, scheduled to be a short day – 12 miles instead of the average daily mileage of 17 or so planned for the next four days. At the time of the Autumn Equinox the sun rises around 7am and sets twelve hours later so I had six hours in which to complete the day’s allotted mileage and find a suitable place to spend the night before sunset: not a blisteringly fast pace but not too much time to stand and stare either.
After a pleasant afternoon of trying to relax into the rhythm of the walk – which always takes a while – and enjoying the views over the Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire countryside (the Ridgeway, being mostly on the ridge, is good for big landscapes), I negotiated my way through the town of Wendover and found myself at the foot of Bacombe Hill: time to look for somewhere to bed down for the night.
Having done all of my previous wild camping on the open moorland of places like Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons, I was a little wary of camping wild in the lowlands so close to settlements. Certainly that first evening I prioritised discretion at the expense of comfort and spent an uncomfortable night in an extremely discreet, well camouflaged location amid the thorn scrub on the lower slopes of Bacombe Hill.
The beauty of camping on the trail rather than having to divert to find overnight accommodation is that you don’t have to walk wasted miles at the beginning and end of the day and the beauty of using a tarp rather than a tent, apart from the saving in weight, is that you can pitch it in no time at all.
So, in no time at all, the basha was pitched and dinner was cooking; the first night’s fare being boil in the bag vegetable chilli from the MoD’s range of culinary classics – a cheeky little 2004 vintage that I found at the bottom of a box. Still perfectly edible so I dread to think what preservatives it contained.
Quite often the only way to find out if a site is level or not is to get into a sleeping bag, at which point the ground which looked “flattish, it’ll do” when pitching starts to feel like it is on a 45-degree slope but it is now dark and too late to do anything about it. Still, I was outdoors in a warm sleeping bag with a full stomach and the first day’s walking behind me and life was good.