Ridgeway Day 2: Ogbourne St George to Sparsholt Firs

Published 29 April 2011

A straight path
The road is long. With not many curves.

Given we’d been right next to the busy A346, our room at the Inn With the Well had been amazingly quiet. Were it not for the occupant of the room upstairs whose method of walking was such that he seemed to have some serious grudge against the wooden floor, it would have been positively silent. At least it was until about 7am when the local road traffic briefly made itself heard.

In contrast, by the time we departed at 9am the village had returned to the restful state of slumber it had been in when we’d arrived the night before. Retracing our steps back along the railway line, we saw no one bar a small party of maintenance workers cutting some trees. Ogbourne St George was clearly a quiet place; surrounded by the bustle of a busy road, yet untouched by it. It reserved its noise and pleasure for the pub itself, which had been amazingly busy the night before given it was a Monday evening.

Meanwhile, back on the Ridgeway, a tree lined, enclosed track led up to the hill ridge once more, and took us off along the top. Tall hedges hid the views of the valley floor, leaving chaffinches, sparrows and goldfinches to provide something for the walker to look at. Flittering around from branch to branch, hedge to hedge, they seemed oblivious to the kestrel that hovered high overhead.

A hard path of the finest tarmacadam, dotted with cats eyes placed at frankly odd intervals and locations, eventually gave way to more gentle gravel before also being replaced by dried, packed earth. Our guide book warned it could often be in a poor state of repair; being an ancient road, many parts of the Ridgeway are still accessible via motor vehicles as well as horses and humans.

However in many areas, that was changing. At every junction, Wiltshire Council had erected huge road signs explaining that cars and bikes were banned during the winter months, whilst in Berkshire and Oxfordshire, they’d been banned completely. The result was that, in general, the track was in good condition, even if the road signs and barriers did detract a little from the rural feel of the walk.

A signpost offering a Walkers Only alternative route
Walkers Only!

Every now and then, small side paths would meander amongst the trees providing walkers with a softer surface and the chance to escape the “traffic”. Not that we saw many people. The Ridgeway was as quiet as Ogbourne St George had been.

The trees would occasionally thin out, offering a glimpse of the towns and fields of the area below, although Catherine was less than enthusiastic to take a little detour to explore the wonderfully named village of “Upper Upham” despite a signpost pointing us in its direction. Maybe it was the fact that we had a long enough day already, or maybe it was because our guide book described it as “strangely suburban”. Who knows.

History would, once again, be very much a focus for the day as our path rose towards the site of Liddlington Castle. The Ridgeway however has little truck with the site of that old fort, preferring instead to head to something a little more modern – the busy M4 motorway.

The Burj restaurant on the Ridgeway
You’d think they would have removed the old pub sign…

As we approached, road noise began to fill the area. The trail rejoined the route of the ancient Ridgeway, and together we passed by a dead badger and over the motorway that connects London with the West Country. That crossed, the Ridgeway gave us another disappointment as it took us by the former Shepherds Rest pub, now housing a swanky looking Indian restaurant oddly sited in the tiny village of Foxhill. Despite a modern, refurbished feel, a battered pub sign with peeling paintwork bearing the pub’s previous name hung at a slightly precarious angle as it swung gently in the wind.

The hamlet of Foxhill sat at the base of a hill of the same name, which gave us views of Swindon in the distance; the towers of the hotel district distinctly visible on the horizon. Our guidebook did try to make up for it by promising pigs rooting around, however they were strangely absent and nearby Ashbury Folly was little more than a car park. A subtle hint about the obsession with cars not being particularly sensible perhaps? Or more likely, there was a folly there once, many years earlier.

Waylands Smithy Long Barrow
Waylands Smithy Long Barrow

Thankfully something a little more interesting was soon on its way; its fame no doubt the reason for the sharp increase in people that we walked past. Tucked away in a small grove of trees is Wayland’s Smithy. Dating from the Neolithic era, it is a long barrow that was first built around 2800BC as a small chamber holding 14 bodies. Then, fifty or so years later, a second, larger mound was built on top.

Nowadays many of the sarsen stones that once surrounded the mound have gone, but four large ones continued to guard its entrance way, and it was humbling to realise that even the trees that surrounded the barrow were positively infant in age compared to a mound built millennia ago.

More history could be found a mile or so on as we walked through the remains of another hill fort. Uffington Castle had the statutory imposing, steep ramparts and wide panoramic views across the area, although it was a view covered in haze and cloud as the sun had barely broken through all day. That said it had managed to give me a good hint of sunburn as I discovered later when looking at a bright red face in the mirror.

The White Horse of Uffington
Not very viewable from the Ridgeway, is the White Horse of Uffington

Next to the castle’s ramparts stood the Uffington White Horse. Believed to have been cut in the chalk during the Bronze Age, the horse is a hugely stylised equine creation and, inevitably, almost impossible to view from anywhere other than the valley floor and frankly that was a bit far away to go.

The old Ordnance Survey map showed the remains of yet another fort nearby on Rams Hill, but little seemed to remain as we walked past. Its remains were clearly buried somewhere under a farmer’s field, its crops swaying gently in the breeze.

The Ridgeway once more returned to its gentle, undulating track taking us on into the afternoon; soon we’d have to head off the ridge in search of our bed for the night in the village of Sparsholt, but first we passed a small memorial to 14 year old Peter Wren. It was in an unusual, but highly useful form: a drinking water tap for the use of Ridgeway users. Naturally I believed a toast was in order; the raising of the Corporation Pop in Peter’s memory, but unfortunately the tap was broken. I swigged what little remained in my water bottle instead.

A water tap on the Ridgeway dedicated in the memory of Peter Wren
A water tap on the Ridgeway dedicated in the memory of Peter Wren

“Are you walking the Ridgeway?” called out a woman who’d just pulled over in her car. “I’m the manager for the route. How are you finding it?”

It was the first time I’d encountered a National Trail route manager. If someone had popped out and asked such a question of me whilst I’d been soaked to the bone and covered in peat bog on the Pennine Way, they might have regretted ever asking. But then the warden for that trail would probably have had more sense than going out on the hills on some of the days I’d been on it. On the other hand, if the Pennine Way warden had pulled over in a car with a dog in the back, I would probably have accused them of cheating.

“Where are you staying then?”

“The Star Inn in Sparsholt”, we replied.

“Oh, I hope it’s all right. My mum lives next door. It’s changed hands a lot recently, I hear”.

It wasn’t exactly a statement that inspired, but to be honest some of the reviews that I’d read online hadn’t been amazing either. One website offered comment after comment from users who seemed to have encountered a manager who proclaimed he’d only been there for eight weeks, had been left in the lurch by the owners and every problem was someone else’s fault. Given each review was several months apart, either the pub had gone from a rapid succession of badly treated managers or the bloke in charge was completely incompetent.

Whoever this person was, well we didn’t meet him although our evening meal in an old fashioned rural pub with huge oak beams on the ceiling in a village of Tudor style houses and thatched cottages, seemed destined to be with a soundtrack of hardcore dance music. This surprising musical choice seemed to be going down particularly well with the only other customer at 7pm on that party-tastic Tuesday night; an elderly man supping orange juice who seemed to be called Tom who was wearing a jacket twenty sizes too big for him and who looking rather dazed as the barman discussed racing with him.

Half expecting disco lights to suddenly descend for the ceiling, I couldn’t help but wonder if the pub’s owners were some sort of refugees from one of Swindon’s boarded up bars, and the whole picture became even more surreal as a second elderly man with a walking stick entered the bar.

Eventually I decided I could cope no more and stopped being so “British” about it all and politely asked the bloke behind the bar if there was something a bit more mellow that could be put on. When he appeared on the speakers, Elton John rarely sounded better.

Coming up, we leave Sparsholt and meet a taxi driver who has a special delivery. Then it’s off to Goring and a very long days walk.


Dave Bennett

25 July 2017 at 11:18 am

Thanks for the above. As a veteran walker of this stretch of Ridgeway I have often passed by the Peter Wren memorial and have been grateful for his parents wonderful gesture of good water on these hills.

Does anyone know anything about poor Peter Wren and where he came from? I have often wondered.

Jackie Hunter

17 May 2020 at 1:58 pm

I’m really enjoying the Ranbling Man tales, I wish I could do such a walk but unfortunately my health wouldn’t permit it. I can imagine all the things he describes. A very pleasant read, thank you

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