Ridgeway Day 5: Watlington to Princes Risborough

Published 6 May 2011

The Fox and Hounds pub, Watlington
The Fox and Hounds pub, Watlington

If there’s one thing that seems to be common with pubs on the Ridgeway, it’s that they each seem to have a strange take on the concept of breakfast. Whilst the pub in Sparsholt had offered cereal and called it “continental”, the Fox and Hounds offered a full English but without a single sausage. I mean, it’s like Abbot without Costello, or Monty Python without John Cleese. Such things should never happen. A full English without sausage? No, that’s madness.

A sausageless breakfast? Whatever next? Oh well, it was all right. For buried under the egg were two huge slabs of black pudding. And for my money there’s nothing that can top black pudding. How anyone could not like the stuff is a constant mystery to me but, oddly, some people just don’t. Step up Tal who sent his slices over to the rest of us.

Full of black pudding (or indeed not, as the case may be), we hit the road once again, and headed back up to the Ridgeway.

When organising the trip a few months earlier, the plan had been to do a 17 mile trek from Watlington to Wendover, but as most of the group weren’t seasoned walkers, we opted for a more sensible approach of just eleven to Princes Risborough, stopping off at Chinnor half way for some lunch. Given at least one of the party was having a few small boot-related problems, it seemed like a good idea.

Once more the sun was out and the skies that divine shade of bright blue that makes you feel good to be alive, although the Ridgeway itself seemed to prefer the shade. The path, once again a dried mud track, wandered on; its route lined thickly with trees and bushes. Sunlight broke through, providing a dappled effect on the ground whilst red kites in abundance glided above us.

Not so long ago, the Red Kite was all but extinct in the UK, with just one small colony in Wales surviving. It was in the 1980s when they began to return, following a successful re-introduction using birds brought over from Spain. Whilst numbers remain relatively low – the RSPB estimates there are just 2,000 breeding pairs – they seem to be thriving along the Ridgeway route, and no more so than the section we were now walking. At one point five birds circled above, surveying the land majestically, and proving almost impossible to catch on camera. The result was hundreds of photos of random, small blurs…

It being a sunny Sunday, the path was full of dog walkers and cyclists taking advantage of the fine weather to get out and about, and early in the day we’d even seen an old fashioned gypsy caravan parked up on the side of the track. Its owner was pouring liquid from a plastic carton in to metal milk churns, whilst his Alsatian barked angrily and strained at the metal chain that kept him in his place.

The Ridgeway near Beacon Hill
Beacon Hill up ahead, but first the M40.

After a day spent wandering around in woods and fields, the section from Watlington was classic Ridgeway through and through. Straight, uncompromising and in one direction. Once more, navigation was simple, and even the presence of the M40 did little to deter it.

The one difference was that the path stayed firmly low down, nestling on a small ridge of the hills rather than going along the top. We passed by a nature reserve, cut in half by the motorway, and then crossed over the nearby A40, where a dismantled railway joined next to our path for a short time. Once the route of the Watlington and Princess Risborough railway, the line from Watlington to Chinnor closed in the 1950s and little remained to suggest it had ever been there. Only the Ordnance Survey map gave a clue it existed, and it left us almost as quietly as it joined.

Pool of water in the old Chinnor Quarry
Chinnor Quarry – no swimming allowed.

The earlier smooth path had now given way to one rutted and bumpy; copious hoof marks stamped in to the ground. It also became wider, although still hemmed in by trees. Near Chinnor the surrounding fences began to be filled with large warning signs proclaiming “PRIVATE” and “DANGER”. Peering through the trees and bushes, the remains of quarries could be seen; bright pools of water at the bottom deep down below. In one, an island of stone sat in the middle of the artificial lake, providing a home for a colony of birds that were too distant to recognise.

Our Chinnor lunch plans were soon put on hold due to arriving at the turnoff at a ridiculously early 11:40, and by the fact that absolutely no one seemed to be even close to hunger.

Standing by a roadside, we formulated a new plan. With only five miles to go to Princes Risborough, we’d press on and get there around 2pm and grab lunch in a pub before catching the train home.

A very wide path
Chinnor provided a very wide path§

And just as our plans changed, so too did the Ridgeway as it entered in to woodland. Down in the plains below, the odd toot could be heard and by chance a clearing in the trees provided a view down to provide a view of a steam train. Whilst the earlier section of the railway had gone, the route from Chinnor to Princes Risborough had remained open for freight until 1989 and in 1994, the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway was opened, running to its terminus in the outskirts of the town.

The hamlet of Hempton Wainhill saw more dog walkers and even a small party of women in their Sunday best carrying heavy looking handbags, dangling from their elbows. Such a method of carrying a bag has never seemed sensible to me. It doesn’t even look comfortable, and must surely be liable to cause injury or strain, especially when the bag in question seems to be the size of a small suitcase.

Tal wasn’t impressed by such walkers either, noting with disdain how, as the day had gone on, fewer and fewer people we passed did the usual “walkers pleasantries” of saying hello when passing. It’s a peculiar custom and rather pointless one, however one which the British seem to love, and one which just feels wrong when not obeyed.

With Princes Risborough now visible in the distance, our north-easterly route suddenly changed as the Ridgeway left the track and went east, meandering across a gloriously green and grassy field; more red kites flying overhead. Abruptly we hit another wood whilst a steep but short climb took us up to the top of the small, but perfectly formed Lodge Hill; its grassy summit providing us some stunning views of the local area.

Lodge Hill on the Ridgeway
Lodge Hill on the Ridgeway

It was a view to end on, and path now took us towards Princes Risborough, crossing under railways and alongside farm fields before depositing us on the harsh tarmac surface of the main road. Traipsing up the A4010, we finally found the railway station, passing by a sign that proclaimed that Princes Risborough was “fit for a prince”. Especially one who doesn’t take any interest in grammar or quote marks.

It was nearly 2 o’clock when we arrived, with fifteen minutes to spare before the next train. Having passed no pubs on our way to the station, and with still no one feeling hungry, we decided to head for London. It was still relatively early; the walk to Wendover could easily have been done had it not been for the aching feet and rubbed ankles of our fellow walkers.

Princes Risborough station
Time for the train home

Somehow it all felt a bit weird – far too early to be finishing, yet strangely glad to; even more so as, thanks to engineering works, the train took a protracted and slow trip back to the capital, reversing direction twice, and getting stuck behind a Metropolitan Line train at Amersham. And back in London, we finally did have our Sunday lunch – it arrived at 4:30pm in a pub on Marleybone High Street, our rucksacks and walking poles looking ever so slightly incongruous compared to the trendy elite of one of the capital’s more upmarket boozers.

Next time, it’s nearly a year later but we’re finally back to finish the Ridgeway.

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