The Ridgeway: Ivinghoe Beacon

8.8 miles (14 kilometres), a circular walk by train from London which includes stage one of the Ridgeway east to west. December, cold and sunny. With son and dog.

There is something very special about the Ridgeway. As far as anyone can tell it is Britain’s oldest road, although it is not much more than a track for most of the way and no one knows exactly how old it is. We know it’s had at least 5000 years of use but it could be much older. Today’s Ridgeway national trail begins (or ends) at Avebury, home of the world’s largest stone circle and ends 87 miles later (or begins) at Ivinghoe Beacon where we are heading today, the three of us.

It is cold. We disembark at Tring station with a book and a plan, a thermos and food. We’ll be walking through the Ashridge Estate to begin with, anti-clockwise, although every book and website seems to suggest the other way about. But first we negotiate a muddy slide through a field next to the road into Aldbury village which has its own restored medieval stocks and whipping post. We consider putting Shovell in them but he would love people to throw rotten food at him. It was last used in 1835 on some poor bloke charged with drunkenness, presumably no longer used as the queue to get in them would be too big these days.

Then there’s a big hill. A biiig hill. We trudge slowly up, me with my poles, stopping to rest on a log on the way. At the top there’s a café and NT shop and the Bridgewater Monument, commemorating the Duke of Bridgewater, the canal pioneer.

The monument is in a clearing in the woods overlooking the Chiltern hills, and with the frost and the sun shining through the branches it all looks positively magical up here. We’ve already forgotten the hill. There’s an iced white tree stump which looks like a star that has fallen to earth. It’s about now lovely son starts suggesting we eat the packed lunch. He’s prosaic when it comes to his dinner.

I manage to hold him off through the glade and past several conveniently placed (but frozen) benches. I even manage to hold out past Moneybury Hill bronze age longbarrow, definitely a thin place, no wonder they built a barrow here.

But not for long. We compromise and eat half a sandwich each and Shovell gets a crust. Up here there is a perfect peacefulness, and the ground is frozen into quiet. Except for the sight of a hairy dog rolling extravagantly in the frost and barking at squirrels.

As we walk through the woods we hear a slow woodpecker. I’m very lucky to have my son with me, he spots it immediately, impossibly high in the tree and we watch it moving in time with the sound. Eventually we pass onto a plain and I can see Ivinghoe Beacon ahead of us and a chalky path to follow all the way up and down and back up again.

We are looking for hag stones again but they seem rarer than hens’ teeth (all hens are hatched with a tooth so these are much rarer), rarer than four-leaved clovers, except in my great aunty’s garden where I found loads but she wasn’t very lucky as someone tried to dispatch her.

We make it to the top (peak bagged, naturally) and it is beautiful. It’s an absolutely perfect winter day to be surrounded by such an expanse of land and sky, kites and gliders. As agreed we have the rest of our sandwich and I produce two chocolate brownies. My flask of coffee is too hot to drink. It’s not busy so we sit on the trig plinth and discuss the way back. We have enough time, but only just enough before it will get dark. We’re close to the shortest day of the year, solstice, but that means the days will already be getting longer soon. It always seems to me to be out of sync to have the shortest day when winter is just getting into its booted stride, but this is what all our christmases are built on, the tilt of the world and (for us at least) the low lingering light of the sun and our long shadows. It’s been shining in our eyes all day and as we head home south west it will still be on our faces until it disappears.

We set off back and we are now on the Ridgeway, heading towards Avebury. We think it was a trading route, maybe for droving animals too, but we only have ourselves to drove. We are walking along a chalk ridge, very muddy now, to our right is open country and lightly frosted fields with undulating paterns.

I’ve walked this path many times but it always seems a little bit different each time. This time I am wrapped up in watching the ridges of a field and fall over on my arse in a particularly slidey mud splurge. Even with my poles. Sigh.

We walk up the lovely hummocky Pitstone Hill, the sun not touching the ice on the north of each mound, and look down on Grim’s Ditch, from the Norse word grimr meaning devil, the masked one, another name for Odin (or Woden). There are many Grim’s Ditches and Dykes all over Britain, but mainly in the south. We don’t really know what these giant earthworks were for: possibly to mark physical boundaries, to restrain cattle, to link up hill forts. There’s a splendid tree guarding the path down.

The sun is low now so we walk through the woods at a pace. It’s the most beautiful golden hour before the sun sets. I can’t resist stopping to take photos of the gold light coming through the trees and making the longest shadows of us. The wood is full of Hesperides dancing, the Ancient Greek nymphs of the evening and sunset light. And they are telling us it is time to go home. We make a pact the two of us, when the warmer weather comes we are going to do evening and night walks. I can’t wait.

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Walk info

We found many versions of this walk online, with variations if you have more time for example adding in Little Gaddeston for lunch, and walking up to Gallows Hill before Ivinghoe Beacon. It was inspired by my copy of Time Out Country Walks vol.2 which is now out of print but still widely available. The Ordnance Survey map of our walk is here.

7 responses to “The Ridgeway: Ivinghoe Beacon”

  1. Brings back memories of living in Ruislip in the nineties and taking regular trips out along the Ridgeway

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was thinking of doing the whole thing, but getting on and off by public transport is always going to be an issue. You must have been spoilt for good country walks, any suggestions always welcome.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The South Downs was also a favourite, I live up T’north now so spoilt for choice with the Lakes and Snowdonia

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I can see! Your website is gorgeous

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thank You! I enjoy the walking and putting it all together so it’s nice to get feedback 😁

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A beautiful tour on a clear, crisp, cold winter’s day. If I were on this one, I might find myself rolling extravagantly in the frost and barking at squirrels as well. Ruth, the best to you and yours in 2023! Bruce (aka WOTC)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy New Year, Bruce. Let’s hope this one is peaceful with moments of delight.

      Liked by 1 person

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