11.5 miles (18.5 kilometres) round trip from Princes Risborough via Chinnor, part 4 of the Ridgeway from east to west. Changeable weather, solo. If the planets align there’s an optional stream train back.
So many of my walks begin at a station and along a busy road that I’ve begun to look upon these stretches as a liminal space through which I pass from the real world into a walking world, an A-road wardrobe into Narnia. Today I’m back on the Ridgeway at Princes Risborough, inching a little closer to Avebury in a series of swathes, circles and whorls. Slowly, slowly.
As soon as I turn off the road into a lane suddenly I am in birdsong and peace. I can breathe again. It feels like Spring; I take off my jacket. I want to let the wind blow through every atom of me and clean out the chaos. It doesn’t feel cold and the wind dies away.
I cross into a field and the burbling chitter of the skylarks is everywhere around me. I can’t see a single one. I really want to come back to this spot when the field is hot and the grasses are turning gold. I want to feel the hard solid clay under my feet, not this slippery mud. Spring makes me impatient and in the same thought it feels like the year is already running by and I need to slow it down. It’s time to appreciate here and now.
The Ridgeway is 50 years old this year. Of course it’s not, it’s many thousands of years old, the chalk ridge trodden by our neolithic ancestors, but 2023 is its 50th anniversary of becoming a national trail. I have neglected to bring birthday cake but as the celebrations last all year I still have time. It’s nice to know the Ridgeway officer and the Friends of the Ridgeway have remembered and got her a lovely card in the form of a monthly calendar of things to look out for. So now it’s the end of March and I’m holding on to all things yellow, yellow being the returning sun. I make her my own card instead from today’s walk.
This is golf clubland and farmland. I’m mercifully shielded from the golf, but the silage smell of the farmland is unmissable. As I get older I’m losing my sense of smell, like my dad who has completely lost his along with his sense of taste. This is why the smell of cow shit and slurry doesn’t bother me, it reminds me of what I still have.
Spotty rain settles into steady drizzle but its the first time I’ve been out for a while, even the drizzle is enjoyable. There are violets sewn into the hillside. I try to smell them and get more muddy. As the path climbs I can suddenly see all the way back along the chalk ridge to Wendover. Who knows on a clearer day maybe much further back.
Then I enter a gorgeous copse of beech trees and I find my feet slowing down to take in the rich redness, the bronze before the burst of green which is coming soon. Leaf burst. For me, this is the Ridgeway. Those high chalk views and these snug tree hideaways, often with the holloways made by the feet of a thousand years and more. You always find these on the Ridgeway, it’s why we keep coming back.
As I walk through the sweep of a hillside, last years’ beech leaves blow like butterflies around me. The clouds are gathering but I don’t care, bring me whatever you’ve got. I pass a sign for Chinnor Reserve and barrows. It’s not my route so I stand for a moment deciding whether to do a detour, but of course I detour. I always detour and this one mentions barrows.
As it turns out I see no barrows but I choose the high way and walk on a slender ridge of tree roots up the hill. Down below I can see the town, and somewhat unexpectedly the little heritage railway train trundling along the valley bottom. It’s Thursday so I guess it must be a special and I entertain the idea of cadging a lift back. I rest at the top watching the red kites wheeling and feeling the heat of the year beginning to rise. I peel off layers to feel some of it on my bare skin.
There’s another holloway, a tree tunnel down to Chinnor which is lined with yew trees. This tells me it’s an ancient droving road that people would have driven animals down from the ridge back to the town for winter or market. When I reach the ground I seriously consider walking on another 7 miles to Watlington and finding a way home from there. But I have no food so I walk into the quarry and then back into Chinnor.
Chinnor turns out to be an excellent decision. The heritage railway is open but I cannot summon the courage to gatecrash a school trip on the diesel engine. But then I find a Community coffee shop and have a very satisfying 1970s style prawn sandwich (with cress!) and a victoria sponge (what else?) and buy a pot of blackberry jam for later. The Ridgeway and I have our birthday cake after all. With friendly people in friendly surroundings, it occurs to me it would be a nice place to spend old age and die, sitting in the community centre reading trashy novels from the book stall, eventually succumbing to a diabetic coma from a surfeit of jam.
I believe it is a saving grace that the Ridgeway isn’t particularly well served by public transport. You have to want to be here, and be prepared to walk the long road back, or carry everything on your back and make a pilgrimage of it. So I start back following the railway through the valley, along the Midshires Way past the villages of Bledlow and Horsenden. The weather is by now wet and a storm is brewing. I slide in the mud many times and fall just once, the brand new spring lambs not knowing whether to stare or be scared of this blundering hulk in their field. All the progress I’ve made is wound back into a ball but it won’t be too long before I get to unravel again for the next stage and if I plan things right, I’ll get to go back to the community café and have another lunch. The Ridgeway and I are not done celebrating yet.
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More walks on the Ridgeway
The Ridgeway is well signposted and you can follow my GPX here. I recommend the community café for lunch and a rest break. If you don’t fancy the detour up Chinnor Hill just follow the GPX and Ridgeway signs.
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