Part let’s call it 7 of the Ridgeway national trail, east to west. 9.3 miles (15 kilometres) from Cholsey, on the Thames Path and the Ridgeway: Wallingford to Goring. May, warm and sunny. Solo
I’ve gone approximately 3 metres before I am persuaded off the path I hastily plotted on the train. As I leave the station at Cholsey I notice a sign tied to a post announcing a craft market at the Great Hall and realise that I am of course going to go there ‘on the way’, even though I have no idea where Great Hall is, and ‘on the way’ is a nebulous concept today. This morning, around 5 minutes after I woke up, I decided after no research whatsoever and a vague notion that Cholsey has a station and is somewhere near the Ridgeway, to take a train there and continue my meandering journey along the national path to the stone circle at Avebury.
At this point some eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that although Cholsey is indeed close to the Ridgeway, it is on the other side of the river Thames, and Cholsey doesn’t have a bridge, something which occurred to me when I logged into the OS map around Reading. But as with many problems there is a beautiful solution, because near Wallingford two worlds collide. Just south of Wallingford where the A4130 crosses the river, the Thames Path and the Ridgeway meet and shake hands.
There’s no indication on the sign which Saturday the market is on but it’s worth a punt so I set off to the Great Hall, on the way to the Thames path, it is indeed on the way. The Great Hall turns out to be a community space inside what used to be Fair Mile Hospital, a Victorian lunatic asylum as they were then known, and not the Jacobean country manor I had imagined. Sadly I cannot afford the vase carved from a single piece of English elm and manage to leave the market empty handed. An authorative man on the door directs me straight down to the Thames Path from the front of the building, and I wonder what fresh hell it must have been living here with an untreatable mental illness in Victorian Britain, and whether there was some relief in gazing out onto the river flowing past.
The sun is shining, it’s warm and peaceful by the water. It is lovely to be back. It is 13 years since I began walking the Thames Path and I’ve never fallen out of love with it. The water is languid here. Everything is green again, as though Summer has arrived and the wildflowers are out in abundance.
Including one of my favourites, the arum lily or cuckoo pint. It has some of the best regional names, most of them to do with penises (pint is nothing to do with liquid measurement, but from pintle which of course means penis). Priest’s pintle, soldier’s diddies, lords and ladies, adder’s root, sonsie give us your hand (no, me neither). I pass a field full of lovely butter yellow cowslips. I’m reminded that a slip is the old name for a cow pat, so a field of lovely cow shits.
The countryside was never meant to be pure and virtuous but blunt, earthy and sexual. Along the river is an occasional pillbox from the war, which reminds me if anywhere needs defending it is here, with its gentle river, brimstone and peacock butterflies and rude plants.
Where the two paths meet I cross to the Ridgeway and leave the river’s edge, plunging me into cool tree tunnels on a muddier path. I can’t help noticing in the gaps the line of a ridge on my left, might this have once been the original ridge way. On the map I’m surprised to see the Icknield Way which I assumed had long since stopped following me. I’m also on Swan’s Way which makes me think of Proust and what does he have to do with the price of fish.
All roads seem to lead to here. It’s May on the Ridgeway which means there’s a new page in the Spotter guide produced for the Ridgeway’s birthday celebrations. May means white, which has me thinking about the swan, then staring at the white fluffy clouds and absentmindedly stepping into a distinctly unwhite mud bath.
At North Stoke I come to an old church and duck in to see if there’s any medieval graffiti, and am rewarded with the most glorious 14th century wall paintings, and a mass dial of exceptional merit. You should always stop and mooch in an old church, if only to have somewhere cool to eat your pasty.
Suddenly I’m in amiable conversation with a man walking his dog and while we walk we end up chatting companionably about his daughter who he misses but is doing very well in London, and naturally we end up talking about how much we both hated Thatcher and had a celebration the day she died. We are both from mining areas, him a lot closer to the coalface than I was. He tells me to drop into the Perch and Pike as it’s a rare thing, a pub near the Thames that isn’t extortionate, and he is right. It’s a beautiful old beamed place to stop for a cold one.
As a red kite watches me head off into the final stretch to Goring I pass over a footbridge and watch a shoal of the tiniest fishes, which makes me think of my tiniest fish who is away at camp with his mates this weekend and I get a pang of parental concern. Moments later I get a message on my phone, they’ve sent photos of him chopping wood, cooking on a fire and doing archery in his part of the woody chilterns. We could all be here 500 years ago and it would be much the same, right here and now. Nature doing her thing and the world turning as it always has.
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More walks on the Ridgeway
I took a train to Cholsey, the closest station to Wallingford to start part 7 of my Ridgeway meander from east to west. I then walked back north along the beautiful Thames Path to cross over to the Ridgeway heading back to Goring and Streatley Station. Buy a return to Cholsey as you can then return from Goring, it’s one stop down the line. My GPX is here.
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