Part 8 of the Ridgeway meandering walks, a circular walk from Goring and Streatley. 9.8 miles (15.5 kilometres). May, sunny and warm. Solo.
We are constantly fed a lie. We are told, through images and words, that the purpose and goal of life is happiness, that happiness should be chased at all costs. My friend J and I have had many a happy discussion debunking this utter nonsense, which insidiously suggests if you are not happy then you are doing something wrong and should get off social media. And we always come to the same conclusion: life is generally full of stress, worry, boredom, tiredness and work and the true goal in life is to aim for a nondescript contentedness, an absense of badness. If you stop chasing happiness, every now and again a fleeting moment of complete joy will happen. But like smoke if you try to grab it and hold on to it, it will disappear.
It was a beautiful and sunny day when I left the station and crossed the bridge to pick up the Ridgeway national trail at Streatley. Goring and Streatley are twin villages in Oxfordshire which stare at each other across old father Thames, vying with each other as to who is the prettier.
On this side of the river is Streatley Meadow, I can’t resist a detour into this community owned area of chalk grassland, which is covered in shining buttercups. It’s a perfect place for a picnic but I need to get on. Two minutes later I’m distracted a second time by a phonebox bookswap. The Ridgeway here is paved street, crossing the road and becoming a quiet side road with large houses with field views over towards Cleeve. It’s a nice place to live if you can afford it, but the path doesn’t get interesting until the road trails away to a chalk path and begins to climb up into the hills.
This is the familiar chalk of the Ridgeway and I begin to breathe deeply. I pass a fingerpost and realise I’ve passed the halfway point: Ivinghoe Beacon where I began is 44 miles away, Overton Hill which I may never reach is 41 miles ahead. I know that public transport is running out now. On my right is the ridge of Thurle Down, on my left Streatley Warren. There are certainly a lot of rabbits about. Suddenly I see a pale silvery blue butterfly, I think it’s a holly blue, my first of the year; I feel happiness. Happiness when you least expect it. But something joyous is round the corner.
In order to make a circular walk I have to leave the Ridgeway and I feel a sadness that this could be the last time I see it for a while. I take a right up a private road towards Moulsford Downs and slowly plod up the hill with the sun now beating down and making me sweat. As I enter the cool shade of Unhill Wood I take a moment to check the map, and then look around.
I’ve found myself quite by chance in a most incredible bluebell wood, surrounded by birdsong and the intermingling smell of bluebell and wild garlic. And momentarily I have joy. It is so lovely I want to tell everyone, and keep it all for myself. There is no one here. I take a careful path under the trees and wander for a while taking it in. An unexpected bluebell wood is something you know is there, but a delight to find by chance, and my joy lasts for a while. I don’t know which path to take, everywhere around me is blue. I walk that way deep into the wood then double back to the other path, already my joy is tinged with the fear of missing the perfect spot. I find a log to eat my food and take far too many photographs.
As I eat I look at the fern fronds tightly curled but unfurling slowly in the warmth. There must be elves and orcs in here, maybe even giants and dwarves. I can’t see any sign of them but I’m not meant to. There’s magic in here for sure.
Slowly I get up and walk on as the wood changes to swathes of wild garlic, fallen branches and laurel bushes. I can see pheasant feeders as the wood changes and becomes a home for game birds, fenced and managed and the spell is broken. It’s a long walk through this private estate, whoever lives here has all the luck in the world and is looking after the land, the farm hands are friendly and every footpath is beautifully maintained. The estate stretches as far as I can see onto ridges either side, I’m glad we have the right to walk through it. There are earthworks on my map but I can’t see them, hidden in the trees.
Emerging from the wood everything looks suddenly sharp and clear. When I get to Moulsford I have a choice of the busy road or the Thames Path back to Streatley. These A roads between villages rarely have a walkable path and the traffic can be scary, so I go for the riverside. It’s calm and tranquil and I find myself slipping into daydreams and problem solving. My surroundings lose my concentration entirely as ducks and boaters roll slowly past. I can’t tell you if anything interesting happened while I walked the river path because in truth I wasn’t really there. I was back in the bluebell wood, watching the fern fronds uncurl over centuries of time.
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More walks along the Ridgeway
This walk can done on its own, or with the previous walk to Hartslock nature reserve. You can follow my GPX here. There is also a pub at Moulsford but you may need to take out a second mortgage, a couple of bits of bread and olives is £7, everything else is upwards from there. I’m sure the bread is lovely but that’s 6 loaves of bread by my reckoning.
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