Wednesday, 5 July 2017

TADS #13:The Ridgeway (or They walk the line).

Time had finally come for the TADS two day walk. Last year's attempt had to be spread over two months due to inclement weather but we were not to have any such problems this year. If anything it got too hot up on some of those hills.

My journey to Swindon turned into a bit of a nightmare due to various railway engineering works. It took me six trains to get there. I was quite surprised they were doing engineering work on the weekend of Henley Regatta as usually rich people are not to be inconvenienced under any circumstances. They were, as much as me, however. Hey, I didn't even get time in Paddington station to pay my tributes to Michael Bond who'd passed away earlier in the week.

Luckily on arriving in Swindon Shep, Adam, and Teresa were ensconced in the Second Cup Café and had a heated up falafel and harissa baguette awaiting me. With that inside me we took a cab out to Fox Hill and began the walk proper. It was to be a long one so we didn't need to add on another five or six miles in the suburbs of Swindon.

A moto-cross event was buzzing away, bringing back memories of my childhood, as we ascended the hill. Quaintly named villages like Hinton Parva, Compton Beauchamp, and Letcombe Regis came into view below us. The path was chalky and the sheep chewed blissfully on the grass seemingly unconcerned by the barbed wire or the jocular commentary of a quartet of walkers.

Shep and Adam, as ever, had got ahead of Teresa and I and by the time we'd caught them up they were chatting to a character called Dr Nige. He had a lorry, a truck, a motorbike, and a huge Brazilian flag and appeared to live there. He looked like some guy who took a trip in Glastonbury in 1992 and was still waiting to come down.

He chatted about his alternative lifestyle, his hatred of namedropping (though he did mention Pete Townshend lived nearby), and most conversations seemed to turn round to 1970s children's tv paedos. Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall, those kind of people. Dr Nige seemed to be liberal in the extreme in his views of their crimes. As the subject moved to politics we too moved. We'd have been there all day if we weren't careful. Dr Nige was cited often during the rest of this walk and even developed his own theme song.

Of more traditional interest was the Neolithic tomb of Wayland's Smithy. Believed to be 5,500 years old and discovered containing the bodies of fourteen people it was a strangely restful and beautiful place. More bodies were excavated in the 1920s and its name is believed to have come from the Saxons who, ignorant of its function, appropriated it for their god, Wayland the Smith. A god, it is said, who would shoe travellers' horses if they left a penny on the capstone of the tomb.

We stopped again at the remains of Uffington Castle (disastrously missing the White Horse over the brow of the hill - d'oh, my bad) where folk were taking picnics and flying kites. The cooling towers of Didcot Power Station loomed in the distance. They'd soon become an almost permanent site, acting as a marker, telling us how far we'd been and how far we had to go. I grew to quite like them.

We decided against a pub stop (it would have been a steep hill and a lengthy diversion) and stupidly didn't pack any water. Towards the end of a long long stretch we were starting to suffer. Past the Iron Age relic of Segsbury Castle and through the Devil's Punchbowl we went, passing a torn Vote Conservative poster flapping in the wind like Theresa May's convictions, before finally reaching the Court Hill Centre on the A338.

We imagined we'd be able to get a beer here but no bar. No shop either. A guy came out, called us stupid for not taking water on our walk (fair enough), and kindly sold us five small bottles at £2 a pop. Wow, thanks buddy.

Things vastly improved in the surprisingly lively market town of Wantage. Shep had a mate who lived there and he'd sorted our digs in the Shoulder of Mutton pub. We tried a pint in the King's Arms first but they had no ale, and then no San Miguel. It looked pretty rough so we went back to the Shoulder of Mutton.

The friendly landlady made a contrast to the pillock who runs The Harrow Inn on Ightham Common and talked us through the ales (about 9 of them) and advised steering clear of a cider that looked like Lucozade, got you wasted, and turned your wee a funny colour. I had a South Island ale. Shep tried a pickled shallot and then the grower of said shallot popped in for a lengthy chat about shallots with Adam. I took none of it in but Shep claimed the pickled shallot went down better than last year's spiced plum.

Bugsy, Carole, Dylan, Tony, and Alex came to join us for drinks and it was nice to see people who didn't look like they'd been dragged through a hedge backwards. The chat was convivial (if crude), the beer was flowing, and I was having a great time. Unfortunately Tony and Alex had to be back home for their girls but Bugsy, Carole, and Dylan joined us for a curry in Sylheti Spice. It was ok, nothing to write home about. They didn't have a license so we got beers from a nearby pub. Shep and Adam's beer was so rank they had to take it back and get the barrel changed.

After the walking, the beer, and the curry (oh, and one more beer - we didn't go to Wantage's nightclub (!) though) I slept very well. The bed was comfy. The showers were just so. I can heartily recommend the Shoulder of Mutton for both drinking and sleeping. If they'd had a Trip Advisor page I'd have written positively on it.

Teresa had headed home with Bugsy & Carole last night so then there were three. Adam, Shep, and myself got some breakfast in Costa. Unimaginative but the cafes didn't open until at least 10am and we wanted to get moving. We took a taxi back up to the Ridgeway and were on it again by about half-nine. King Alfred would've been proud.

It was due to be a 25k stretch (oppposed to yesterday's 17.5k) with less of note to look at so we feared a tough one. The 1901 monument to the Baroness of Wantage looked impressive silhouetted against the skyline but mostly we saw acres upon acres of fields, Didcot Power Station, cyclists, joggers, and dog-walkers. Possibly a sweetcorn field too. Oh, and some bones.

After about three hours we passed under the roaring A34 and it felt like a milestone. But, after yesterday's mistake of not stopping, we decided to take a two mile diversion into East Ilsley for a pub lunch. It's a picturesque village where the ducks are slow and the pubs are plentiful. Well, there's two. We probably chose the wrong one. The Crown and Horns was nice enough but food was pricey. Shep had some rustic bread, I had a (delicious) cheeseboard, Adam ate nothing. We all had a pint of ale. We then got back on the Ridgeway. We felt the benefit though. We had another three hours to go.

Some pretty stiff ascents over Rodden Downs and past Scutchamer Knob eventually brought us to a road with some big houses. Huge ones in fact. This led us down, slowly, to the village of Streatley. A mile from the end of the walk we stopped for a pint and a veggie burger and met with Ben and Tracy in the Bull's lovely beer garden. It was great to catch up. It was great to pour a cold one down my neck.

The final mile of the walk took us across the Thames into Goring (we'd now been in Wiltshire, Berkshire, and Oxfordshire on our walk). A beautiful stretch of the river and Goring is a gorgeous village. Probably most famous now as the former home of George Michael. We had a look at the tributes festooned around his beautiful house. I hadn't enjoyed his music for years but he seemed like a good bloke and the tributes were very touching. Ben put Careless Whisper on his phone. Make of that what you will.

We walked through Goring churchyard to The Catherine Wheel pub and had a couple more pints in another beautiful beer garden before ambling, sorely by then, up to Goring station and taking the train back home. I was zonked out on the train and glad to see my bed. But not as glad as I was to have finally completed a two day TADS walk and enjoyed it so much. The scenery, the pubs, the walking itself, the friends who walked and the friends we met along the way, all were vital ingredients in an absolutely lovely weekend. I always feel emotional at the end of a walk like this and this one, like the walk, was double. Next month we're in Cambridge for my birthday walk and everyone's welcome.

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