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Blewbury's Bleak Downland

Savour the stillness and solitude of Oxfordshire's racing country.

Distance 7.5 miles (12.1km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 160ft (49m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Downland paths, concrete farm roads and wide tracks

Landscape Breezy open downland on Oxfordshire/Berkshire borders

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 170 Abingdon, Wantage

Start/finish SU 532855

Dog friendliness On lead in Blewbury and under control by gallops

Parking Spaces in village, off A417

Public toilets None on route

1 From the illustrated map of the village on the main A417, veer off to the right by a seat and follow the path to the springs. Walk along to an information board and turn right here, passing alongside one of Blewbury's picturesque thatched cob walls. Pass a thatched cottage called Blue Haze, turn left in front of the church and approach the village almshouses. Keep left here and take the little path. Veer left at the fork, cross a path and stream and then cut between the historic cob walls.

2 Join the road by the Red Lion and go straight on to the village war memorial, returning to the A417. Turn right and pass the Blewbury Inn. Opposite Westbrook Street turn left at the bridleway sign for the Ridgeway. Head south west on the path, pass a seat on the right and climb gently on to the downs. Cross a track and continue to Churn Farm. Turn right here, joining a concrete farm road running between houses and outbuildings. Pass a cluster of brick and flint houses and turn left at the next junction.

3 Walk along to the next junction and ahead of you lies an old railway bridge. Turn left by a single-storey dwelling and follow the concrete track straight and true. Eventually it begins to curve left; at this point go straight on alongside a hedgerow. Follow a broad rutted track to the Ridgeway and continue ahead, following it up a gentle slope.

4 Keep left at the next fork, draw level with a copse on the right, and then turn left at a crossroads. Cut between racing gallops, following the track with good views over to the right towards the Thames Valley and the familiar Wittenham Clumps.

5 Pass the buildings of Woodway; the track now graduates to a metalled lane. Follow the lane down to the A417 and turn left. Pass the Load of Mischief pub and return to the map in Blewbury village centre.

Britain's oldest road, the Ridgeway extends for 85 miles (137km) through the Buckinghamshire Chilterns to the Thames and then across Berkshire to touch Oxfordshire's southern boundary before reaching Wiltshire. In places the trail is as wide as a main road or a dual carriageway. When the original line became weathered or difficult to negotiate, travellers moved from one side to the other, gradually making the track wider. The character of the Ridgeway changes the further west you travel.

Initially, the trail cuts through gentle beechwood scenery, glorious in autumn, and across soft rolling hills where there are glimpses of distant horizons. Once across the Thames, the landscape assumes a totally different character. From the river onwards, the Ridgeway cuts across bleak, exposed downland, offering little in the way of shelter on a wet or windy day. Take a moment to savour the stillness of this magnificent downland country. On occasions I have stopped on this stretch and not heard a sound. It is hard to imagine being more remote or cut off from civilisation than here in this quiet, rural backwater. At times, it can be quite uncanny.

This part of Oxfordshire is synonymous with racehorse training. Racing as we know it today has its origins in the period of the Stuart kings. James I established stables at Newmarket and it was here that he kept racehorses and 'riders for the races' - the first royal jockeys. Towards the end of the 17th century, racehorses were beginning to appear all over the country, with many breeders introducing Arabian stock. Three of these stallions were the sires from which all our thoroughbreds are descended. As the sport began to draw spectator interest, it split into two different categories - flat racing and racing over jumps.

Training stables for race horses were soon a permanent feature of life in the countryside, but they needed access to large tracts of open downland and grassland over which gallops could be laid for racing practice. As the flinty chalk soil made this landscape unsuitable for ploughing, the Berkshire Downs, embracing part of Oxfordshire, were considered ideal terrain for horses to compete with one another and for jockeys to sharpen and hone their skills.

While you're there

Take a good look at Blewbury and you'll be enchanted by its delightful thatched cottages and quaint cob walls, which date back to medieval times and were built to mark the boundaries of the many farms here. Kenneth Grahame, who wrote The Wind in the Willows, lived in the village between 1910 and 1924.

Where to eat and drink

The Load of Mischief and the Blewbury Inn both serve food and are situated on the main A417 in the centre of the village. The Red Lion in nearby Chapel Lane also has a popular menu. There are no pubs on the actual route, however.

What to look for

The old railway bridge at Churn gives a good view of the remains of Churn Halt, which closed many years ago. Before the First World War, soldiers came here by train to use the nearby rifle ranges, part of a tented army camp opened towards the end of the 19th century by Baron Wantage, a pioneer of the territorial volunteers. The halt was on the old Didcot-Newbury-Southampton line.


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