Cross breezy downland to the former home of a fondly-remembered poet.
Distance 7.5 miles (12.1km)
Minimum time 3hrs
Ascent/gradient 150ft (46m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths Bridleways, field paths, tracks and quiet lanes, no stiles
Landscape Remote downland country to south of Ridgeway
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 170 Abingdon & Wantage
Start/finish SU 471825
Dog friendliness Under control across farmland
Parking Room to park in West Ilsley's main street
Public toilets None on route
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1 Follow the road out of West Ilsley, heading west. Take the first bridleway on the left and make for a gate. Continue ahead with the field boundary on your right. Bear left at the next junction, and then almost immediately right to follow the path across a large field. Look for a boundary corner ahead and keep ahead in the next field, with the fence on your right. Follow the path across the field to the road by Upper Farm, veer left and walk along to Farnborough church and the Old Rectory.
2 Walk back along the road to the farm, rejoin the track beside the outbuildings and look for a waymark and a pair of galvanised gates after about 60yds (55m). A field footpath and two tracks can be seen here. Keep right, directly alongside the farm. Cut between trees, bushes and margins of vegetation and cross a track further on. Continue ahead to a junction with a byway and bridleway. Keep going through woodland, following the Ilsley Downs Riding Route. Make for the next junction, where you can see a field beyond the trees, bear right and follow the clear path through the woods.
3 Keep right at the road and when it bends right, go straight on along a bridleway running across the fields towards trees. At length, the bridleway becomes a byway. Keep ahead when you reach a bend and walk along to a track on the left. Take it into the woodland and down the slope. As you approach a gap in the hedge, with a field seen ahead, veer right to follow a path running through the trees. Eventually it climbs gently to a junction. The walk turns left, but it is worth stepping to your right for several paces to admire the timeless view of Woolvers Barn and Woolvers Down.
4 Follow the byway, avoiding the public footpath on your right, and take the next bridleway on the left. Keep right at the next junction and cut between hedges. When the track bends left, there is a memorable view of West Ilsley sitting snug in its downland setting. Keep right at the next junction, following the track alongside West Ilsley Stables. Walk down to the road and turn left. As it bends right by a bridleway sign, go straight on by Keeper's Stables. Swing left as you reach the centre of West Ilsley and pass All Saints Church.
John Betjeman (1906-84) has been described as the most popular poet of the 20th century. With his infectious laugh, air of eccentricity and sense of fun, he was an immensely popular character and, having been born into the television age, he was a natural performer for that particular medium. He loved the camera and it loved him in return.
Over the years Betjeman has been the subject of many distinguished television documentaries - intimate portraits that reflected the man's true identity and personality. They demonstrated his love for architecture, for historic landmarks and endangered buildings, illustrating to the viewer how he lovingly brought them to life in his own highly individual style.
However, few of these TV biographies make any mention of his home in the splendid Old Rectory at Farnborough in Berkshire. Betjeman and his wife Penelope moved here in 1945, and in the summer of that year she wrote to a friend, Wilhelmine Harrod: 'Father has bought us a beautiful William and Mary house 700ft up on the downs above Wantage with 12 acres of land, including a wood and two fields. It is a dream of beauty but has no water, no light and is falling down and needs six servants, so it will probably kill us in the end'.
Betjeman spent the war as a press attaché in Dublin, and when it was finally over, he and Penelope returned to their beloved Berkshire where they had begun their married life in 1934. He worked mainly in London, mixing with writers, poets and assorted Oxbridge intellectuals - select members of a precious coterie. But he was most at home in the peace and tranquillity of the countryside - especially the Vale of the White Horse, then still within Berkshire. Betjeman loved to explore the downs on foot, while Penelope galloped along the Ridgeway on Moti, her Arab mare.
The Betjemans' love for this spectacular downland country remained undimmed when they moved to Farnborough. During the six years he lived in the village, Betjeman was typically productive in his work output. His collection of verse New Bats in Old Belfries was published in 1945, and in 1948 his Selected Poems won the Heinemann Award for Literature. At the same time, he worked on Murray's Architectural Guide for Berkshire, published in 1949.
The Betjemans moved to Wantage in 1951. It wasn't far away, and here he continued to indulge his love of the English countryside. In a TV interview in 1984, the year he died, Betjeman said that 'poetry makes life worth living', believing that the greatest thing he had done in his own life was to use his eyes and his feelings.
Make a point of looking at the west window in Farnborough's All Saints Church, dedicated to the memory of John Betjeman. The window, which depicts the tree of life, was designed by Betjeman's friend John Piper, executed by Joseph Nuttgens and placed here by the 'Friends of Friendless Churches'. Have a look at the village of West Ilsley, noted for its horse-racing connections and lines of pretty cottages. The church has a handwritten record of those who fell in the First and Second World Wars. Opposite the pub is a striking gazebo, erected by the villagers to mark the new millennium. Look out, too, for the attractively designed parish paths map.
Overlooking the cricket ground in West Ilsley, the Harrow is a charming village pub. Inside is an attractive open-plan bar, with a menu offering quality food and imaginatively prepared dishes. For something simpler, you might like to try ham, egg and chips or, if you only want a snack, sample one of the filled baguettes.
Once or twice on this walk, you'll come across voluntary restraint signs, requesting motorists not to indulge in off-road driving. Many cross-country routes have become fragile as a result of this activity and campaigners are attempting to stamp it out.