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Topping Ivinghoe Beacon

Climb to a lofty viewpoint before following Britain's oldest road.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient 280ft (85m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Farmland and woodland paths, some road walking, 9 stiles

Landscape Mix of remote farmland and typical Chiltern scenery

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 181 Chiltern Hills North

Start/finish SP 963160

Dog friendliness On lead across initial farmland and under control on Icknield Way and Ridgeway

Parking Official car park near Ivinghoe Beacon

Public toilets None on route

1 Leave the car park for the road and keep left. Pass a track on the left and cross a cattle grid. Continue through woodland to a gate and footpath sign on the left. Skirt the field, keeping trees on the left, to a gate. Veer half left in the next field, keeping to the left of Ward's Hurst Farm. Cross a stile, look for a waymark by the outbuildings, bear left and keep the fence on your right. Pass under power lines to a stile and take the Icknield Way through the Ashridge Estate.

2 Follow the waymarked trail through woodland to a kissing gate and continue ahead, avoiding the Boundary Trail branching off to the right. Cross a stile and keep the fence on the left, climbing gently via two stiles to a marker stone for the Icknield Way, the Peddars Way and the Ridgeway. Turn right to a gate and stile and follow a clear track striking out across expansive downland. Head up the steep slope to the ridge and bear left to a stile. This stretch of the walk offers grand views of Ivinghoe Beacon and the surrounding countryside. Walk ahead at the Ridgeway sign, making for the start of the National Trail.

3 With your back to the Ridgeway plinth, follow the trail as it runs south. Descend steeply, keep left at the fork and make for the road. Cross over and continue on the National Trail, beginning a moderate climb. Cut between trees before spotting a deep combe cutting in to the hillside on the right. Pass a gate and stile and when the Ridgeway sweeps right by a waymark, bear left and head up the steep slope to a stile. Cross a track just beyond it and follow the woodland footpath until you reach the drive to Clipper Down Cottage. Join the road here, turn left and return to the car park.

Ivinghoe Beacon is a suitably dramatic setting for the start of the Ridgeway. You can picture this ancient trade route as it once was, busy with travellers. Cattle drovers used it regularly, as did locals on short journeys, long distance traders and pilgrims.

The Ridgeway extends for 85 miles (137km) through the Buckinghamshire Chilterns to the Thames and then across Berkshire into 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 beech wood 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. This stretch of the Ridgeway explores a landscape littered with long barrows, prehistoric forts and monuments to the distant past.

The downs of Berkshire and Wiltshire and the softer country of the Chilterns are remnants of a landscape of huge domes and ridges formed around 25 million years ago. The upper strata consists of great ridges of chalk laid down in the sea probably more than 60 million years ago.

Whether you are interested in history or geology, a walk along the Ridgeway is a journey through time. Here you can walk for miles without seeing another soul, following in the footsteps of 300 generations and seeing the same tracts of chalk downland, the same distant hills and the same broad river. Today, walkers can follow the route from start to finish, but that hasn't always been the case. In 1942 the Ramblers Association proposed a long distance route across this part of southern England, but it was another 30 years before it was officially opened to the public. With its access to villages and overnight accommodation, many people choose the Ridgeway for a very pleasant walking holiday, allowing up to a week to complete the route at a leisurely pace.

Where to eat and drink

There are no pubs on the route of the walk, but many of the surrounding towns and villages offer a good choice of food and drink. Try the Stag at Mentmore, the historic Greyhound coaching inn at Aldbury or one of the waterside pubs at Marsworth near Tring.

While you're there

The walk crosses the magnificent National Trust Ashridge Estate, which straddles the borders of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, along the main ridge of the Chilterns. The estate includes a variety of woodlands, commons and chalk downland, with all manner of wildlife and plenty of superb scenery.

What to look for

While following the Ridgeway, look to the west for a view of Pitstone Windmill. Believed to date back to 1627, it is probably the oldest surviving windmill in the country. Only seven years after it was extensively restored, a freak storm in 1902 damaged the structure. It remained in a derelict state until 1937 when the National Trust took it over. It has since been restored by volunteers and is now open to the public.

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