The anticipation of a walk can often overshadow the experience. Sitting at my desk, in front of a window, I at least get to see the sky, but never enough time to get into the great outdoors. Any trip is preceded by a breeze of excitement. But this latest trip was borne on a hurricane. Planned for the last weekend in February it made the shortest month feel very long.
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A night-walk before the main hike, delightfully lit by a full moon reminded me of tracking in the snow. The ground and tracks were highly visible in the moon glow. We walked along a few fields catching deer grazing in our peripheral vision, dark shadows against a backdrop of black trees. Sad to think the fields are possibly up for development soon. Marginalising our native wildlife only removes us further from ourselves.
The next day we set off from Letcombe Regis heading for the ancient Ridgeway. I had an “Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole” sensation tramping up the tree-lined, muddy lane. When we got to the top and came out into the fields I’d been dropped into another world, wider and brighter than an office with a desk, a chair and a printer.
“There are big cats around here,” my friend commented as I pointed out a large circular paw print. No idea whether she was pulling my leg but later, up on the ridge and down in the Punchbowl, it wasn’t hard to imagine a large feline predator crouching in the tussocky landscape.
A healthy, new hedge marks the field boundary, a tiny piece of patchwork in the blanket that covers this part of Southern Oxfordshire. We followed it before striking off to a line of trees near the top of the ridge. It turned out to be the perfect spot to stop for a bite to eat. Heavy rain clouds plodded above the wide-open landscape below us. The rain clouds matched my mood.
We zipped up our waterproofs, hitched our packs and struck out from our cover to Segsbury Camp, an Iron Age hillfort that’s now bisected by a modern lane leading to The Ridgeway. In Celtic “sego-byrig” literally means “powerful fort” and you get a sense of that by the size of the ditch even today. The lane running through the middle only lends more weight to the feeling.
By this point I was starting to get a bit chilly. The waterproof was doing what it says on the tin but I’d purposely not worn the usual three layers so I could test a piece of kit for Lakeland Bushcraft. I hadn’t expected to be that cold so quickly.
I was a little annoyed at myself for having the nagging distraction of cold as I stepped on to The Ridgeway for the first time. As far back as I can remember I’ve loved looking at maps, finding ancient roadways, imagining striding along the routes in the footsteps of ancestors. I was almost disappointed to not hear the sounds of Neolithic travellers. We were on a long, straight section, the ridge seeming to disappear into the horizon. Saturated greying chalk clung to boot bottoms, pools and puddles became ankle-deep in places.
We nipped off the road and walked a path through a line of trees, a welcome respite from the rain under the scant cover. We found plenty of Jelly Ear Fungus. Either I’ve got “my eye in” better this year or they are more abundant.
Tree cover disappeared after crossing Gramp’s Hill and rolling fields stretched away either side, the flinty soil criss-crossed by mini-mammal tunnels. I had to take a slight detour into a field, and to the farmer, sorry for my boot prints. The Ridgeway could be described as Britain’s oldest road so there’s a fair chance flint tools could litter the stubbly fields. They didn’t.
A marked right-of-way through the fields lead us to the Devil’s Punchbowl. The rain had eased but up on the ridge the stiff breeze was chilling. We dropped down into the bowl and stopped to chomp apples. Sitting still only served to cool me down further and my already none too pleasant temperament became churlish.
Satisfied I was cold enough and narky enough I stripped off the waterproof and put on an emergency survival jacket. All in the interests of testing kit. I fiddled about a bit, got my waterproof back on and headed down the slope.
I noticed the difference immediately. My mood brightened as I warmed. Then I started noticing what was going on around me. The anticipation of being outdoors had generated too much unchecked expectation and it was only now, crinkling down the Devil’s Punchbowl slope, I began to enjoy myself.
Coming across rabbit skulls, bones and a full skeleton I stopped, fascinated, inspecting teeth, pelvic bones and a knobbly spine. Not too far away there was fox scat, grey with hair, and along the sides of the valley animal trails clung to the slopes. The badger’s trails were more distinct and wider than the rabbit’s. Where one had snuck under the fence, a few hairs revealed it was definitely badger. Flattened, it doesn’t roll in between finger and thumb.
From the rim of the bowl the valley had looked almost desolate. But from the bottom, rabbit warrens and later badger setts became visible. We found a hare’s “form” – a little nest-like hollow in the longer grasses. A snug, warm spot for a rest. That’s the way with nature, sometimes you’ve got to get in there and look a little closer. But when you do, a whole new world opens up.
We followed tracks along the fields to Letcombe Bassett. Quiet, quaint, English. The stomp, stomp of boots on tarmac bringing me back down from the chalk hillside. Following Letcombe brook I recognised Hazel catkins and got in closer for a look at the starry purple flowers, life bursting as the days lengthen. A month’s worth of tension had seeped out of my bones and I didn’t even recognise the muddy lane as we re-traced our first steps back to the car.
Sorry to say, through much of the walk I was poor company. I was cold, over-worked and under-appreciative in the moment. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and despite being dim during it, the memory of the experience brings a warm glow.