After a sequence of dull and wet days at last a dry and sunny one, ideal for a long walk. I decided to re-explore the Ridgeway and visit some villages west of Wantage. I previously walked part of it last June, but for the whole of this segment of the Great Ridgeway as long ago as March 2003. Here is a map of the 12 mile walk.
There is a very nice wildflower rich section of scrub to the west of Sparsholt Firs, but most of the Ridgeway is a wide track with fields either side. Here I was delighted to catch an Orange Tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines). Only the males have the orange tips and on this shot you can see that the under-wing has a green camouflage pattern that makes them hard to spot when the wings are closed.
In this sheltered spot some cowslips were still in flower, most of them are now over.
I'd chosen the Ridgeway because there was a cool north-easterly breeze which often gives spectacularly clear views. I could fill this blog entry with views (I took 177 photographs in all), here is a sample of the view from the Ridgeway.
I walked down from the chalk ridge to Kingston Lisle, part of the reason for this particular route was to catch something I had missed last time. This is the Blowing Stone which is associated with King Alfred (he was born hereabouts). It is a sarcen stone with many holes, not much to look at. The legend is that King Alfred blew it to call together his troops before the battle of Ashdown (probably near Aston Upthorpe). The stone was moved here 250 years ago from up on the downs. It is mentioned in 'Tom Browns School days' - Thomas Hughes the author lived nearby. Anyone who can blow the stone is destined to become King of England. It looks a little disappointing and the owners of the nearby house seemed to have despaired of building up an income from tourists. Curiously though if you tap your hand over some of the holes you do produce an unexpected resonant sound. Here is the popping sound I got out if it : audio. Perhaps there is a large linked cavity in the middle of the stone.
Kingston Lisle is a village dominated by the rearing of racehorses. One of the stables has a quite entertaining weather vane.
Kingston Lisle like the other five villages I visited on the walk lies on the spring line where reliable supply of water seeps out from the chalk downs; they are all ancient villages. I was delighted to find that the church was a real gem. It is a 12th century manorial church and not much modified since. It has an old (Saxon?) tub font, and rare 14th century wall paintings. Over £400,000 has been spent on restoration and one conservator was busy applying wood oil to the rare and strange pew ends (15th century).
Many of these villages have a few quaint thatched houses, I am limiting myself to some of the best. This was at the next village of Sparsholt. (Note there is a more famous Sparsholt in Hampshire).
The church at Sparsholt is a grander affair than at Kingston Lisle. The church of the Holy Rood was built on the site of a Saxon church and has a wide southern transept. It has a probably Saxon plain tub font; but more significantly contains the important Sparsholt Wooden Effigies of three members of the Achard family (c. 1350) the oak looks in remarkable condition. There are only a hundred or so wooden effigies like this in the UK. It is also famous for a re-used stone that was inscribed for playing the game Nine Man's Morris.
The next village on my eastward trek was Childrey. It is an old village complete with a village pond and a pair of ducks. On the walk to the church was a nice patch of Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) looking nothing like its diminutive namesake, which shows you how misleading common names can be.
The exterior of Childrey church was very promising - signs of the addition of a Tudor style chapel and strange window placement. Clearly the main fabric was old and not messed around by the Victorians too much. Online research shows it has been modified at many stages from its original erection in the late 11th century.
Inside were many high quality brasses, some dating back 600 years. The highlight for me was the font. I have made quite a study of them over the years, and have a long blog page dedicated to them; they are usually the oldest thing in a church. Most fonts have a lead lining to keep them water-tight, one or two are made of lead, the only other one I have seen locally is at Long Wittenham. The design there has a series of twelve abbots with their croziers and the same theme is used here, however the moulding has given the abbots a strange countenance. It is believed to be 11th century making it the oldest in Britain of this type.
From Childrey I headed south-east over the fields to Letcombe Regis. Along the way was a very dense thicket of Spurge Laurel - unusual as often you see isolated plants. Also dominant in places were the very vigorous shoots of Black Bryony already with flower buds as well as leaves.
For lack of space I will miss out Letcombe Regis, I posted a few pictures of it on my last visit. It is dominated by the Richmond Retirement Village a brand new large cluster of retirement 'apartments' close to the main lake in the village.
A Nature Reserve surrounds the delightful stream-side path to Letcombe Bassett and there were quite a few trees and plants of interest along the way. This patch of forget-me-nots was unforgettable.
In the village of Letcombe Bassett is this grand thatched building just next to the church. Unfortunately the church was locked, perhaps not surprising as it had fairly recently been subject to theft of lead from the roof - a pity as on my last visit the interior was a pleasure to see - still out of the five churches I visited on this walk, four were open to visitors.
In the above picture the clumps of white flowers in the verge turned out to be Meadow Saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata). This is one of the biggest and most vigorous plants I have ever seen, often you see only a dozen or so flowers.
The view back to down the slope to the village of Letcombe Bassett has the charm I have come to expect from this area.
Climbing up to the 400 feet to the top of the chalk ridge, I saw a male chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) in breeding plumage proclaiming his territory.
I then made a three mile walk along the Great Ridgeway back to the car. The first section was shielded with high hedges and here I saw a few orange tip and red admiral butterflies, elsewhere on the walk I had seen only a green veined white and holly blue, a little disappointing but there was a cool breeze. For the last half of this section the views open up to the north and were spectacular, with the fresh green of the fields. You can see Didcot power station (the little that remains) in the distance (ten miles away), beyond are the Chilterns near Chinnor (thirty miles away).
I could not omit a picture of the hawthorn that was in full bloom in the hedgerows all along the walk. It was living up to its alternative name 'May'.