Driving Englands Oldest Road.
In 2006 two of us drove part of The Ridgeway in Wiltshire. Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World.
Gazing out across a perfect view of Wiltshire from a hill top fort it is easy to imagine what ancient man would have seen. There are less trees now, but the shape of the land must be similar today to the view shared by our ancestors 6000 years ago when this was the equivalent of an M4 service area. Chris and I were in Wiltshire researching this feature and hoping to bring to life one of England’s oldest routes. The Ridgeway. This collection of haphazard byways and footpaths runs for about 90 miles across some spectacular scenery linking various ancient monuments; The Stone Circle of Avebury, the Iron Age hill fort we found ourselves on, Barbury Castle, to name but two. Part of the trail runs along a ridge, as the name implies, on the top of the Marlborough Downs. On a damp Friday afternoon in May we had the place to ourselves.
I recall having read an article some 30 years ago about driving the entire length of this road in an 80 inch Land Rover. It was possible then. Not now however. Much of the accessible bits have been made easy by levelling and gravelling. Lengths of outstanding natural beauty have been reclassified as ‘restricted byways’, open only to walkers, cyclists, horse riders, and, bizarrely, drivers of horse drawn carriages. Hate to think what a mess they would leave in their wake!
After close study of Ordnance Survey ‘Explorer’ map 157 and two days of trial and error, Chris and I eventually found a part of the Ridgeway that is still classed as a B.O.A.T. and open to all traffic between 1st May and 31st September. It offers a subtle blend of challenge and excitement, incorporating great scenery in a non damaging environment. We tackled this 8 mile byway in my 200 Tdi Carawagon running on road biased tyres and the editorial 2.5 NA Diesel 90, similarly shod. Whilst, at times, the going was tricky, at no stage did either of us get stuck, though we ended up at some jaunty angles and got very muddy.
The route begins on A346 to the east of Ogbourne St Andrew. The entrance to the byway is opposite the minor road into Ogden and is sign posted ‘Byway’.
N 51 26’ 37 W 01 43’ 50 (SU187717) 420 feet above sea level.
The first 20 meters is hard packed gravel with some farm gates either side, giving way to looser gravel. Drive about 20 metres and take a very sharp right. If you end up on the old railway track, with gates to your left and right, you have gone too far. The byway crosses the old railway route on a rather narrow bridge. At the far end of the bridge the undergrowth could cause minor scratching, but we were tackling this at the end of May, when foliage is at it’s most virile.
From here it’s a gentle climb up through a tree lined track onto Poulton Down. There is plenty of grip, but overhanging trees come down to windscreen height and, again, could cause minor scratching.
At the top you have climbed to 700 feet and pop out of the trees into 50 metres of challenging ruts that have your motor bucking like a bronco and passengers reaching for the grab handles, though the grip is good underneath.
N 51 26’ 40 W 01 43’ 09 (SU196718)
These soon gives way to level ground, but after heavy rain the surface was greasy and very slippery causing Chris to end up at 90 degrees to the route, his grille kissing the hedge! This was at N 51 26’ 39 W 01 56’ 20 (SU200717)
Emerge from the woods to be rewarded with a stunning view across rolling hills. N 51 26’ 39 W 01 42’ 51 (SU199717)
After this mishap it is an easy run up to the tarmac minor road by some big barns at: N 51 26’40 W 01 42’ 00 (SU210717)
As soon as you hit the road take a sharp left. A wooden signpost points to ‘Ogbourne’.
It’s a fairly easy run towards Bytham Farm on a firm gravel track to a byways crossroads at N 51 26’ 59 W 01 42’ 09 (SU207726) where you enter more woods and the track becomes rutted again as you drop down to the the farm. Take care not to miss the hidden right turn about 100 metres before the farm, sign posted ‘Byway’ just before you emerge from the woods. IT IS VERY EASY TO MISS! N 51 27’ 08 W 01 42’ 11 (SU206717)
What has been an easy track so far, changes character here to a mud hole filled with farm waste. The Bytham Farm cows certainly produce a lot of waste! Although it looked as though we would get stuck here. It was, in fact, okay and we didn’t even spin a wheel.
After this smelly interlude the going is easy again, taking you through the farm buildings. Although you may feel as though you are joining the farmer’s family for tea, you have a right to drive here, but not on the adjacent bungalows immaculate lawn which has to be negotiated with care.
From Bytham Farm it’s an easy run with glorious views to east and west to a crossroads of byways at N 51 27’ 44 W 01 41’ 48 (SU 212 737). From here the track condition deteriorates to deep ruts with a hardcore base getting easier in the second half of the section.
At N 51 28’ 24 W 01 41’ 25 (SU 215 750) turn left onto a minor tarmac road facing some woodland. Follow this for about 200 metres to Copse Drive. Cross this to rejoin the byway where the going is easy on a gravel surface to N 51 28’ 54 W 01 41’ 38 (SU 214 760) when the ruts start again.
The next deviation is at another byway crossroads. Where the signpost indicates ‘Lower Upham’. Turn right here, then sharp left following the ‘Ridgeway Byway’ sign. Lambourne Downs are to the east and the site of the Medieval village of Upton. Emerging from the trees at 850 feet above sea level, you are rewarded with a commanding view across a steep decline to the west, the rape seed fields glowing a warm yellow in the afternoon sun. You may be humming Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory, but watch out for those ruts. They are still there to throw you around and keep you on your mettle. A good place to stop for a cuppa would be the small coppice of trees to the right. Lovely view and interesting carvings in the tree bark.
The view is short lived, however, as the byway will take you right and down into Shipley Bottom where, with a field to your right and a hawthorn hedge to your left the ruts get serious.
There is a softer set of ruts to the right, but we ended up bouncing into the little demons on the left and having to concentrate hard to avoid tipping both Land Rovers into the ditch under the hedge.
With a reassuring splattering of mud over both vehicles now, we hit B4193 and our first gates. Through these we headed for a distant hill climb sign posted ‘Byway to Peaks Down’.
More innocent ruts that got progressively more severe.
Once both sets of wheels were committed to the left hand ruts and any deviation was impossible, the left rut got deeper and forced us to hang on to the steering wheel and floor the throttle. We made it and with big grins came to the foot of Sugar Hill, a gate and an easy climb up a hard packed track to the summit and another gate saw us within half a mile of the end.
We stopped for a chat and agreed this was a great route for an intermediate off roader, who is not averse to getting a few minor scratches on his motor. Probably too severe for a standard Freelander and a beginner would be foolish to attempt it solo in case he, or she, fell foul of the deeper ruts.
Feeling pleased with ourselves we set off for the easy amble back to tarmac across half a mile of flat track and then the tarmac to the M4. Our confidence was short lived as we suddenly found ourselves on the biggest roller coaster of the day. I won’t give you too many clues, but when we did reach tarmac we both had very big grins on our faces and simultaneously chorused ‘WOW!! That’s more like it!!! What a sting in the tail!
N 51 30’ 40 W 01 38’ 28 (SU250792)
Sitting outside the Red Lion at Avebury within sight of Britain's biggest largest stone circle takes some beating. Bed and Breakfast also available. 01672 539266
The Barge Inn at Honeystreet is steeped in Crop Circle history and mystery, served a good pint of real ale and very reasonable food. 01672 851 705
The Golden Swan at Wilcot is a pleasant thatched pub offering real ale and reasonable food with background music firmly rooted in ‘70s disco classics. 01672 562289.
We camped at The Barge Inn for £4 a head, whether in a Carawagon or a tent. Facilities were basic, but clean and the hot shower was at no extra charge.
The Golden Swan at Wilcot also offers camping behind the pub. £4 a head, but no hot shower. Bed and Breakfast also available.
Copyright: Toby Savage. Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World Magazine.