R4: Watlington to Streatley, Grim’s Ditch 16 miles

Last night, with our pub closed, we were forced out into wider Watlington and due to lack of alternatives settled for a Thai meal in another pub. Emma said that it would be fine… and it was.

Breakfast observed by Cluedo sugar confections. Rev Green 2nd from left.

This morning, we had found a cafe in the brick and timber-framed High Street… and were eating smashed avocado on toast overlooked by a line of unexpected… but finely crafted, sugar confection Cluedo characters. . Colonel Mustard looked on disapprovingly as we discussed the day.

With a missed tutorial and an assessment due in a few days, Emma needed to get back… so this would probably be her last day. A convenient train station beckoned in Goring… at the end of today’s walk.

We stocked up in the local shop and retraced our route to the Ridgeway and soon reached our first Ridgeway information board map. This time with a faded photo of a smiling man pinned to it.

Watlington High Street

there were some words on the back….’almost finished my love, wishing you were here to help me complete this walk’.

We fell quiet.. and when, later in the day, we found another photo of the middle-aged man…still smiling but fallen and lying in the grass… we fixed him back to the information board where his widowed wife had placed him, before walking on.

We found a large, ultra-modern farm …and a few fields beyond, the cluster of brick and flint ruins which had once been North Farm. The economies of scale and the changing needs of agriculture.

Woods and fields: up and down over hills, we bumped into the flint St Botolph’s church, a quiet place near a hidden mansion house. We sat on the bench by the porch and a lady invited us in to see the wall paintings. The opposing entrance arches, though one was now blocked, had the simple semi-circular look of the Saxon period and the apsidal ended chancel was very rare.

The chancel apse, St Botolph’s Chruch, Swyncombe

The apse’s open decorated stars and vine leaf motifs reminded me of the 13th century painting I had seen uncovered in 1996 at NT’s Treasurer’s House in Martock, Somerset.

Yes, St Botolph’s paintings were also 13th century ‘but restored when the Victorian’s rediscovered them’ the lady watering the church flowers told us.

They looked good..

A fluctuating day of warm sunshine but with sudden showers.

The rain came down just as we entered a wood…. but the Chilterns West OS map promised a pub on the other side. There it was…. and open… but now turned into a tea shop. Emma plumped for something extravagantly herbal and I had English Breakfast…. though we shared a delectable apple and blackberry sponge cake.

Then sunshine again. A huge field of Oxeye daisies flickering white, almost full open… about to ignite…

We spoke of … imbalances…the established privileges of the political class.. why should people be allowed to inherit? Why should people fill their lives with the mundane? That every choice in life may close a door on another… we pondered opportunity cost …..as we dropped down into ‘Grim’s Ditch’

Grim’s Ditch

This was an impressive earthwork, shrouded in secondary neglected woodland which included many fading or dead ash trees. A serious looking walker was glimpsed briefly on the far side. Perhaps a fellow Ridgeway devotee.. but heading towards Ivinghoe.

Grim’s Ditch is undated, about 10m wide and 3-4m deep and sometimes with a surviving bank on the north side. We followed it west for over 5km to the River Thames. It is presumed that this was a Late Iron Age territorial /defensive boundary though its straightness reminded me of something like the early medieval /sub Roman Wansdyke (due to be crossed in Wiltshire), dividing up political units about 1400 rather than 2000 years ago. However, the Iron Age of the east is comparatively sophisticated and differs from the West Country….I was out of my territory here.

A long walk, weaving through trees… we spent our time looking at arborglyphs. There was MP again, someone had been carving that into trees since we started. Liz was 4 Gary but nothing was older than 1963, none were deeply cut and they were all gently fading back into the bark. Past moments and voices fading.

A phone call…’Mr Papworth?’ I trudged through a puddle ‘Yes’

‘it’s Sharon at the pub at Sparsholt, just checking you are still staying with us tomorrow night. You know the kitchen has been stripped out and there is no food’

‘Yes someone let me know a few weeks ago and I said it was OK but forgot to say I was walking so will not have transport. Are there other places in the village to eat?’

‘I can hear you walking now… no, I’m afraid that the next place is over 2 miles away’

‘Oh’ …I imagined an evening of dry roasted peanuts and nibbling a walk-crushed Double Decker.

‘Unfortunately, only Dominoes Pizza are willing to deliver food from Wantage’

‘That’s fine’

‘You don’t mind? That’s good, I’ll see you tomorrow’

We held on for the Thames. I had promised a quiet grassy riverside bank for lunch but the Grim’s Ditch went on and on and when the path did turn along the River… there was no wide flowing waterway in sight… instead, the path was lined with a golf course.. so at 1.30 we crashed out on a verge with a Watlington pasta pot and a Warminster picnic bar.

At North Stoke, the path took us close to the river via the parish church with its more doomy and messy 14th-century wall paintings (I much prefer 13th century….I guess, pre-pandemic, things tended to be more decorative and upbeat).

14th century wall paintings North Stoke Church

Suddenly; buildings, private landings and golf courses fell away and the dreamed for quiet meadow beside the Thames materialised. We settled down and watched geese honking as they drifted up river… doing nothing in particular. Then a flash of turquoise beside us as a Kingfisher projectile flew low and fast across the broad flowing water…. and then another.

A finely made brick and stone bridge, courtesy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built to carry the GWR trains across the Thames.

Brunel’s Great Western Railway bridge across the Thames

Through a deserted South Stoke and then we were in Goring, a place which had clearly been fashionable in the later 19th century. Lots of wealthy villas with their riverside views and boat houses.

The last bit always seems the longest.

We crossed the Thames by the Streatley bridge and trudged uphill a little until we found the pub.

Rucksack grooves in our shoulders, we were aching but the blisters were minor and things were still OK.

The Thames at South Stoke

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