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Celebrating the oldest road in Britain

Christa McDermott
By Christa McDermott
1st November 2023

The Ridgeway Trail – our best-known local national trail – is 50 years old this year.

It’s golden birthday is being marked in style: in September representatives of some 70 heritage and countryside organisations (including CPRE Bucks) assembled at Coombe Hill near Wendover – where the original “opening ceremony” took place – to celebrate, and to learn more about the Trail. (Did you know, for example, that Britain’s first mountain bikes were inspired by, and designed for, the Ridgeway? Or that the Trail, and Coombe Hill in particular, is the only place in the UK where the Fringed Orchid is found?)

The Trail itself runs some 87 miles from Overton Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire along the North Wessex Downs to the Thames near Streetley, and thence along the Chiltern escarpment to Ivinghoe Beacon in Bucks – through some stunningly beautiful and inspiring countryside. There’s a strong emphasis on access – for two feet, four paws, hooves and bicycles, and also, increasingly, for disability scooters. (You can find out more at national But it isn’t just an extremely scenic day out – the Trail also marks the route of the ancient Ridgeway, a track which goes back not just 50 years but 5,000! It predated Stonehenge, and has been called by some “Britain’s Oldest Road”. In prehistory and mediaeval times the Ridgeway was used by farmers, traders, armies – anyone, in fact, who needed to travel from west to east across the country quickly and with relative ease (though, until the Enclosure Acts and modern roads began to encroach, there would have been many short cuts and bypasses to speed up the journey and avoid seasonal hazards.) And of the many treasures that have been found along its route, we in Bucks are lucky to have one of the most significant – the Ivinghoe Sword, a magnificent Bronze Age weapon which was found by an amateur detectorist at Ivinghoe Beacon in 2000. The original is in the Discover Bucks museum in Aylesbury, but as part of the Trail celebrations, a replica was made.

Other key events took place along the route, including King Alfred’s battles with Viking armies in the 10th century and Churchill’s famous radio speeches from Chequers during World War II. Its atmospheric ancient monuments are rich with stories and legends, including the forging of the sword Excalibur for magician Merlin, Tolkien’s fantasy world ‘Lord of the Rings’ and also the most recent Star Wars film! It is special to have such a rich heritage open to everyone to enjoy, free of charge. One of CPRE Buck’s trustees Andy has in fact taken part in an Ultra Marathon, running 100km along the Ridgeway to Avebury a few years ago. Andy said “One of my less sensible moments the marathon took me 15 hours. It’s one route that seems to encompass all that is good about Southern England, in that you get to see the great mix of Woods, valleys, rivers, undulating hills and wide open spaces and ancient monuments, free from cars. So much variation in greenery that seems to be enjoyed by walkers, cyclists and runners(the mad ones).  It’s one that needs to be preserved and kept accessible as it’s a slice through our history. My lasting memory was a bit that ran down and up a valley with a field full of flowers, and if that does not inspire people then I’m not sure what might.”