A tale of two churches and a cheese and onion roll, Aldworth, Berkshire

The short grey days of winter do their best to encourage hibernation. Or at least give the kids an excuse to spend all day indoors on technology. Instead I lured them out with the promise of a pub lunch. I may have forgotten to tell them about the walk afterwards but they’re old enough to realise this for themselves now.

Lunch at The Bell Inn, Aldworth

I generally prefer cafes to pubs for lunch (more chance of cake) but I make an exception for the Bell Inn in Aldworth. This tiny traditional freehouse epitomises the classic English village pub; it even has a cricket pitch out back.

The Bell Inn, Aldworth
The Bell Inn, Aldworth

Whenever we visit the pub is packed with locals, walkers and families. As you enter there’s a small serving hatch to place your order for food and drink. A room leads off to one side with several tables and a fireplace but we’ve never managed to get a seat indoors yet.

Instead, after placing our order, we retreated to the pub garden to find a seat. There aren’t many places I’d consider sitting outside in the depths of winter but this is one of them. Fortunately we had a picnic rug in the car so I popped back to get it to cover the wet benches.

Cheese and onion roll, The Bell Inn, Aldworth
Cheese and onion roll, The Bell Inn, Aldworth

The food is simple, cheap and delicious. A choice of soup, rolls or ploughmans; I opted for a cheese and onion roll. The warm buttered roll arrived with a huge chunk of cheese, half an onion and various accompaniments. I don’t drink beer but the pub’s local ale offerings are evidently excellent.

Before leaving I squeezed back through the pub to pop to the Ladies. Compared to the men’s open air option this was luxury, although the plumbing looked circa 1930s.

A circular walk from Aldworth to Ashampstead

I had bought my trusty OS map with me so put together a circular walk of sorts, taking us from Aldworth to the next village, Ashampstead, visiting their renowned churches. The area is wonderful for walking with the Ridgeway and many downland options nearby. We were short on daylight though so only had time to squeeze in a couple of miles.

St Mary’s Church, Aldworth

St Mary’s Church is famous as the home of the Aldworth Giants, nine stone effigies of the De La Beche family. The family were local landowners in the 14th Century and were supposedly all over seven feet tall! Sadly the effigies were damaged during the Civil War so many sport broken limbs.

St Mary's Church, Aldworth
St Mary’s Church, Aldworth

The church is also notable for its thousand year old yew tree. When I mentioned this to the family I was met with howls of despair. A few months earlier we had driven ‘halfway across France’ (so they say) to look at a thousand year old oak tree, which had rather underwhelmed them. The yew tree made even less of an impression than the oak. But at least we hadn’t made a special journey just to see it.

On to Ashampstead

Our onward route to Ashampstead wasn’t the best. It started out well with a muddy wander through the woods. Lots of pheasant feeding stations. Along with pheasants. Always ready to cause a heart attack by unexpectedly flying out of the undergrowth.

Muddy walks in the wood, near Aldworth
Muddy walks in the wood, near Aldworth

The downside was the road walking. There aren’t many direct routes, solely using footpaths, between the two villages so we resorted to using country lanes. These were nice enough and easier walking than mud. But the drivers were making the most of the open road, whizzing by us with little space to spare. Not the relaxing walk I was hoping for.

Telephone box library, Ashampstead
Telephone box library, Ashampstead

It was a relief to walk on footpaths again as we arrived in Ashampstead. Fun to spot this re-purposed telephone box cum library too. I’m glad the village managed to keep hold of it when so many are sold off to private owners.

St Clement’s Church, Ashampstead

I’m not a churchgoer so it’s pretty unusual for me to visit one church, let alone two in one day! But I’d read about the medieval wall paintings at St Clement’s Church and decided a visit was worthwhile. Probably painted by a monk in the 13th Century they were covered up in the 16th Century and only discovered again in the late 1800s when some plaster fell off the wall.

St Clement's church, Ashampstead
St Clement’s church, Ashampstead

Some of the paintings were hard to make out but when you consider they’re more than 700 years old it’s an achievement they’re still there.

I was taken by the wooden bell tower too. I’m sure that when I had an I-Spy Churches book back in the 1970s, a wooden tower would have been worth a few more points than the common stone one!

Walking back to Aldworth
Walking back to Aldworth

With only an hour to go until dusk we didn’t hang around on the way back. Although some of the route was through woods we still had to contend with the roads and I didn’t fancy being caught out on them in decreasing light.

Walking back towards Aldworth we passed Beche Farm, once the site of the De La Beche family castle. Nothing remains these days, the only evidence of its existence being a silver seal which was dug up and donated to Reading museum. Onwards past Aldworth’s second pub, The Four Points. How does a village with only 300 inhabitants support two thriving pubs?

Back into Aldworth and the treat of some chocolate chip shortbread that I’d left in the car for our return. You didn’t really expect me to complete a walk without cake did you?

More info

  • The Bell Inn is closed on Mondays, with the exception of Bank Holidays. Bar food is served at lunchtime and early evening on all other days.
  • I wouldn’t recommend our particular walking route! If you’ve got a day to spare the circular route from Goring along the Ridgeway is good. Alternatively grab the OS map and devise a longer route that avoids the roads where possible.
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Backpacking the Lambourn Valley Way, Berkshire

Sometimes you don’t need to travel far for an adventure. Whilst my younger self demanded exciting experiences or exotic destinations last weekend we hopped on a couple of buses, hoisted on our backpacks and walked the Lambourn Valley Way.

Lambourn Valley Way
Lambourn Valley Way

The Lambourn Valley Way is a 20 mile walk, running from White Horse Hill, Uffington in Oxfordshire to Newbury in Berkshire via the horse racing village of Lambourn. There are no dramatic mountain vistas but plenty of downland views, farmland and racing gallops. We split the walk over two days, camping overnight at Farncombe Farm near Lambourn.

This was our first backpacking trip with the kids. Aged 11 and 13 years they’re used to walking reasonable distances and both were looking forward to the adventure. They were carrying their sleeping bags, mats and change of clothes whilst we also carried a tent each. We didn’t bother with cooking equipment as we ate out for a treat.

Start of the Lambourn Valley Way
Start of the Lambourn Valley Way

Uffington to Lambourn

We arrived in Uffington, ate a late lunch and after fortifying ourselves with additional cake set off on our backpack. There were a couple of extra miles to the official start of the Lambourn Valley Way but our feet and shoulders were fresh so we hardly noticed it. We did notice the ominous sign below; a pity we didn’t see any!

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Our afternoon walk took us across chalk downland and alongside racing gallops. Away from the busy White Horse and Uffington Castle we walked the downs alone, treated to a landscape of gently rolling hills and serenaded by skylarks.

Further on we walked beside the gallops. I’m sure that if we’d been thundering along them on racehorses we’d have reached the end in no time at all. But we weren’t. And the path and gallops seemed to stretch into the distance forever. Not my favourite part of the walk.

The gallops, Lambourn
The gallops, Lambourn

We finally made it to Lambourn an hour later than planned. The village and surrounding area are synonymous with horse racing and there are more than 50 local racing yards. According to the Lambourn village website the valley has a higher ratio of horses to humans than anywhere else in the country. Yet we didn’t see a single racehorse!

Overnight in Lambourn

We had one more mile ahead of us, away from the official trail, out to Farncombe Farm campsite. The direct route was along the edge of the road; no separate footpath but relatively quiet and easy to hop on the grass verge if a car came by.

Farncombe Farm campsite, Lambourn
Farncombe Farm campsite, Lambourn

It was great to arrive and deposit our rucksacks for the evening. I was surprised we were the only campers on site although there were a couple of caravans at the other end of the field.

The only downside of the location was the extra walk to and from Lambourn for our evening pub meal. But our dinner at The George was worth it. The pub is the local racing hang out with horse racing on the TV, horse pictures on the wall and racing yard staff in the bar. Service and food were both excellent, a great meal out.

Eating our way along the Lambourn Valley Way
Eating our way along the Lambourn Valley Way

Our night on the campsite passed peacefully and not quite as cold as the weather forecast had suggested. After drying the tents we packed up and tackled the road into Lambourn one last time. The campsite owner did point out an alternative route back into Lambourn but it involved crossing a field of cows.

The road to Lambourn
The road to Lambourn

Lambourn to Newbury

After an excellent breakfast at The Café Lambourn, we pulled our rucksacks onto sore shoulders and headed out along the trail. Unlike the downland walk the previous day our route took us from village to village, sometimes following the river, other times the disused railway track which once ran to Newbury.

Rest stop, East Garston
Rest stop, East Garston

We passed through East Garston, an idyllic village where the River Lambourn separates many of the houses from the main road. The river is actually a chalk stream; crystal clear and inviting in May but troublesome in flood. The area suffered significant damage in February 2014 and it would be wise not to walk this route if flooding is likely.

The scenery was varied; not spectacular but the type of countryside where you’d go for a leisurely afternoon ramble or dog walk. We followed footpaths through fields of bright yellow rapeseed, across someone’s garden and amongst woodland. We stroked horses, avoided cowpats and heard our first cuckoo of the year.

The Lambourn Valley Way
The Lambourn Valley Way

We stopped for a short break in Great Shefford to buy ice creams. I would like to point out we don’t normally live on chips, fried breakfasts, cake and ice cream but I figured we were doing plenty of exercise so treats were allowed.

As we skirted around Welford we were worried by a ‘Bull in field’ sign. We had little choice but to walk quickly through the field. Fortunately the bull was nowhere to be seen. However my daughter spotted something much more exciting. For the last two years the Great British Bake Off has been filmed in Welford Park and she is convinced she saw the tent that it’s filmed in. Personally I was just keen to get away from the bull!

Lambourn River
Lambourn River

We made a couple of grisly discoveries along a footpath near Boxford. Two partially decomposed animal skeletons. We decided they were young badgers until we walked through the next field, full of sows with piglets. The sows were kept inside their pens by electric fencing but the piglets could easily walk under it without getting zapped. I’m guessing a few wandered away from their mums and met with an unfortunate end.

Piglets near Boxford
Piglets near Boxford

The final stretch to Newbury

At Bagnor it’s possible to take a short detour to Donnington Castle. This is worth the extra leg work if you haven’t visited before but we’ve been several times so I was happy to miss it out.

The last couple of miles were hard-going. Blistered feet, sore shoulders and, amazingly, we were all hungry again!

Unusual building, Speen
Unusual building, Speen

I stopped to take a photo of the building above, perched on stone mushrooms in Speen. I had hoped to read more about it on the Internet once home but couldn’t find any information. Any ideas?

It was a relief to finally reach Newbury and dive into the nearest shop for some snacks. Even more of a relief to get to the railway station and collapse into our seats for the journey home. Back in our home town we treated ourselves to a taxi for the final part of our adventure.

Kennet and Avon canal at Newbury
Kennet and Avon canal at Newbury

I’m already looking forward to our next backpacking trip but I’ll pay closer attention to the total mileage. Once I added in the extra distance from the bus stop to the start and the walk out (and back) to the campsite twice it totalled 26 miles. On a warm weekend. With kids. Carrying backpacking gear.

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A Cold War walk on Greenham Common, Berkshire

It’s hard to imagine that an area of heathland near Newbury once played an important role in the Cold War. The former RAF base at Greenham Common was controversially used by the United States Air Force as a storage site for cruise missiles. Those days are gone now and Greenham has a much more peaceful existence. We spent an afternoon walking from the Nature Discovery Centre at Thatcham, along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Greenham Common and then back to the start via Bowdown Woods.

Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre
Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre

Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre

When the kids were younger we’d often pop into the Nature Discovery Centre. There’s a great playground, handy cafe and a lakeside walk that’s perfect for little legs. As they’ve got older we’ve visited less. Tempting a 13 year old with the promise of feeding ducks just doesn’t work. Neither it seems does the suggestion of a 6 mile walk. Ignoring her assertion that she’d wait for us in the car we lured her out with a picnic.

The slight downside to our picnic suggestion was that the ducks assumed it was for them. As soon as we chose a bench waterfowl arrived from all corners of the lake expecting lunch. I read recently that feeding ducks bread is bad for them so happily kept my baguette to myself. Besides, there was a constant stream of small children walkng past with loaves of bread destined for the lake!

Along the Kennet and Avon canal
Along the Kennet and Avon canal

Kennet and Avon canal

Heading away from the lake area we crossed the railway line and joined a muddy path alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal. During summer the canal is busy with pleasure boaters but on a grey January day it was pretty gloomy. The water level was high, and at the first lock it reached almost to the top of the lock gates. I looked in vain for a flash of kingfisher to brighten up the walk. I’ve seen them near here before they were obviously tucked up warm somewhere else.

Bridge view along Kennet and Avon canal
Bridge view along Kennet and Avon canal

After a mile or so we crossed the canal and followed a farm track up to Greenham Common. I was a youngster in the early 1980s but vividly remember news reports about the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp. Women came from across the country and abroad to protest at the storage of American cruise missiles on the base. Whilst there was a hardcore of women constantly living in camps around the base many thousands would turn up to protests. In December 1983 50,000 women linked arms and formed a human chain around the fence perimeter. The missiles finally left Greenham in 1991 but the camp remained open until 2000, with women protesting against the Trident programme.

Alongside the runway, Greenham Common
Alongside the runway, Greenham Common

Greenham Common

Today Greenham Common is slowly reverting back to nature. Now managed by BBOWT, the local wildlife trust, the Commons were reopened for public use in 2000. The large expanse of heathland supports nightjars, nightingales, dog walkers and small children learning to cycle without stabilisers. BBOWT are creating wetland habitats although sometimes it was hard to work out the difference between ponds and big puddles!

Aside from a couple of obvious landmarks there is little to show for the many years the base was in operation. The old concrete from the runways was broken up (and re-used in the equally controversial Newbury bypass), disused buildings demolished and fuel contamination cleaned up. You cannot disguise the location of the runway though; at more than 3000 metres it was once the longest military runway in Europe. Following the long flat path along the Common you can almost imagine the roar of a plane taxiing along the runway.

Testing the puddles at Greenham Common
Testing the puddles at Greenham Common

Apart from the American fire hydrants the only other legacy we saw on our walk was the Greenham Common Control Tower. Whilst I can understand the desire to return the area to heathland it’s good to remember the historical significance of the Common too. Fortunately, the building has been listed and I believe there are plans to turn it into a visitor centre.

More recently, the old cruise missile silos at Greenham Common were used as a location for the Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Don’t get too excited though as they’re fenced off and privately owned so it’s not possible to visit the actual site.

Greenham Common control tower
Greenham Common control tower

Bowdown Woods

From Greenham Common we returned to Thatcham via Bowdown Woods. This involved a minor map reading mishap, as the walk leaflet I was following (albeit backwards) showed multiple routes through the woods. Instead my OS map indicated we should stay on one broad track. I have no inbuilt sense of navigation so although I can read a map I easily get thrown off course if it doesn’t agree with what I’m seeing on the ground. The other half was confident of the route, and we did end up in the right place eventually, even if I wasn’t convinced we’d gone the right way.

Thatcham Nature Reserve
Thatcham Nature Reserve

I’d hoped to to see a starling murmuration on our return to the Thatcham reedbeds. The sightings boards outside the Discovery Centre indicated flocks of 5000 birds but we were out of luck. Instead we contented ourselves with more ducks. I smiled inwardly as I saw a toddler heading towards them with yet another loaf of bread. I’d love to know how many loaves they eat each week!

If you’re looking for more walks in Berkshire you might like our backpack along the Lambourn Valley Way, our walk around Inkpen and our visit to the snowdrops at Welford Park.

More info:

  • Greenham Common, Bowdown Woods and Thatcham form part of the West Berkshire Living Landscape. Further details about all three reserves can be found on the BBOWT website. I planned our walk route independently but the 6 mile route is detailed in a leaflet. This can be purchased at the Nature Discovery Centre for the bargain price of 10p.
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Inkpen Wild Walk, Berkshire

I’m pretty sure the best antidote to a dismal grey day is a walk in the countryside. Last weekend we ignored the clouds and drizzle and headed to Inkpen in Berkshire for a walk that combined a macabre gibbet and spring crocuses!

We followed a shortened version of the Inkpen Wild Walk, a walk designed by the local wildlife trust that links two of their reserves. Our 6 mile route started at Inkpen Common, the longer alternative being a 10 mile walk which joins up to Kintbury railway station.

Inkpen Common nature reserve
Inkpen Common nature reserve

At Inkpen Common villagers once had the rights to graze livestock and burn the gorse in their ovens. Nowadays the gorse sits alongside other heathland plants and the reserve is a haven for reptiles. However the likelihood of spotting lizards and snakes sunbathing on a cold March day was pretty minimal.

Along the Wayfarer's Walk
Along the Wayfarer’s Walk

We puffed our way up Walbury Hill, the highest hill in Berkshire and the starting point for two long distance walks, the Test Way and the Wayfarer’s Walk. A wide chalk track led us along the Hampshire Downs. The fields either side were full of sheep although we looked in vain for any lambs.

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Combe Gibbet

Combe Gibbet, at the top of Gallows Down, is a notorious local attraction. The original gibbet was erected in 1676 to hang adulterers George Broomham and Dorothy Newman. They had murdered Broomham’s wife and son after their illicit affair had been discovered. Today’s gibbet is actually a replica but you can still imagine the crowds gathering to watch the hanging.

From the gibbet we continued along Wayfarer’s Walk, taking in the amazing views and snacking on biscuits, before heading down steeply from Inkpen Hill. There was plenty of evidence of spring arriving; buds on twigs, plants peeking through the soil and stinging nettles starting to grow again. We found a muddy puddle with some great animal and bird tracks which we attempted to identify.

Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve
Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve

Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve

The second reserve of the day was Inkpen Crocus Field Nature Reserve. Accessed via Pottery Lane (Inkpen was once home to several potteries) we first had to walk past a number of large and imposing houses; property envy was rife!

The meadow has the largest wild crocus population in Britain. Although we visited at peak viewing time (March) I was a little disappointed with the number of crocuses. I was expecting a field of purple but the flowers were rather more sparse. Perhaps my expectations were too high or maybe it hasn’t been a great year for the crocus. Crocuses aside, the meadows must be idyllic on a sunny summer day.

Pooh sticks in the wood
Pooh sticks in the wood

The drizzle started so the last mile was walked pretty quickly. There was still time to throw a few twigs into a woodland stream, and admire an amazing treehouse in a back garden.

Despite some initial moans from the kids (we’ve got to walk 6 miles?) we had a great afternoon walking and I’m glad we made the effort to get out rather than lazing around at home.

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