It’s not often we spend a day away from the kids. We enjoy our family time together and want to make the most of it. Last weekend was an exception. The kids got to spend a day with the grandparents, and we took part in an organised challenge walk along the Ridgeway, our local long distance footpath.
This is the second time we’ve taken part. Last year I thought walking 40 miles in a day would be a great way to celebrate my partner’s 40th birthday. Fast forward a year, and for some reason we’re doing it again. During the intervening year my mind has somehow obliterated the soreness and blisters we experienced last time. Even my souvenir black toenail had grown out.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Ridgeway, it’s an 87 mile ancient track, running from Wiltshire through Berkshire to Buckinghamshire. The first half (which we were walking) is mainly across rolling chalk download. The scenery changes in the latter stages to beech woodlands, as it passes through the Chilterns. Our walk was more or less along a ridge (funny that, given the name) and although not hilly there were quite a few ups and downs, particularly near the start.
Our day began with an early morning bus journey from the end point at Streatley Youth Hostel to the start of the Ridgeway at Overton Hill. Driving for an hour to our destination reiterated just how far we were going to walk. It was also during this bus ride that the other half remembered his sandwiches were still in the fridge at home! Fortunately he had plenty of other snacks to sustain him.
By 8am we were off the bus and on our way. The event is limited to 300 participants and whilst the challenge is officially for walkers some people do run it. During the first few miles we were repeatedly passed by these super fit individuals. Later on we found out that the first runners home completed it in around 6 1/2 hours, almost 6 hours quicker than our eventual time!
The morning walk was relatively painless, and we made speedy progress over the first few miles. We were thankful that the brisk wind was behind us, and although we had a couple of short rain showers the cool weather was perfect for walking.
A highlight of the early part of the walk was Barbury Castle. This is the home of an Iron Age hill fort, and one of many historical sites along the track. I made a mental note as we zoomed through to bring the children back for a more leisurely exploration another day.
There were 9 checkpoints along the route, the first one at 7 miles. At each checkpoint our cards were clipped and times allocated for the previous leg. The first stop offered squash with subsequent ones offering snacks such as dried fruit, orange segments and rice pudding. All built up to the highlight of the day at checkpoint number 6, but more of that later.
It’s fair to say that as we passed the 14 mile checkpoint we were starting to suffer. We trained for the walk last year but hadn’t done much in the way of long distance walking since. A big mistake! The only way to train for a walk such as the Ridgeway 40 is to do plenty of walking. Our feet were letting us know that we hadn’t done enough.
We took the opportunity to stop for a quick lunch break at Uffington, and a change of socks. It was a relief to sit down for a few minutes, although getting up again was rather painful. Blisters were starting to form, rather worrying given how many miles we still had to walk.
Uffington was the halfway mark so from that point on we started to count down the miles. Didcot power station came into view, albeit with the recognition that we had to walk several miles past this to our destination. I’d love to tell you more about the scenery we were walking through, but by this time my view was near enough restricted to my feet. Heads down, we trudged on.
Checkpoint 6, which we reached around 4pm, offered tea and cake. As we arrived the lady advised us to eat as much cake as we could and to take some with us for the rest of the walk. The table reminded me of a WI cake stall, with gingerbread, Victoria sponge, fruit cake, chocolate cakes and more! It’s not very often that taking up a suggestion like this is guilt free, but given the circumstances I demolished three slices of homemade cake in a very short time. Cake has never tasted so good.
Leaving checkpoint 6 we were 28 miles down, 12 to go. The weather forecast had advised of an 80% chance of rain, with the possibility of hail and thunder. We had been incredibly lucky to miss the heavy showers throughout the early afternoon but our luck was about to run out. Our first soaking only lasted about 20 minutes and the wind blew the showers over pretty quickly. I was secretly happy that I got to use my waterproofs, which I’d been carrying all day.
Shortly afterwards, we were joined by a friend who’d come to provide some moral support, along with bananas, Club biscuits and Mars bars. We both felt rather guilty however as he’d got caught in the aforementioned rain shower, but unlike us he’d been wearing jeans. There’s nothing worse than the feel of sodden jeans.
With only 10 miles to go we were onto the home strait. At this point we just wanted to finish. Our feet were screaming at us and it became an effort to put them in front of each other. Rather ominously the sky was also turning black. We walked as fast as we were able to at this late stage but just after we passed the last checkpoint the rain started again.
This time it was much heavier. We were down to the last couple of miles, which is along a road, and small streams were racing alongside us. A couple of cars came by, throwing spray our way, but by this time we were so wet it didn’t really matter.
The rain stopped just as we arrived in Streatley and we were treated to a glorious rainbow. A few more hundred metres and we were at the Youth Hostel, the end point. We’d hardly noticed the steep slope up to the hostel entrance when we’d left in the morning, but I can assure you we noticed every step of it that evening.
It was a relief to finally finish. Of course it’s a fantastic achievement, and I’m glad we did it. However the agonising walk back to our car and the taking off of boots will stay with me for some time yet. I am also not ashamed to say that I had to physically crawl up the stairs to bed that night!