The storm had passed during the night, and the dawn was clear and cold. I woke at first light to the chatter of birds. The flysheet had kept out most of the overnight rain, but my sleeping bag was damp with condensation. I was beginning to appreciate the drawbacks of a small tent. It was light and easy to carry, but there was no space for the air to circulate, and no room to move about inside. I had to crawl out onto the wet grass just to dress, which left me wondering how I would have managed if it had still been raining. I thought about breakfast, but it was too chilly to hang about in the open. I packed quickly and left.
From the Plough the path climbed quickly up through gnarled oaks. The pale sky was empty of clouds, washed clean by the rains. As I reached higher ground I could see the red sun rising through the mist away to my left, touching the trees with an unearthly glow. A fox emerged from the woods, stiffened as it caught sight of me and bounded away down a long slope. I reached the summit of Whiteleaf Hill and looked out on Princes Risborough still slumbering in the early sunshine. I could see far ahead in the clear light, past Bledlow Ridge to the valley of the Thames. I could just make out the squat shape of Didcot power station and the western downs. A cold wind was blowing over the hilltop so I pressed on. As I walked I watched a red kite twisting in the gale.
Descending to Princes Risborough I began to encounter other people, mostly dog walkers. The track bypassed the town, skirting the gardens of outlying houses. Soon it encountered a main road, following the pavement for a few hundred yards before turning into a quiet country lane. From here the official line of the path loops south over the fields, though if you don't fancy the detour you can keep to the lane. It runs straight towards Bledlow Ridge where it rejoins the Ridgeway once more.
It was still early as I entered Thickthorne Wood, but the sun was up and it was starting to feel warmer. The path led through the trees, following the contours of the hill. It was pleasant walking through peaceful woodland in the fresh morning air. After a couple of miles I started to feel hungry, so I dug out the stove. Sausages, beans and coffee seemed an appropriate breakfast, though I'm not so sure about the vegetable soup I had to follow! The food was warm and comforting though, and I packed up once more in good heart.
On previous trips I depended on meals bought along the way, which often meant that I had little to eat until the pubs opened at lunchtime. During this walk I discovered that being able to cook whenever I wanted was an enormous advantage. Cold snacks, even high-energy ones, are just not the same as hot food. A meal and a mug of coffee give you a psychological boost as well as a physical one. The next few miles pass much more easily.
My body temperature had dropped during the halt and I set off once more wearing hat and gloves. In spite of the sunshine it was still cold under the trees. The path ran for a while in the lee of the hills, but soon it swung round to the south-west, facing once more into the relentless wind. Walking became difficult, the low-lying path at times almost impassable. This part of the Ridgeway is used by horses and trail bikes, and the surface is deeply rutted. After heavy rain the water collects in the dips, reducing the firm ground to a sticky morass. I floundered along, clinging to posts and branches as I worked round the deeper puddles. In places where the track was crossed by a road there were piles of rubbish. A burnt-out car lay abandoned in the mud. Altogether a depressing few miles.
The track became a little drier as it ran away through the farmland at the foot of the ridge. Red kites were out and about that morning, flying low over the fields. These birds, which became extinct in the Middle Ages, were reintroduced a few years ago. I stood and watched one as it flapped heavily along to the left of the path, battling the wind. Seen sideways the sinuous, undulating glide was reminiscent of the flight of a magpie. It turned towards me, and in the sunlight the plumage was red as a kestrel. It was easy to see how the birds got their name. The call is a long drawn-out "peeooooooooooo" like the mew of a buzzard, followed by three or four staccato notes, "pioo pioo pioo". Although they have only been around for a few years they seem to be thriving. You normally see a few on this section of the Ridgeway. They have now spread beyond the Thames; the following day I spotted one on the ridge above Streatley. I was told that a pair recently overwintered on the south coast, so perhaps they will one day become common elsewhere in the country.
After Watlington the path, which had been running steadily south-west, bent more to the south, cutting across a corner of the Chilterns. It climbed away from the flat fields, surmounting a series of wooded ridges before reaching the chapel at Swyncombe. Here among the trees the year seemed more advanced. The wind dropped and I heard the song of birds once more. By the church was a bank of daffodils swaying in the mild air, restless as the sudden spring. I sat in the churchyard, lulled by the wood pidgeon's seductive call, breathing the peace of the place.
And then on, through fields where the young lambs gambolled in the grass. Another ridge, and away to my right I could make out the chimneys of Didcot power station, looking suddenly very close. Beyond rose the long dark slopes of the Marlborough Downs. That unexpected vista gave a sense of urgency to the walk: I knew that they lay far beyond the river, those broad hills that border the Vale of the White Horse.
But, walking being what it is, though you may leap ahead in thought you must still get there in body. I had not even reached the Thames, let alone the crossing that lay some miles downstream. I plodded on through the fields, past the scatter of buildings that make up Ewelme Park. On the last descent before the A423 I met a cheery bunch of walkers coming from the Crown. I had no watch, and no idea of the time, but they told me that if I hurried I should just get there for last orders - welcome news indeed!
I sat outside, but when it began to rain I was forced to move indoors. It was Sunday afternoon, and the pub was full of people having lunch. There was an empty table at the back, but I did not want to upset anyone by manouevering a large pack through the crowded dining area, so I squeezed it as best I could into a corner of the porch.
I was sitting with a pint and a sandwich, looking at the map, when a middle-aged lady approached my table. She asked whether that was my rucksack, and when I replied that it was she began to abuse me. Did I realize that her elderly mother had tripped on it while trying to get out of the inn? I really didn't know what to say. I had left it there because I thought it would be least in the way - and in any case I would have moved it immediately if she had asked me to. Having said her piece she stormed out. Through the window I saw her get into a large and very expensive-looking car and drive off.
I have met many people when walking, and come across many attitudes, from indifference through amusement to sympathetic understanding. But I don't think I have ever experienced such naked hostility. She resented me, and she made it quite obvious that she did so. I felt that I was something alien to her world, as she was to mine.
I left the place in an extremely bad mood, which was a little alleviated by the friendly goodbyes of the staff. I was still fuming as I strode across the golf course to Nuffield. I stopped to fill my bottles from the tap on the wall of the church; and as the building was unlocked I thought I might as well go in. I'm glad that I did. It is a simple place, not beautiful but with a quiet charm. I sat for an hour in one of the pews absorbed by the silence, and slowly my ill-humour subsided. It was hard to feel resentment in such peaceful surroundings.
I left the church in a much happier frame of mind. Just past Nuffield the Ridgeway reaches Grim's Ditch and turns west, making straight for the Thames. The track is like a rollercoaster, but for the most part it descends, shedding height laboriously gained in the Chilterns. It runs through avenues of hazel and beech, with wide fields all around. At times I could look out over the river, a disquieting view as black clouds were massing there. By now it was late afternoon, and I had to think about where to sleep. The woods thereabouts were too open, and I certainly did not fancy setting up the tent right next to the path, though I might have done so at twilight. I hurried on with nothing suggesting itself, and all the time the sky grew more threatening. As I reached Cart Gap the storm struck. The trees bent in the icy blast and hail swept over the fields. I sat in the shelter of the bank, my pack between my knees, as the landcape darkened and faded. The deluge lasted some twenty minutes then stopped as quickly as it had begun. I watched as the rain-shadow faded away to the north-west.
The sun came out and the earth began to steam gently. It was no more that a brief interlude of good weather: other squalls were circling ominously. There was a campsite marked on the map at Crowmarsh Gifford, not far from Wallingford. It was a mile or so north of the Ridgeway but I thought I'd better try it as there was no other shelter before Streatley. Fortunately it was open. The ground was muddy from the rain that had fallen but I managed to get the tent up. The facilities were basic, and I couldn't coax any hot water out of the shower, but at least I was able to clean up and change my wet clothes. That night the rain fell with quiet persistence. I wandered the wet streets of the town for a while, then settled down in a pub for the rest of the evening. Then back once more to a cold tent and oblivion.