It was after seven when I awoke. I stretched in my sleeping bag, only to discover that a puddle of water had formed at the bottom of the tent. Struggling into such clothes as I could put on in so small a space I crawled out onto the wet grass. Overhead grey clouds were flying in the fitful breeze. The sun was up but it brought little comfort. The wind had settled in the north-west and the day looked distinctly unpromising. I stood by the stove as the sausages and beans heated up, considering what to do. I have walked along this part of the Thames several times now, and I find it depressing. The river wanders through fields flat and featureless. The paths are muddy. There are few hedges. And the smell of rotting cabbage hangs in the air. All in all it's a dreary place on a damp morning. In the end I settled for a bus ride the five miles or so down to Goring, and started walking from there.
The Thames at Goring is a different river. No longer aimless and dull it cuts through a steep wooded ridge. The twin settlements of Goring and Streatley lie on either side of the stream, linked by a long causeway. From Goring station I crossed the bridge and followed the street up to the Bull, past quaint houses where the early blossom dusted the boughs of ornamental trees. Right at the crossroads, and the houses fell back as the road swung off through a broad grassy valley and took to the hills. Where the lane petered out a track branched right, climbing steadily onto the broad shoulder of Thurle Down.
I have walked this section of the Ridgeway several times now, but always from west to east. It was curious to see the same countryside the other way round. I thought I knew it well, but I was often surprised by unexpected vistas and the sight of familiar views from a different perspective. It gave the walk a freshness I had not anticipated.
Showers fell on the climb to the top of the down, but at least I was sheltered from the rampaging wind. As I came over the crest, however, it struck once more. The path descended now into a wide bowl of chalk before climbing once more to East Ilsley Down. The ascent seemed to go on for ever, slipping in the treacherous mud, battered by the relentless gusts. I was tired when at last I reached the top.
I had hoped to get water from the tap near the farm, but when I got there it was dry. A family of travellers had set up camp nearby, and I wondered if the water had been disconnected as a gentle hint that their presence was not required. Two grubby toddlers played happily among some discarded rubbish. They took no notice of me, wrapped up in a magical world of their own. As I walked past a scrawny cur snapped at the end of its chain.
After the A34 the track traverses Bury Down, a wide and wind-swept tract of open grassland. For the first time that morning the sun shone brightly, and as if on cue skylarks rose and unfurled in the breeze. Below me to my right I could see Didcot, close now, and the Harwell Research Laboratories. Beyond them were the twin humps of the Sinodun Hills, hanging above Day's Lock. And further still in a long fold of land lay Oxford, gateway to the Midlands. I looked back over the river, where the wooded Chilterns ran north and west, and out ahead into the Vale of the White Horse. Only to the south was the view curtailed, where fields flowed up to the top of the ridge. It was an inspiring place, and I strode off once more in good heart.
The fine weather did not last long. As I covered the five miles to the Wantage monument the skies became increasingly threatening. Black rainstorms brushed the lowlands, blotting out the view. Approaching the monument I could see one up ahead, in the eye of the wind. Clearly this one was not going to miss. As I reached the pillar the rain came down: the slender needle offered little respite, but at least I was out of the wind. I sat huddled on the stone steps. Soon I started to feel extremely cold, so I pulled out the Trangia and made lunch. Lamb stew, it said on the pack, though the dish seemed to be mostly beans. Army food...
That storm soon passed, but I didn't get much further before another and heavier one struck. I was close to Segsbury Castle when the bushes bent beneath a bitter hail. I gave up any thought of walking and looked for shelter. An old and twisted tree, close to the path, seemed the only hope. I crawled into the protective embrace of its ivy-clad trunk. Not a drop of rain penetrated that rustling cavern. I sat on my pack, while the wind raged outside. With nothing to look at and nothing to think, I fell asleep.
An hour later I set out again. The afternoon sun gleamed throught the torn clouds and the track ahead became a shining path of light. It was slippery underfoot but I made fair progress. Another few miles, another hail storm. I was caught in the open this time, and the only refuge I could find was the base of a thorn bush on the edge of a long exposed slope. I slumped down among the roots while the gale tore at the branches and ice pattered onto the fabric of my rucksack. I was cold, wet and extremely fed up. It was undoubtedly the worst moment of the trip.
As the wind eased the hail was followed by a steady downpour. With no protection that could be so called to hand, I had to press on. I splashed through the mud, trying to convince myself that I was enjoying the experience. Who wanted to be stuck indoors when they could be out in the fresh air? A question at that moment better left unanswered, so I mentally changed the subject. What to do for the night? It would be dark in an hour and the weather was appalling. The best bet seemed to be Wayland's Smithy, where there is a flat grassy area sheltered by a fringe of trees. Camping by a national monument is of course wholly forbidden, but by that stage I was past caring. I've slept out in a few strange places over the years, not all of them strictly legal, and have always kept to the same simple rules. Don't light fires. Don't break anything. And don't leave a scrap of litter. If the only trace of your stay is a small patch of flattened grass you can hardly be accused of criminal damage!
A trail warden driving a Landrover bounced past as I neared Uffington Castle. He eyed me curiously, but did not stop. As I reached the crest of the hill I looked out on the Vale of the White Horse, a vague and insubstantial gulf in the gathering night. To my left the tattered edge of the storm trailed away south, and faint stars emerged in a cold sky rapidly clearing of clouds. It was nearly dark when I reached Wayland's Smithy, but I managed to get the tent up before the light failed. I dined beneath a beech tree on pork casserole with the inevitable beans, then undressed shivering and slithered into the tent. As I tried to close the flysheet the zip broke.