Race to the Stones 2021

Race to the Stones is a running/walking event along 100km of the Ridgeway: an ancient path used “since prehistoric times by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers”. The Ridgeway stretches from Ivinghoe (Buckinghamshire) to Avebury (Wiltshire) – the site of a Neolithic stone circle. RTTS covers most of this route, starting at Lewknor in Oxfordshire and extending to the stones at Avebury, with options to do the whole distance in one day, over two days, or to do either half of it.

Having walked the whole thing in 2015 – having vowed to do no more overnighters – and with the 2-day option already booked up – we decided this year to walk the first half, from Lewknor to Wantage. So yesterday, after a night of heavy rain, we set off under grey skies through a light drizzle. Last time we had walked this event, the sun had blazed all day but this time the conditions were going to be very different. A warm, muggy and humid day was in store, with a constant threat of rain.

The first section was mainly along narrow paths through beech woods. It was hard to relax and get into a walking rhythm, as the path was narrow in places, and at this early stage, there seemed to be many more runners than walkers. We were constantly having to be vigilant to groups of runners approaching from behind, ready to move out of the way for them. Although many runners were friendly and would give a polite warning shout that they were coming: “On the left!“, there were also those who barged past in a more entitled way. One positive thing was that despite all the heavy rain, there wasn’t much mud, which Caralyn explained was due to beeches being very thirsty trees (new fact for the day). We saw red kites, skylarks and fields of red clover, navigated a few hills and then, before long we’d reached the first pitstop at 8.7k.

The next section had quite a few hills, though nothing as bad as those we’d recently tackled on RTTT. We were glad to have our walking poles, as the chalk paths were wet and slippery in places, there were constant tree roots underfoot and occasional badger holes. We walked across some very photogenic fields: first, there was the “field of dreams” (an undulating crop field which usually gets shown in any RTTS publicity), then the “field of flowers” (poppies, ox-eye daisies and cornflowers, with clouds of pink, gold and green grass) and then finally, the “field of peas”, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but we took a photo anyway. (As an aside, have you ever tried taking photos while also walking without stopping, over uneven ground, while also grasping two walking poles and your phone, with slippery hands? It isn’t easy. These are the lengths Caralyn and I go to, to ensure our walks are well-documented).

From these colourful fields, the path descended and took us along the side of Grim’s Ditch, an ancient earthwork site, possibly named for Grimr, the Norse god of war and magic. With overhanging trees and hedges on both sides, it was like walking through a green tunnel. Although that might sound attractive, the reality was a very long, slow, single-file trudge down a path so narrow that even the most competitive of runners hesitated to push past and resigned themselves to joining the slow march. Combined with the humidity, and the sense of the skies also pressing down, it felt oppressive, claustrophobic and energy-sapping. It was therefore a relief to eventually emerge in the village of Mongewell, and from there to walk along the bank of the Thames. We chatted to some wild swimmers, and took in various sights as we walked, including houseboats, riverside mansions, picturesque cottages and a reminder that an important football match loomed for England.

Pitstop 2 (lunch) was a soggy field, in the beautiful village of North Stoke. As usual, this “rest” stop wasn’t exactly restful as there was so much to do: queue for food and drink, consume it, change out of damp socks into dry ones, relace shoes, check the phone to see if there are important messages, queue for the loo, refill your water supply, rearrange your backpack, have a little stretch of weary muscles…and then set off again.

After another stretch of Thameside walking, where we passed the interesting parallel/four arch bridge at Moulsford (above), we reached Goring and Streatley – two villages separated by the river, with expensive-looking restaurants, bars and cafes enticing us on every side. We crossed the river and began a long, steady ascent which would eventually lead up to the Ridgeway. As this was mainly a wide and firm-surfaced road, we were able to put on a spurt and enjoy the experience of walking at a reasonable speed, even though it was uphill. The sun came out for a while, and we were looking forward to the wide-open spaces that lay ahead of us: it was one of the high points of the day.

By the time we reached the top of the hill and joined the Ridgeway path, the sun was strong and we felt weary. The wide-open spaces all around us were as we had remembered them, but the path was narrow and rutted, with a constantly-changing camber which made it tiring. We were relieved to get to Pitstop 3 and to sit down for a short rest. We knew that the final 15k would be more of the same rutted paths, and although the scenery would be beautiful, we could see ominous clouds gathering left, right and centre.

Setting off again, it wasn’t long before the muggy heat was replaced by a cooling drizzle. To begin with, it was refreshing and welcome. We didn’t want to get out our rain ponchos – it didn’t seem worth it and we didn’t want to overheat under the plastic – but the drizzling turned to drenching and then, once soaked through, it seemed pointless to cover up, so we just plodded on in the rain. That much-anticipated landscape of big, exhilarating skies, green heath, and panoramic views, was gradually transformed into a bleak and barren wilderness worthy of Macbeth’s witches. The final few kilometres seemed like a hundred miles, but eventually the tents and banners of the basecamp loomed ahead. It was only when we finally stopped inside a warm marquee that we realised just how wet and cold we had become. We were full of admiration for the many people who would be continuing on through the night, but very relieved that we’d made the decision to do the shorter event.

Now home, dry, warm, rested and well-fed, I look back on the day with a smile, and with gratitude for another adventure. One day, when I’m not footsore, weary, or laden with a heavy backpack, I hope to return to that final stretch and do it again under blue skies.

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