Most of us are familiar with the honeyed stone charms of the Cotswolds and the legendary dreaming spires of Oxford. But travel towards the border with Berkshire, and you’ll find a whole new part of Oxfordshire ready to share its hidden treasures with you. Come with me to explore this land of small villages with first names and last names, Morris dancing, bun-throwing, Iron-age settling, folly-building, ancient footpath-hosting and magnificent horse-creating fabulousness. Welcome to the Vale of White Horse.
Where’s The Vale Of White Horse?
You’ll find the Vale of White Horse between the River Thames and the Berkshire Downs, where Oxfordshire meets Berkshire. Think of a spot between London and Birmingham, and not far from Oxford or Newbury, and you’ll have a good idea where to find the White Horse and its vale. The closest stations are Oxford and Didcot, and the area is reached via the M40/M42 between London and Birmingham. It’s approximately an hour and a half’s drive from Birmingham.
The area is named after the Bronze Age Uffington White Horse. It’s a place of market towns, small villages, big walks, historic houses and traditions. It’s not the place for big nightlife, although you’ll find plenty to entertain yourself. Instead it’s a place full of mightily English eccentricities and massive landscapes. It’s a place to recharge, and a place to discover a series of small and perfectly formed pleasures.
The White Horse of Uffington
Let’s start with the horse. On the northern flank of White Horse Hill, just below the summit, you’ll spot a gigantic stylised figure of a horse cut into the chalky soil from the turf above. To reach the horse, you’ll follow the brown historic site signs down narrow winding roads bordered with extravagant foliage. Turn up to the site, and as you drive upwards, you’ll catch the first glimpse of the horse.
Park up, and then it’s time for some easy walking on gentle but significant slopes up to the horse. He’s a beast of great beauty and elegant form, kept in shape by a process known as scouring, where the turf is tidied to reveal the chalk beneath. The only time it has been covered was as a precaution in the Second World War. It’s a beautiful place, with lovely views even on a hazy summer afternoon.
Up on the summit of White Horse Hill, you’ll find the well-preserved circular camp that is the Iron Age hill fort of Uffington Castle.
Nearby you’ll also find the small camp called Alfred’s Castle, and further to the west, Liddington Castle.
Head to the north flank of White Horse Hill, and you’ll find a smooth gully known as the Manger. To the west of this, you’ll spot a bald mound known as Dragon Hill, sited between the parishes of Uffington and Woolstone. It’s a natural chalk hill, but with an artificial flat top.
This is no ordinary dragon, of course, but instead the dragon slain by St George, the patron saint of England. The blood of the dragon is said to be the reason that the ground is bare of grass forever. In fact, it’s likely to have been an Iron Age ritual site associated with the White Horse.
If you’ve ever seen the video for Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, you’ve already seen Dragon Hill, which provides its location.
Wayland’s Smithy is a long barrow, said to be the home of a smith who was never seen, but who shod the horses of travelers, provided payment was left with the horse. The legend of the smith appears in Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth and in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. The Smithy is a Neolithic chieftain burial tomb.
The Ridgeway is claimed to be the oldest road in Europe, possibly five thousand years of age. As its name would imply, it travels along the crests of hills, avoiding marshes and forests in the valleys below. The Ridgeway continues the route of Icknield Street from the Chiltern Hills to Goring and Streatley on the River Thames. It links The Wash and Salisbury Plain, acting as an artery for trade. It also provided travelers with protection from attack, as a result of its commanding views.
It’s now one of 15 National Trails in England and Wales, covering some 87 miles. As you’d expect from the name, it has spectacular views, and a chance to really investigate the English countryside from its trackway. There are several different sections of The Ridgeway, meaning that you could break it down into a few days of walking, with distances ranging between 9 and 17 miles.
The Ridgeway passes many Neolithic, Iron Age and Bronze Age sites including Avebury, Pulpit Hill and Ivinghoe Beacon Hill. It is designated as a bridleway, meaning that walking access is shared with horses and cycles for much of its length. Some parts are accessible to and designated for motorised vehicles, mainly to allow access for many farms along its route. You’ll find surfaces ranging from chalk paths and green lanes to muddy and pot-holed tracks, so choose suitable footwear if you intend to explore.
Faringdon is a market town with a population of less than 10,000. It was granted Fairtrade Town status in 2002, being the first in south east England, which tells you a lot about the town and its aspirations. Here you’ll find a whole host of independent shops, restaurants and cafes. In fact the whole of Faringdon smells wonderfully of flowers and food, being a treat for all the senses in every respect.
Pop into the information centre for both information, and some rather lovely local pottery. You can stop off at the phone box that acts as the town’s book exchange. Nearby you’ll also find the Old Town Hall, formerly the market hall; it dates from the late 17th or early 18th century and is a listed building.
We were lucky to encounter the friendly flower team getting the church ready for a wedding. All Saints dates from the 12th century, and its bell tower was reduced in height after it was damaged by a cannonball in the English Civil War. The town was important during the civil war due to its control over the Radcot Bridge to cross the River Thames. Legend has it that the churchyard is haunted by the headless apparition of Hampden Pye, a naval officer decapitated in the War of the Spanish Succession. He’d been convinced to enlist by his mother, fearing his attraction to an unsuitable local girl.
To the east of the town is Folly Hill or Faringdon Hill, which has an ancient hill fort. Oliver Cromwell fortified it further in his unsuccessful campaign to defeat the Royalist garrison at Faringdon House.
You can’t visit Faringdon without an appreciation of the wonderful English eccentric, Lord Berners. In the centre of the town, just outside the information centre, you’ll spot a bench that seems quite normal until you see a diving helmet emerging from it. That’s all the fault of Salvador Dali, whose penalty for losing a bet with Lord Berners was to walk into the town in full diving gear.
Berners kept company at his house with a wide range of creatives such as Dali, Patrick Leigh Fermor, H. G. Wells and Igor Stravinsky. His various schemes included dyeing pigeons at his house in vibrant colours, and inviting Penelope Betjeman’s horse Moti to afternoon tea. The garden boasted paper flowers, the house was full of joke books and his Rolls-Royce had a small clavichord stowed under the seat. It reminded me somewhat of Peterhof and the trick fountains of Peter the Great.
“No dogs admitted” at the top of the stairs and “Prepare to meet thy God” painted inside a wardrobe. When people complimented him on his delicious peaches he would say “Yes, they are ham-fed”. And he used to put Woolworth pearl necklaces round his dogs’ necks [Berners had a dalmatian, Heber Percy the retriever, Pansy Lamb] and when a guest, rather perturbed, ran up saying “Fido has lost his necklace”, G said, “Oh dear, I’ll have to get another out of the safe.” Patrick Leigh Fermor
Perhaps the most visible reminder of all this eccentricity is the beautiful viewing tower Faringdon Folly, constructed in 1935 as a birthday present for Berners’ partner Heber-Percy. It’s difficult to convey in words just how lovely this folly is.
You’ll see a footpath signposted from the road. From here you walk a narrow path, dark and tunneled with trees. Eventually you emerge from the green tunnel to your first sight of the tower, peeking through the foliage. Once you get closer still, the beauty of the tower is evident. It’s complemented by further eccentricities around: a lone wooden hare looking over the hills, a toadstool ring, and various wooden sculptures. It’s one of those places that will lodge in your memory, and form part of the “do you remember when” conversations we all have about our travels. You can read more about the magnificent Faringdon Folly here.
Cotswolds AONB Hare Trail And Other Art
Also in Faringdon, we caught site of the first of many beasts forming part of the Cotswolds AONB Hare Trail. I’m a massive fan of public art works, and am lucky to have seen various Cow Parades and the Big Hoot and Big Sleuth collections in Birmingham. The Cotswold Hare Trail consists, as its name would imply, of hares of various sizes scattered across the Cotswolds and the surrounding area.
The artworks emerged from Cirencester, as part of the March Hare Festival which celebrates links to the famous Roman Hare Mosaic. The fifth year of the Hare Trail has seen over 130 giant hares and leverets dotted across the Cotswolds. You’ll find hares everywhere from Stratford-upon-Avon to Stow-on-the-Wold, Witney, Faringdon, Uffington and of course Cirencester.
Abingdon is a historic market town that was formerly the county town of Berkshire. You’ll find it six miles south of Oxford in the flat Thames Valley, where the mighty river is joined by the small river Ock. There has been settlement here since Neolithic times, and it can’t be argued that those Neolithic farmers knew a fine spot to settle.
Here you’ll find Saxon Abingdon Abbey, where William the Conqueror left his son, the future Henry I, to be educated. There’s a beautiful Perpendicular gateway, with an early English prior’s house. The Unicorn Theatre and Long Gallery are still used for plays and functions. Nearby St Helen’s church, is the second widest in England. The fact that the second widest church is so noted speaks volumes about the quirky nature of English regard for history and heritage.
The town’s wealth was built on the wool trade in medieval times, with weaving and clothing industries building up around it. The power of the abbot to hold markets and fairs conflicted with various royal charters, and culminated in a riot of 1337 where several monks were killed.
Abingdon has an old tradition of Morris dancing, which continues today. Every year a mayor of Ock Street is elected and then parades the town with the Horns of Ock Street, a symbol of the Morris troupe.
Assizes courts were held in Abingdon from 1570, and the County Hall – now a museum – was built from 1678 to endorse Abingdon’s claim over Reading to be the county town. The building was designed by Christopher Kempster, who worked with Sir Christopher Wren of St Paul’s Cathedral fame. It was once hailed as the “grandest town hall in Britain”.
Abingdon County Hall: Bun Throwing
Abingdon County Hall really is an elegant building, with an atmospheric and beautifully restored central staircase. I enjoyed wandering around the museum, checking out everything from a fine MG car – and no, I have no idea how they got it into the museum – to some old stocks. After a chat with one of the team there, I finally found what I came for.
A long-standing tradition here sees buns being thrown from the roof for crowds assembled in the market square below. The bun throwing takes place on specific celebration days. The museum keeps a collection of dried and varnished buns dating back to the 19th century. The ones I saw looked rather fresher than you’d expect. I’d imagine that the townfolk of Abingdon stay agile, as a bun thrown from the roof would achieve pretty good velocity. We saw some more recent buns being offered to wildlife on the River Ock by a passing local, and they certainly seemed pretty substantial.
The Thames Path
The Thames Path is another National Trail. It gives you the chance to experience a unique walk along the 184 miles of the Thames from its source in the Cotswolds to London and the Thames Barrier at Greenwich. The Thames Path is the only National Trail to follow a river, and has almost continuous access to the river bank. On the way along the Thames Path, you can see wildlife, water meadows, rural villages, cities and the cultural heritage associated with the river.
It was so very Beautiful, that the mole could only hold up both fore-paws and gasp, ‘O my!, O my! O my!’ Kenneth Graheme from Wind in the Willows, inspired by the Thames
On our trip to Oxfordshire, we encountered sections of the Thames Path at Lechlade On Thames, near Faringdon, and at Abingdon. You’ll find its start near Cirencester, and its lower reaches through Reading, Henley-on-Thames, Marlow, Maidenhead, Windsor and Staines before it heads into Greater London. If you want to plan your own Thames Path walk, you’ll find more information here.
Wantage is a market town, notable for being the birthplace of King Alfred the Great, born at the royal palace in the 9th century. There’s a rather magnificent statue of Alfred in the centre of the town.
Wantage is also recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, when its value was recorded at £61, seeming rather a bargain. Henry III first granted weekly trading rights in 1246, and the town kept with royal patronage, being a place for Royalist troops during the English Civil War.
The town was also home to the benefactor Lord Wantage, who was involved in founding the British Red Cross. Wantage hosted the community of Saint Mary the Virgin, one of the largest communities of Anglican nuns in the world. Also nearby are lots of racing stables, attracted by the gallops of the Downs. Wantage appears as Alfredston in Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure.
Didcot Railway Centre
If you’re a fan of things that go chuff and puff, then you may well like to head over to Didcot Railway Centre. This is the museum of the Great Western Railway, housed in the 1930s Engine Shed. Here you’ll find out about Brunel’s Broad Gauge and see the restoration workshops. The site is full of unexpected treasures, like the turntable that used to serve Devonport Dockyard. I was amazed to find that turntables were operated by person power rather than any kind of automated system.
Check the website to find out about exhibition only days, or times when the trains are running (most weekends and August Wednesdays). On train running days, you can enjoy unlimited rides in vintage carriages on the demonstration lines. There are also Heritage Diesel Days, when you can ride a 1940 Diesel or Teddy Bear. Normal admission fees include unlimited train rides. Opening times are normally from 10.30-4.00 via the ticket hall of Didcot Parkway Station.
Letcombe Regis and Segsbury Camp
Letcombe Regis is a small village on Letcombe Brook at the foot of the Berkshire Downs escarpment. It’s a charming place, full of thatched cottages, and with an Inn – The Greyhound – which also has rooms. Segsbury Camp (or Letcombe Castle) is another Iron Age hillfort earthwork overlooking the Vale, just a mile south of the village.
The Domesday Book of 1086 mentions Letcombe Regis. The name is thought to derive from the lede in the combe, or the brook in the valley. The suffix Regis gives ownership to the King. If you stop by, don’t forget to walk through the village, and also check out the parish council noticeboard, one of my favourite ways of understanding village life in rural England.
The Blowing Stone
At the foot of the hills east of the White Horse, you’ll find the Blowing Stone of Kingston Lisle. It is a mass of sandstone pierced with holes. If you have the knack or talent, you’ll be able to make a loud sound. It is believed that in early years, the stone served the purpose of a bugle and was used to communicate.
Accommodation At The Greyhound, Letcombe Regis
We were guests of The Greyhound for our stay and dinner. As ever, my views on our stay are my own. You can read the full review here.
The Greyhound describes itself as an inn. It includes eight lovely rooms, where you can relax after your day of exploration before enjoying dinner in the restaurant. We stayed in the Oxford Suite (all the rooms are named after local destinations) up in the eaves, with a separate sitting room, and a bathroom featuring a large rolltop bath for a relaxing soak. The rooms are full of pampering facilities, including a bed plump with cloud-like pillows, homemade shortbread and a fine selection of caffeination facilites. But you’ve also got necessities such as plentiful and well situated power points, high speed wifi and a comfortable space to work if needed.
Dinner at The Greyhound was a treat. We devoured starters of crab salad and a cheese souffle, followed by hake with veloute and peas and possibly the best burger I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. You’d be equally welcome to stop by for a drink; The Greyhound is CAMRA’s Country Pub of the Year in the area for 2018. The bar staff are welcoming and knowledgeable. You’ll find The Greyhound here.
More Hidden Treasures in England
I hope you’ve enjoyed the celebration of the English countryside that is this tour of the Vale of White Horse. If you’d like to read more about England’s hidden treasures, you’ll find them tucked away here. If you like to explore the countryside, you’ll also find more spectacular vistas in Cornwall, Devon, the Forest of Arden, Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Come and enjoy them with us.
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