The Ridgeway National Trail provides more than a long hike and stunning views of the British countryside; Britain's oldest road gives travelers the chance to walk in the footsteps of their prehistoric ancestors and explore a trail that has been around for centuries. At 87 miles long, the Ridgeway stretches across southern England and can attracts walkers for day trips or week-long hiking trips.
Long before it provided hikers with an interesting route, the Ridgeway was used 5,000 years ago by travelers in the Stone Age to make their way from the Dorset coast to the Norfolk coast. Unlike lower roads through tiny villages, the Ridgeway's perch on higher ground avoided thick forests and wet trails. Later, in the dark ages, Saxons and Vikings relied heavily on the Ridgeway. By the medieval times, the route was no longer used by armies, but rather drovers driving their livestock. In 1750, the route was transformed from its state as a collection of tracks to a defined trail with a precise course. Banks were built and thorn hedges planted to give the trail definition and prevent traveling livestock from wandering off the trail.
Archeology and Sights
With a history that spans centuries, the Ridgeway is home to a number of historical sights and archeological wonders. Many figures have been etched into the chalk hills that run near under the Ridgeway, leaving a white outline that contrasts against the luscious greens of the fields. The Uffington White Horse, the oldest and most famous hill figure, dates back to 1000 B.C. and baffles historians as to exactly who made it and why. A number of barrows and burial chambers are also located along the Ridgeway. The large sarsen stones that mark many of the barrows' entrances were laboriously dragged by prehistoric people to their present-day locations.
Habitats, Geology and Wildlife
The Ridgeway weaves its way over chalk ridges through two distinctive habitats. The chalk grassland's soil features chalk topped with only a thin layer of soil. This harsh environment is studded by a wide variety of plants that cannot compete in more nutritious environments, such as wildflowers, as well as rare butterflies that feed on the plants. The woodland areas, which boast soil with a layer of clay over the chalk, host woody and flowering plants. Many mammals live along the Ridgeway, from weasels and rabbits to badgers and deer. The area is also home to a variety of birds, such as red kites and buzzards.
Although the Ridgeway can be a demanding hike, the challenge lies in its length rather than the trail's difficulty. Even though the Ridgeway remains open throughout the year, the trail is best traveled from April through November, when it is drier and the weather more hospitable. Travelers should dress comfortably for a hike, dress in layers for easy climate control and wear proper footwear. Sunscreen and a waterproof jacket can help protect against the elements. Also, carry drinking water to keep hydrated; be prepared for rain. With a formidable 87 miles to walk, it's best to plan your trip before you hit the Ridgeway: know how far you plan on walking and make plans for any accommodations in advance, if need be.