Free Exchanges & Extended Holiday Returns
THIS IS MY TRAIL
Tobias Mews
Tobias Mews is one of the UK’s leading extreme endurance athletes. After six years in the British Army, Tobias embarked on a new career as a journalist, combining his passion for adventure sports with his enthusiasm for writing and filmmaking.

The Ridgeway National Trail

Trail running along Britain’s oldest path

start

Race to the Stones Ultramarathon

For over 5000 years, humans have journeyed along Britain’s most ancient and, some would argue, most beautiful of national trails - the Ridgeway. It’s also one of the most peaceful areas in Southern England and a welcome reprieve from the overcrowded streets of London, where our Editor, Tobias Mews lives. Recently, they’ve added a competitive edge to the national trail with the Race to the Stones, an Ultramarathon perfect for the trail running enthusiast.

  • Trail length: 87mi
  • Fastest known time: 12.25h m
  • link

Following our ancestors footprints

Life in the big city has much to recommend it, but we all need the chance to escape to green fields, lofty hills and rolling rivers. When I first discovered the joys of trail running, I felt as if I’d stumbled on a whole new world. It may be one thing to pound through city streets or even jog in suburban parks, but the freedom of the trail is entirely different.

If ever there was a place to find your inner center, to reawaken your trail running/hiking mojo, then the Ridgeway National Trail is it. Although it might only be 87 miles long, Britain’s oldest trail resembles no other - it’s like taking an archaeological step through time.

For the past 5000 years, this ancient pathway has seen an extraordinary variety of men and women leave their footprints in the chalk-rutted farm paths, narrow lanes and, all too often in wet weather, muddy pot-holed tracks. Neolithic man, proud Roman legions, strong-armed Saxon invaders, star gazing pagans, weary pilgrims and hard working farmers have travelled along this ancient trail. And on a chilly winter day in early 2013, I learned that now, ultrarunners could have their chance to face the challenges and tread in the footsteps of their ancestors.

When I heard about the very first Race to the Stones - an ultramarathon of some 100 km from a starting point near Goring to the ancient stone circle at Avebury, frankly I couldn’t wait to put on my running shoes. I signed up at once. But the cold, rain-swept day I whizzed off my application form bore no resemblance at all to the July morning when some 750 runners and walkers assembled to put their stamina to the test on England’s oldest and most famous pathway.

"If ever there was a place to find your inner center, to reawaken your trail running/hiking mojo, then the Ridgeway National Trail is it."

A journey like no other

However, the day chosen for the start of this amazing adventure, on a route rich with history and legend, turned out to be one of the very hottest in the all too often tepid English summer. But at 7 o’clock, with the sun’s merely gentle warmth and nothing more than a pleasant heat haze over the land, I was eager to get started. One of the delights of trail running is the freedom to enjoy the open countryside, to breathe clean air, and be aware of birdsongs rather than the hum of traffic. In short, to be at one with nature.

I started off gently through the woodlands, and a comfortable, soft, under-padding of single tracks shaded by beech trees. But I soon found myself in the joint lead, with Danny Kendall, who’d beaten me earlier that year in the Marathon des Sables. By this time, we’d covered the first 31 miles in four and a half hours and the sun was reaching midday. The temperature was soaring and we thought we’d best conserve our energy, not feeling any need to compete with one another.

Landmarks on the Ridgeway National Trail

But as we ran, despite the blistering heat, I was still aware of the historic landmarks that were in our sights. Wayland’s Smithy caught my eye, four huge boulders or sarsen stones, guarding the entrance to this Neolithic burial chamber. Further on and in good view of the pathway, I could spot the White Horse of Uffington, possibly the oldest hill figure in Britain. Thought to date back to the late Bronze Age, its origins are still disputed, although it’s generally considered to be representative of a form of Epona, a Celtic goddess who gave her protection to horses and their owners.

Running on, despite trickles of sweat occasionally misting my eyes, I could see Dragon Hill, a great flat-topped mound in the valley below the White Horse. England’s patron saint, St George, allegedly slew his legendary dragon at this very spot. As the dragon’s blood sank into the hilltop, it left a bald white patch, where no grass grows.

By early afternoon, the temperature had soared to 90 degrees Fahrenheit - which in the UK counts as a heat wave. As I mopped my brow, Danny and I agreed that the Sahara Desert had nothing on the heat we were experiencing on a July day in Wiltshire. The sun was so fierce, we’d decided to adopt a new strategy - we’d run the flats and downhill sections and walk the smallest of inclines, grateful for any excuse to reduce our chances of heatstroke.

‘Can we walk now?’ I say to my friend Danny, as we come across a gentle upwards slope. Normally, I power up hills like the proverbial Duracell Bunny, but on this occasion, my legs were desperate for a rest. And I was looking for any excuse to give them one. We were both digging deep to cover the last six miles or so, but despite extreme heat and considerable fatigue, I could still marvel at the beauty of views, landmarks and more along the Ridgeway National Trail.

"But as we ran, despite the blistering heat, I was still aware of the historic landmarks that were in our sights."

The stones are in sight

The final mile of any race is often the toughest, but with the finish line of the Race to the Stones in sight I managed to cross it in second place, in 10 hours and 44 minutes. No cold beer had ever tasted better than the one I drank that summer afternoon in Avebury. Surely it must be the only village in the world where you'll find a pub and a chapel inside a stone circle!

photo credits: Maze field along Ridgeway by Hugo Pettit, Threshold Sports Footpath Signs by Peter Elvidge Following Our Ancestors Footprints by James Carnegie Photography
Pitstone Hill Fields by David Hughes A Journey Like No Other by James Carnegie Photography
Bluebell Wood by David Hughes Avebury Stones by Matthew Collingwood The Stones Are In Sight by James Carnegie Photography

View The Ridgeway National Trail in a larger map

Plan your travel

Our guide to planning your journey – plus essential links to find out more.

When to go
The trail is open all year round, although March to November will provide you the best views and the chance of spotting wildlife. In May, the bluebells are out in the Chiltern woodlands.
How to get there
It's easy to reach the start and finish of the trail. At the Eastern end of the trail, Goring & Streatley, Princes Risborough are nearby. At the Western end, Swindon is the largest big train station, leading direct to London.
Visa
Visa not required for tourism purposes.
Gear
English
Length of Trip
Walking 15 miles a day, it's possible to complete the trail in six days. However, it's possible to fast hike it in three days.
Difficulty
Although the surface can get slightly wet and muddy after rainfall, it's a well worn path that is undulating in places. Suitable for beginner hikers or trail runners.
Accommodation
There are plenty of B&Bs, hotels and campsites along the trail, but it's advisable to book in advance, especially during the summer.
Food and Drinks
You'll need carry food and water as there aren't many places to buy food directly on route.