The Ridgeway National Trail
Trail running along Britain’s oldest pathstart
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
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.
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.
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!
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
Plan your travel
Our guide to planning your journey – plus essential links to find out more.