People have been walking the Ridgeway for 5000 years. The Greater Ridgeway runs from Lyme Regis in the South West of England to Hunstanton on the East Anglia Coast. Viking armies used it to invade the South West. It’s high and chalky, meaning that you can avoid the mud and swamps of the lowlands and see your enemies. The modern Ridgeway walk, which opened in 1973, runs 87 miles from Avebury in the South West to Ivinghoe Beacon in the North East. It runs through some of the most densely populated land in the world, and yet often you are alone with the wind, larks, distant views, and iron-age forts.
I’ve twice walked the South Western end, starting at the Avebury Ring ( which in many ways outdoes Stonehenge), but I’d never walked the North Eastern end until this weekend. Having walked in much of Britain and in many other countries, I felt foolish that in my 64 years, most of them spent less than 50 miles from Ivinghoe Beacon, I had never walked in the Chilterns. I was very pleasantly surprised by their beauty and emptiness.
We started by walking to the top of Ivinghoe Beacon. It was raining slightly, and we were surrounded by mist and cloud. The sky was alive and dramatic, making me think of Turner’s late paintings. When we stood on the top we could for a moment see only mist, something that is common with high mountains but not so common with hills in the South of England.
Who are we and should lynx be reintroduced into Britain?
We, I should explain, were David, Robin, and me. David and Robin are deep and broad thinking doctors who are greatly concerned about climate change. Davis is vegetarian and never flies; Robin is chair of the Climate and Health Council and engaged in many campaigns. Both are jolly, irreverent, and widely read. Books feature heavily in our conversations as do incidents, often no doubt poorly remembered and embellished, from our combined past of 200 years.
Although David has organised the trip, he can’t walk with us as he has bad knee problems. Robin and I descend the Beacon, with the mist clearing, and head into the substantial forest of Ashridge. Autumn is the perfect time to be walking through the forest with the dying leaves underfoot, the yellow, orange, red, and brown palette of the leaves left on the trees, and the rich earthy, loamy, mushroomy smells.
Robin thinks that these woods would be a perfect place to release a pair of lynx. We know that the restoration of the “top predator” would improve the whole ecology with the lynx killing deer and foxes who are disturbing the ecology with their overpopulation. Lynx once covered Britain, and they are no threat to humans and will kill sheep only in the absence of deer, their preferred food. I’m convinced and think I might join the society trying to reintroduce lynx into Britain. (Lin, who is phobic about cats, thinks it a terrible idea; Flo is in favour because lynx look so cuddly and will kill badgers, whom Flo hates because they have eaten all the hedgehogs.) Lynx are one of the main features of the weekend, and as at the end of the weekend we pass Buckingham Palace Gardens on the bus Robin thinks that the gardens would benefit from a pair of lynx. “We could throw them over the wall,” he suggests.
Perhaps too deep in our lynx conversation, Robin and I realise that we’ve lost the Ridgeway path–despite it being well sign posted. We both agree that being lost is a pleasure. We find our way back and descend to Tring Station just as night arrives.
Biodynamic wines and disagreement over whether machines will take us over
Back as a trio we have intense discussions over dinner and breakfast, although I can’t remember a single topic. We start the next day from Tring Station again, heading South West, and are soon high in the rich forest that seems to cover much of the Chilterns. Robin tells me about biodynamic wines–which he characterises as made from grapes planted under the full moon–and, although I’ve never heard of biodynamic wine, we pass a shop in Wendover that sells them.
One of the features of our afternoon walk is that we pass Chequers, the country home of the British prime minister. We expect high electric fences, but in fact we can walk through the beautiful grounds with a distant view of the house, which looks Jacobean to me. We spend the night in the Plough, the pub where David Cameron took the Chinese Premier.
While we drink our tea we have an intense discussion about how much machines will take over humans and whether machines can be creative. David is on the side of machines: “They will look back on this conversation and see that it is full of bias, error, ignorance, and misunderstanding.” But machines will never match the creativity of humans until we can copy the brain, says Robin. I argue that creativity is just one more mental function not a special one and that machines will be able to copy it: machines can, for example, generate vast numbers of “poems” and then use an algorithmic analysis of what literary experts judge to be great poems to identify which of its poems are great. Robin says that scientific creativity is different, that a machine will never be able to do what Einstein and Bohr did. Are artistic and scientific creativity radically different? What is creativity? Is creativity a specially human function that machines will never be able to answer? We don’t know, but we are all conscious of the extreme limitations of our own brains.
To be a pilgrim
Before dinner I lie in a deep a bath reading the first of the Cazalet Chronicles. Much as I love walking and being outside all day this reading in the bath with delightfully tired limbs may well be my favourite part of walking.
After the huge “full English” breakfast that is part of walking, Robin and I say goodbye to David and head back up the hill into the forest. High up we can see Didcot Power Station, some 30 miles away. We imagine we can see the distant Cotswolds. We walk without stopping or sustenance until 2pm when we catch the luxury bus of the Oxford Tube back to Victoria.
Sometimes I wish that I could walk through the countryside day after day until death taps me on the shoulder–be a godless pilgrim.