THEY say the Ridgeway is Europe’s oldest road.

For 5,000 years, feet have trampled the ribbon worn into the chalk downs along what is now Oxfordshire’s southern edge. Iron Age tribes, Romans, Saxons and drovers all made their way over the rolling hills and steep valleys. And at the vast hill forts and barrows, their ghosts feel close.

For all its significance, though, the Ridgeway has been mercifully forgotten – the only traffic being the odd rambler, dog walker or horse. Certainly no one would describe it as a ‘road’ anymore – particularly since a crackdown on 4x4s stopped petrol heads churning up the the chalky trail into muddy ruts.

A designated National Trail, the Ridgeway runs for 87 miles from Overton Hill, near Avebury in Wiltshire, along the crest of the Berkshire downs to the Thames at Streatley and along the Icknield Way over the thickly wooded Chilterns to Ivinghoe Beacon. But you don’t have to walk the whole thing to appreciate its splendour. Even a short walk in this wide open space is enough to restore the spirits. And the finest sections lie just beyond Wantage along the crest of the Berkshire Downs – since the 1970s shared by Oxfordshire.

Eager to explore, I roped in my friend Marc and convinced him to join me for a couple of days of walking. A keen hiker possessed of a wiry frame, boundless energy and abnormal stamina, he needed no convincing. A local lad he knows the hills and downs well.

He also knows good food, and suggested using one of south Oxfordshire’s best pubs for a base for hikes east and west. Which is how we came to be sat staring at maps in the bar of The Greyhound Inn, in Letcombe Regis, on a misty Thursday morning.

With a deserved reputation for its outstanding cooking, the Greyhound is something of a local institution and, being practically within a flint’s throw of the Ridgeway, it is certainly the best base for some serious walking.

Catriona Galbraith, who runs the place with Martyn Reed, is a bit of a walker herself, and gleefully suggests routes, insisting the huge natural amphitheatre of the Devil’s Punchbowl is unmissable. She proffers a handful of route maps prepared for guests, which cover everything from a one mile trail around the village to more ambitious hikes onto the downs –including a very handy climb onto the Ridgeway across the fields, without having to follow the road.

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An old fashioned place which had previously fallen into an unloved threadbare state, the 18th century hostelry has been given a new lease of life by Catriona and Martyn – locals themselves – with an impressive constantly evolving seasonal menu and eight recently decorated cosy bedrooms.

It’s a sturdy brick place with wooden beams and lots of little boltholes and cosy corners in which to hide away, and a mix of proper tables and chairs and slouchy armchairs. It’s palpably historic but uncluttered – a mix of country boozer and hip, contemporary restaurant. Coronavirus precautions are taken seriously but with a deft, unobtrusive professionalism.

In a nice touch, a collection box on the bar raises money for, yes... greyhounds. Retired ones.

But more of that later, because it was time to walk.

Catriona’s route across the fields started gently enough but rapidly turned into a lung-busting climb up a gradient I never thought existed in this shire. We caught our breath at the top on a long grassy bank – the outer edge of Segsbury Camp.

From here the Ridgeway cuts a relatively gentle course, the path rising and falling with the crest of the downs which offer an instant and overwhelming sense of space and solitude.

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Part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the downs wear their beauty lightly and certainly do little to broadcast it. There is none of the industrial scale tourism which blights parts of the Cotswolds.

Instead there is... well, nothing, with 360 degree views revealing no sign of human life other than empty fields and the landmark of Sparsholt Firs transmitter.

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Heading west from the banks and ditches of Segsbury Camp, the path runs straight as an arrow to the horizon, a thin ribbon of chalk. In each direction rolling turf and arable fields dip and crest like waves in a storm – a tempest petrified in chalk.

It’s hard to believe this is the crowded south of England. Stop and listen, and there is silence – punctuated only by the cawing of crows and the occasional whistle of a red kite which pass at eye level, swooping over the precipitous dry valleys which cut sensuous curved gashes in the down.

The natural cauldron of the Devil’s Punchbowl is one such valley. Formed by ice age glacial meltwater, it is incongruously dramatic – a little piece of the Peak or Dales cast adrift in the mellow south.

And it is steep – treacherously so. Even for sheep. It is so unnatural looking, our forefathers could be forgiven for putting it down to the work of hellish forces.

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The whole landscape has inspired myth and legend. The Bronze Age White Horse of Uffington and the longbarrow of Waylands Smithy are to the west, with the country’s best stone circle, Avebury (more impressive than over-hyped Stonehenge), beyond.

The walking was such a delight and the landscape so deliciously different, it was hard to know when to turn back. But turn back we did, eventually dropping off the trail back into the Vale – and into the too-cute-to-be-true hidden village of Letcombe Bassett, and its crystal clear chalk stream and abandoned watercress beds.

Never had a pint seemed more appealing, and back at the Greyhound the barman was happy to oblige with his pick of the impeccable smooth and hoppy local beers. It’s no wonder the place has won repeat accolades from CAMRA and the Good Pub Guide.

It also has a Michelin Plate award, and after checking into our cosy yet minimal and uncluttered, room up in the attic we took our table for dinner.

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The menu was interesting and it took longer than usual to decide. Always different, even the regular favourites are tweaked according to the season. A standard though is the divine cheese soufflé (£8.50).

Twice-baked and delicately flavoured with Leonard Stanley Gloucestershire Cheddar, this ephemeral angel’s kiss was teamed, in a flavoursome masterstroke, with a rich, smoked haddock chowder – an explosion on the tastebuds and the culinary manifestation of yin and yang.

Marc tucked into a warm Scotch egg with watercress salad (£6.50). It looked lovely, with the regulatory soft yolk. It was wolfed down before I got a chance to try it.

It was just as well, as the main courses, were formidable. My whole baked plaice (£18) was a monster – its tail protruding well off the edge of the plate. It was unlike any piece of plaice I have ever tasted. Thick, meaty and fun to eat, the ultra-fresh fish flaked off the bone in juicy fork-fulls before the fish was flipped and the underside tackled. The subtly flavoured fish was complimented by a perfectly balanced chive butter sauce and topped with tangy tender strands of samphire, giving a salty blast of the sea, and sweet baby potatoes and cherry tomatoes.

It was a superlative plate.

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Marc’s 10oz Royal Estate rump steak in peppercorn sauce served “as rare as you can make it” (£24.50) looked grand too; a truly beautiful cut cooked, or rather, uncooked, to perfection. But was no match for my elegant plaice.

It’s incredible either of us could fit in anything else, but I’d already spotted a sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce, and wasn’t going to let it lie.

It came piping hot and very sticky, with cooling vanilla ice cream £7.50 and was every bit as good as you’re imagining.

Fancying himself something of a sophisticate, Marc went for the cheese board – and an array of blue tangy, and creamy local numbers. They looked and smelled very fine indeed.

After that, we were grateful it wasn’t far to bed, and a good night’s sleep – broken in the morning by the clip-clop of horseshoes. Not just any horse, mind, but a handsome racehorse – a reminder that the area, with its springy turf, is also home to some of the country’s most famous and successful trainers.

After an excellent breakfast of porridge, perfect eggs royale – with generous thick wedges of top quality, richly fragrant salmon – and thick slices of good bread with marmalade, we set out again for the Ridgeway, this way heading east, past Lord Wantage’s monument in the direction of distant Goring.

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The climb up was even harder with our newly gained excess baggage. But, with the weather clearer, the views were even better.

Miles and hours slipped by deep in thought and conversation, but there was one recurring theme: Oh! that dinner...

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  • EAT: The Greyhound Inn, Main Street, Letcombe Regis, Wantage, OX12 9JL.
  • Call 01235 771969 or email:
  • Open for breakfast from 8 to 10am (pre-book if not staying). Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 2pm; Saturday noon to 2.30pm; Sunday noon to 4pm. Dinner: Monday to Friday 6 to 9pm; Saturday 6 to 9.30pm; Sunday: 6 to 8pm
  • KEEP ON EATING OUT: The Greyhound Inn is offering 25% off food bills up to a maximum of £5 per diner, Monday-Friday, this September
  • STAY: The Greyhound has eight rooms, ranging from £95 – £155 per night on a B&B basis for two people. Infants up to three years free of charge. Children up to 12 can stay on pull-out beds for £20 a night
  • WALK: The Ridgeway National Trail runs from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. Details from