The Ridgeway is an ancient trackway described as Britain’s oldest road having been in use for over 5,000 years. At 85 miles (137 km), the route follows the chalk hills between Overton Hill, near Avebury, and Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire and represents part of a route in use since Neolithic times. Specifically, the Ridgeway hugs the ridge tops of open downland west of the Goring Gap and the tree-covered Chiltern Hills east of the River Thames, thus avoiding once-difficult woods and marshes in the valleys below. It is just one of many ridgeways formerly used in western Europe.
In use since Neolithic times, the original Ridgeway almost certainly used to traverse the entire chalk ridge (escarpment) that runs from Dorset to Lincolnshire, but human development and military restrictions on Salisbury Plain have interrupted the trail; only 85 miles (137 km) remain. The Ridgeway represents one of four long distance footpaths which combine to run from Lyme Regis to Hunstanton, collectively referred to as the Greater Ridgeway.
The Ridgeway passes near many Neolithic, Iron Age, and Bronze Age sites including Avebury Circle, a stone circle similar to Stonehenge; Barbury Castle, Liddington Castle, Uffington Castle, Segsbury Castle, Pulpit Hill and Ivinghoe Beacon Hill, all Iron Age and Bronze Age hill forts; Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic chieftain burial tomb; the Uffington White Horse, an ancient 400-foot (120 m) chalk horse carved into the hillside near Uffington Castle; and Grim’s Ditch, a 5-mile (8.0 km) section of earthwork near Mongewell created by Iron Age peoples as a possible demarcation line. Other points of interest include the Blowing Stone, and Victory Drive, the private drive of Chequers (the British
Prime Minister’s country retreat).
The Ridgeway’s surface varies from chalk-rutted farm paths and green lanes (which have a propensity for becoming extremely muddy and pot-holed after rain) to small sections of metalled roads. Labelled a bridleway (shared with horses and bicycles) for much of its length, the Ridgeway also includes parts designated as byway which permits the use of motorised vehicles. Local restrictions along many byway sections limit the use of motorised vehicles to the summer months. Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, many public rights of way in England and Wales that authorities had not explicitly classified as Bridleway or Byway defaulted to the classification “Restricted Byway” which precludes the use of motor vehicles at all times. As a result of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, much of the Ridgeway remains free of motor vehicles year round.
Despite the Ridgeway’s artificial creation, the TV programme Seven Natural Wonders featured it in 2005 as one of the wonders of the South.