Wandering around West Ilsley
PUBLISHED: 14:01 18 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:16 27 November 2018
© Steve Davison
Follow Steve Davison as he leads the way on a 4¾ mile walk exploring the rolling countryside around West Ilsley on the northern edge of the North Wessex Downs
The first part of the walk follows the Ridgeway National Trail, which itself follows ancient tracks ways over the rolling downs that have been used for thousands of years. The area just to the north, which until boundary changes in 1974 used to reside within Berkshire, is dominated by the six large cooling towers of Didcot Power Station. The coal- and gas-fired Didcot A power station was turned off early in 2013 after 43 years of service and the long-term plan is to demolish the cooling towers. Slightly west of Didcot is Harwell, once home to a Second World War airfield which opened in 1937 and was, for a time, a base for Wellington bombers. It was from here that on the night of 5 June 1944, aircraft left Harwell carrying troops of the 6th Airborne Division who became the first British soldiers to land in Normandy in the main assault for the liberation of Europe.
Following the end of the war, the site was taken over by the Ministry of Supply and became the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, the UK’s centre for research and development into civil nuclear power. At one time Harwell had five research reactors, including the first nuclear reactor in Western Europe known as GLEEP – the Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile, which operated for 43 years; all of these reactors have now been decommissioned.
Cutting-edge science has continued at Harwell and the site is home to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (named after the physicists Ernest Rutherford and Edward Appleton) which includes the Diamond Light Source Synchrotron (the large silver-coloured metal ring-shaped building visible from the Ridgeway). These facilities allow scientists to study materials at the atomic level using a suite of instruments, often described as ‘super-microscopes’.
We leave the Ridgeway behind heading south towards West Ilsley. The rolling chalk downs with their soft, springy turf, coupled with the free-draining nature of the soil that ensures the ground does not get too ‘heavy’ during the wetter winter months, makes chalk grassland ideal horse-training terrain and the walk passes several gallops. Well-known horse trainers, Mick Channon and Denis Coakley, both have training stables nearby.
The picturesque village of West Ilsley was the original home of the Morland Brewery. John Morland, a local farmer, started brewing his much-sought-after ale here in 1711, though the business eventually moved to Abingdon in 1887 and was bought by Greene King in 2000. Along the Main Street heading east from The Harrow pub that looks out over the village cricket pitch and pond, is the old village school, rectory and church. All Saints Church underwent major alterations in the 1870s, though the underlying fabric of the church is much older. Inside there is a fine carved wood Jacobean pulpit along with a rood screen and cross.
The final section heads north to the crest of the downs to follow the Ridgeway back to the car park.
• Start/finish: Bury Down car park on the West Ilsley road just west off the A34; grid ref SU479840
• Map: OS Explorer 170
• Distance: 4¾ miles (7.7km)
• Terrain: ups and downs, tracks and paths which can be muddy, some stiles and gates, and sections of road
• Time: 2¼ hours without stops
• Refreshments: West Ilsley – The Harrow (01635 281260)
1 (SU479840) – From the car park head north-west along the broad Ridgeway track for slightly over a mile to reach a crossing bridleway and the border between Berkshire and Oxfordshire; to the right are the disused cooling towers of Didcot Power Station and the more modern buildings of the Harwell scientific research site.
2 (SU462848) – At the crossing bridleway, turn left across the gallop to the fence and turn left again to follow the fence on the right with the gallop to the left gently downhill. Later pass some trees and bushes following the track downhill as it curves left. Keep ahead along the hedge-lined track to join the road beside The Harrow pub with the cricket pitch on the opposite. Keep along the Main Street heading eastwards through West Ilsley, passing the duck pond and the gazebo built to mark the new millennium, and later All Saints Church just after the junction with Bury Lane (left).
3 (SU476823) – At the eastern edge of the village, just before the national speed limit sign, turn left along the track soon passing a lovely thatched cottage. Here the track splits, keep to the right-hand fork heading uphill. Later, keep to the left side of the wood to a junction with the Ridgeway. Turn left (north-west) for half a mile back to the car park.