The Vale of White Horse
Just down the road a little from the university city of Oxford is the magical Vale of White Horse. The Vale, or valley, stretches about 18 miles from the outskirts of Abingdon to the urban sprawl of Swindon.
Although there are cities at either end of the Vale, the heart is a broad, unspoilt stretch of farmland, spotted with peaceful villages and meandering streams.
The ancient Ridgeway track runs along the crest of the downs that form the southern edge of the vale. The Ridgeway has been called "the oldest road in the world", and although that claim may be disputable, it was one of the major cross-country Neolithic routes as long as 6000 years ago.
Those ancient Britons left their mark on the land. The most notable ancient site is the White Horse of Uffington that gives its name to the Vale. The White Horse is a mysterious figure carved into the chalk hillside above Uffington. It has recently been dated to about 1400 BCE. Just above the White Horse is Uffington Castle, a striking Neolithic hill fort, and just a short stroll away is Wayland's Smithy, an ancient long barrow (and well worth a visit).
The Smithy is named after Wayland (Wodin, Odin) the Norse god, which suggests Anglo-Saxon origins, but the barrow mound is older by far than that, belonging to a time period at least several thousand years before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons.
The local legend goes that if you leave an unshod horse at the tomb with a few pennies, when you return the horse will be shod, presumably by Wayland the Blacksmith.
Lest you think that all the attractions are on the southern edge of the Vale, across the valley from Uffington is Great Coxwell, site of the best-preserved medieval tithe barn in the country - although to call Great Coxwell a barn is deceiving. William Morris, the influential Victorian designer, called Great Coxwell, "the finest piece of architecture in England."
Back on the southern edge of the Vale, take time to visit Wantage, the birthplace of Alfred the Great. There is a statue of King Alfred, striking a suitably heroic pose, in the market square. Quite apart from Alfred, Wantage is a pretty town, with half-timbered inns and the very enjoyable Vale and Downland Museum. Take in also the stately Georgian house and park at Kingston Lisle.
The best place to view the Vale of the White Horse is from the Ridgeway path. When you see the patchwork of pale green and gold fields spread out below you, it is hard to imagine a more English scene.
For more on the area of the Vale of the White Horse, check out:
National Trails Ridgeway guide http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ridgeway/
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