The Ridgeway Path, one of the oldest long-distance walking paths in Britain, was established in 1972, but the route loosely coincides with an ancient highway which was in use before the Romans came, in the Bronze Age and maybe even earlier. (The name “Ridgeway” occurs in several Anglo-Saxon legal documents.) It traverses public rights of way, and between Princes Risborough and Wendover crosses the grounds of Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence.
In passing, I don’t know another country where a public right of way crosses so close to something like a Prime Minister’s house without being diverted. There are discrete signs warning you not to enter his fields of wheat and rape or to walk up his drive, and CCTV cameras at one point – less obvious security than the Mathematics building at Queen Mary.
I have often walked this stretch, one of the loveliest on the Ridgeway, and never seen any sign of activity in the large house.
Yesterday, having much else to do, we opted for a short walk, and decided to do this stretch, of about six miles, with another mile from the station in Princes Risborough to the path. One of the glories of London is that it is so easy to escape in any direction. Princes Risborough and Wendover are on different branches of the Chiltern Line (though the fact that a very slow line from Princes Risborough to Aylesbury still exists meant that the ticket clerk at Marylebone was able to save us a little money by selling us day returns to Aylesbury). We arrived in Princes Risborough at about 11, expecting to take about two hours to get to Wendover, and have a good lunch in the Shoulder of Mutton, right by the station.
There were a lot of walkers out, mostly fundraising for a Buckinghamshire hospice; this meant that there were dayglo-coated marshals at every road crossing, asking us to stop until the road was clear even though we were not on their walk.
After the Plough at Little Cadsden, the path crosses a little valley, and enters a lane through a kissing gate, under a small hill called Chequers Knap, on the edge of the original Chequers estate, about a mile from the house. As we approached, a party of about ten walkers came in the opposite direction, and were one-at-a-time negotiating the gate. Two things struck me in quick succession. First, they were without backpacks, poles, or boots, and indeed were much better dressed than typical walkers. Then I saw that a man near the front of the group, in a dark suit and white shirt, was the Prime Minister.
We greeted them, as walkers do. Someone said, “It’ll be easier if we let them through first”, so they stood back a bit and I went through the kissing gate. As I came out the other side, I saw the Prime Minister’s wife in the group waiting to take her turn, carrying her young child. I think that my earlier thought had been “Is that really him?”, but seeing her as well, there was no doubt.
The people on the other side were more reluctant to make room for me to pass, and I was reluctant to push and shove, if for no other reason because it seemed likely that some of them would be security staff. I glanced at the faces; I thought I recognised another well-known politician but I am not sure. If I watched television, I might have had a better chance of identifying some of them.
I have to say that there were just two people in the group who seemed to catch my attention, the Prime Minister and his wife. I did wonder whether they were going to have lunch in the Plough, or walk home by another route, or be picked up by official cars at some convenient road crossing.
I wondered, too, who was the last British Prime Minister to go striding over the hills while spending a weekend at Chequers. Somehow, I can’t imagine many of the recent incumbents using their spare time in that way.
We went on; there were many walkers on the path past Chequers. One all-female group going our way was discussing the crisis in the Eurozone. I meant to see whether on reaching Chequers they boldly walked up the drive, but in the end I couldn’t be bothered; the autumn fruits and leaves were much more interesting.
Not long thereafter we came down from the chalk hills into Wendover, and did indeed have an excellent three-course lunch in the Shoulder of Mutton before catching the train home.