Head to the Vale of White Horse for fine views and good walking

Many tourists to England will know Oxford. This time of year the college gardens are certainly beautiful, but if you want a little more fresh air and a chance to step out and get some exercise, head south-west to the area known as the Vale of White Horse. The itinerary below is suitable for a half-day excursion by car. (Although you can reach the area by public transport it can be a time-consuming experience, involving changing buses.) Useful local maps of the Vale itself are Ordnance Survey Landranger 174, or Explorer 170.

Drive out of Oxford either on the A420 signed towards Swindon, coming off just past Faringdon and following the tourist signs south down country lanes towards the Downs; or travel south from Oxford on the A34, coming off at Milton Interchange and follow the signs to Wantage. From Wantage travel six miles on the B4507 towards Ashbury. White Horse Hill is clearly marked once you get west of Kingston Lisle.

The White Horse itself is a chalk carving on a hill above the village of Uffington. It just about looks like a horse: if you're flying above it in a plane. It's interesting to ponder how pre-historic people were able to see anything horse-like about it at all. The carving is perhaps more like a kangaroo. Recently there was controversy when a vet declared that the horse was actually a dog. 

White Horse Hill has its own car park (you will need to buy a ticket) and it's a brisk ten-minute walk over the hill to the Horse itself. Take a wind-cheater or light coat as there's always a breeze. While you're up on the hill you might want to walk up a bit further and stride around the Iron Age Uffington Castle, not a fort made from stone, but an earthworks with bank and ditch. If you're keen on wild flowers and butterflies you'll enjoy a stroll across the slopes.

If you're feeling like a more vigorous walk carry on a few hundred metres north to the Ridgeway, an ancient trail running east-west. Turn right on to the Ridgeway so that you're heading west. A walk of roughly 25 minutes will take you to Wayland's Smithy, an ancient burial site guarded by huge local 'Sarcen' stones. Many myths have grown up around Wayland the blacksmith. It's said that the White Horse himself leaves his hillside to be shod at the smithy.

If you'd rather head east along the Ridgeway a walk of about a mile and a half will take you to Blowing Stone Hill. Be sure to look to your left at the views south across the Vale. Sometimes you can catch a gleam of sunlight on the spires of Oxford University. If you've read Hardy's Jude the Obscure you'll know that you're not the first person to have strained their eyes to make them out. The hills to the north-east are the Chilterns. The escarpments to the north are the Cotswolds.

Leave the Ridgeway when you hit the road downhill to Kingston Lisle. Less than half a mile on the right stands a large stone in a small garden: the Blowing Stone. This perforated stone boulder will sound like a horn if you can work out how to blow it. Apparently this is how King Alfred used to summon his Saxon troops to battle. If you fancy another three-quarter mile walk downhill the Blowing Stone Inn in the village serves good food and local beers. 

By now you might have had enough fresh air. On your way back to the urban delights of Oxford you might want to make a brief detour. Just to the north of the A420 which will take you back to the city lies an architectural jewel: the medieval barn at Great Coxwell near Faringdon. The barn, built in either the 13th or 14th century (depending on which source you read) is more like a cathedral inside its Cotswold stoned walls. The interior is framed by oak beams and struts. On a warm day, it's a cool and tranquil place to linger for a few minutes. Admittance is free, although there is a donation box to help support the National Trust's work. If you're in England at the end of April or beginning to May you might want to continue your deter a little further north to Badbury Clump for one of the most beautiful displays of bluebells in the area. Even if it's not spring when you're here, you might enjoy a more sheltered woodland walk with views across peaceful English countryside.

By the time you return to Oxford you'll have worked up a healthy appetite for one of the city's many restaurants.

Useful links