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Saturday 22nd September 2018

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Route: Kings Sutton station, Walton Grounds, Aynhoe Park, Souldern, Tusmore, Croughton, Charlton

Distance: 18.5km/11½ miles, 5 hours

Ascension: 290 metres/950 feet

Hard Summer and Early Autumn

A wet and rainy forage into Northamptonshire

Back in mid-June I'd promised myself, I'd delay my Summer Solstice walk for just a few days because I had to work. Well, I kept my promise and now, at last, I'm doing my Summer Solstice walk… the day before the Autumn Equinox.
Yeah, it's been a strange Summer. Travelling around Britain the heat and drought have clearly brought Autumn early, but not evenly. For weeks now the profusion of fruit, seeds, and nuts in the hedgerows have been shouting the approach of Autumn, and perhaps an equally hard Winter to come.


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It's raining; I'm happy. I know that doesn't exactly fit the archetype of how people are supposed to react to incessant rain. Sheathed in my green latex waterproof layer I couldn't care less about the rain. Tomorrow is the Autumn Equinox. I had to come walking today else I would not have gotten my Summer Solstice walk. And the Autumn Equinox walk? Well, hopefully I can do that soon.

In contrast my camera is NOT having a happy day. With the gloomy, dull light conditions the slow shutter speed means it can't focus on the falling raindrops. Consequently everything I take photos of appears to be frozen in a blurry, soft-focus haze (as well as the blobs from the raindrops on the lens).

I've got a feeling today's photos might not be crisp and bright, but they'll be atmospheric!

My mouth is also very happy.

The hot dry Summer has given way to a bounteous Autumn. The hedges are full of berries; the verges are full of nuts and seeds; and thanks to the recent storms, apples have been thrown from gardens and hedgerows for collection along the side of the path. I haven't brought much food with me today – I'll collect that along the way.

Saturday; the traffic on the M40 doesn't have it's mid-week drone but it's loud today – the effect of tyres in the wet road. It's always there in there parts. Hopefully I can escape that later.

Dodging plush four-by-fours along the road I take the lane to Walton Grounds. I had considered going straight to Aynhoe village, but instead I take a right – keeping in the valley, at the foot of the hill, all the way through Aynhoe Park…

OK, I know the maps all call it "Aynho", but the 'hoe' part of the name is a Anglo-Saxon toponym meaning 'ankle shaped hill'. A few miles to the north sits Fathinghoe, on a similar hill. Aynhoe, it would appear, has had its 'e' truncated somewhere in history – in fact, in my lifetime, as I remember the signs spelling it like that in my youth.

Crossing the old A41 (now B4100), a wood carver has set up his stall (as often when I've passed by) with his work. He's not around, which is a pity because I was going to pay a compliment. I walk up the road, dodging the cars speeding downhill on the once-was-trunk-road high-speed straight. At last I find the shelter of the bridleway which will take me a few miles into Souldern.

Thus far I've been randomly sampling the blackberries – luscious, now that they've had a spot of rain to fill out. I've tried the odd hawthorn berry, but they really need a frost before they develop their lovely flavour. Elderberries are past their best now, but very sweet this year. A few hazelnuts were around, and the ones I tried were nice, but most seem to have already been cleared – though there were not many to begin with, the drought having limited the crop this year. The plentiful ash keys have yet to mature, and they're better roasted anyway to reduce the bitterness.

Crossing Anyhoe Park the abandoned garden of an estate cottage obviously caught last week's storm. Apples are strewn from the garden along the verge. I try one from the ground beside the track, and pleased with the result I pocket one for my lunch.

Rather than follow the track I fork left, following the path along the estate's wall. The huge grass field it encloses has a herd of rather bored-looking red deer. I've never quite understood why estates would take a moorland/woodland-edge species and dump it on an improved grassland and expect it to be happy.

Rejoining the track and climbing towards Souldern there's a lot of beech mast along the way, some of it mashed by passing cars. I find a few unbroken ones, but the little triangular nuts within are not very good. Again, though a warm year, there was too little rain to develop a good hard nut. If I can find a clump of beech in a wetter location I might have better results.

I wind through Souldern, pausing by the pond. Here I'd planned to turn north, but decide not to. Instead I carry on up the hill, and cross the old A41 once more and follow the long straight road towards Tusmore. As I'd hoped, approaching Souldern the noise of the M40 had abated. As the lane climbs, however, I begin to pick up the noise of the A43.

Well, at least I had fifteen minutes of relative peace.

In the hedge, wrapped around a dead stump, black bryony berries glow in the gloom like fairy lights. I admire, but don't touch; every part of this plant is poisonous – packed with caclium oxalate crystals which irritate your gut and clog your kidneys. Note: I include this observation because, although it might seem I'm wandering through countryside eating it, I'm being very careful what I collect – only eating what I can properly identify as "what it is".

I pass Tower Fields, the squat stone tower sitting amidst the old farm (now mostly residential) buildings. There are a pair of geese and a pair of turkeys in a pen in front of the buildings. They appear not be be talking to each other. Did the turkeys vote for Brexit, perhaps?

On the eastern horizon, their outline hardened by the grey clouds and the trees around Evenley and Juniper Hill, the radomes of USAF Croughton look rather sci-fi, incongruously nestled in the landscape. Anyhow, that's work, which I'm deliberately not doing today; I ignore them and carry on my way.

The reason I thought I'd divert and head this way is now in front of me. It's a long, cross-country bridleway, which stretches across the former Ploughley Rural District. This route is old, quite possibly part of the old pre-historic 'Portway' track which stretched from Wallingford at the River Thames (where it leaves the Ridgeway), around the east side of Oxford and along the eastern fringe of the Cherwell valley, and off into Northamptonshire.

This section begins just north of Oxford, near Kidlington, then gets chopped in half by the former USAF Upper Heyford site, then passes through here on its way to Rainsborough Camp – which I'll pass before turning back homeward.

I like trackways like this. They are more than just 'old', meaning they're fringed with good, wildlife-rich hedgerows. When people walked the land millennia ago, they chose the best walking route; and in walking these routes today, we can still appreciate their eye for a good path.

I glide along, feet on autopilot, up and down across the shaven fields, past Croughton, and then onto the tarmac-covered single-track road which is the continuation of the route. This eventually gets me to Charlton (I decide to skip Rainsborough today – I'll visit when Autumn is at its peak).

Like everywhere else I've been to today, Charlton is quiet. Everyone's hiding from the rain. I take a left in the middle of the village and head along the ridge towards Kings Sutton.

The nice thing about the Cherwell valley is that, if you traverse the valleys that intersect from the east and west, you can rack up quite a bit of vertical ascension as well as distance. I know I haven't gone too far today, but my knees are telling me they've been busy climbing upwards. I don't measure any of this before I set out – I'll total it up when I get home.

This path is one of the local scenic highlights – though not may people use it. On a clear day (OK, not today) the view runs down the valley, across the flat expanse of the Cherwell's flood plain at its end, and then carries on up the valley of the River Swere which terminates opposite. It's quite an imposing view in the distance, where the geology of the Irondowns meets the Cotswolds, rising to the 780-foot summit of Whichford Heath.

Unfortunately, all that's lost in the mist and dark cloud today. As I pass over the top of the ridge the view over the north-south expanse Cherwell valley opens up – from Warwickshire and Northamptonshire to the north, past Banbury and southwards toward Oxford.

A black band of cloud is moving in from the Cotswolds, promising heavier rain; generally though it's difficult to clearly make out the features as the rain and mist obscure the view:

Panorama over a rainy, misty Kings Sutton and the Cherwell valley

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Coming down from the hilltop the rain hammers harder on my impermeable latex skin. My boots begin to accrete clay as I move from the red sandy ironstone on to the stodgy beige ploughed clay at the bottom of the valley. I skirt the village again to the station; 25 minutes to the next train. I sit in the shelter and the rain eases off, and then stops... what a lovely day!