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Sunday 21st October 2018

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Route: Banbury, Oxford Canal, Oxfordshire Ironstone Railway, Wroxton, Bretch Hill

Distance: 17.7km/11 miles, 4⅓ hours

Ascension: 190 metres/625 feet

No Direction Home

Randomly walking into an Autumnal afternoon

I need a walk, but I’ve no motivation to go ‘anywhere’. Instead I go for ‘Dylanesque’ a walk to ’nowhere’: Pick a direction, go for as long as it looks like you should be going in that direction, and then turn. Walks like this can take you to come unexpected places; a chance to view some unexpected things. Even well-worn tracks can be interesting if the wind changes to some new direction.


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"How does it feel, To be on your own, With no direction home…", said Dylan…

Often, if I’m walking through town with a rucksack, people I know will ask “off for a walk?”. Usually I’m just going shopping, but every now and again I will be on my way out of town. The inevitable follow-up question is, “where to?”. Today that response would be, “I don’t know”. I find this often elicits a mixture of confusion and mystery. After all, if you’re going for a walk, you must know where you are going, right?

Wrong!

Over the multiple iterations of being asked my non-existent destination, I’ve evolved a fairly standard response…

There’s a lovely term in statistics; ‘sample bias’.

What that means is that people can often unconsciously skew their view of something by choosing one option or source over another. Walkers often do this; choosing to go walking in one area rather than another – or worse still, all the walkers in the country decide to go walking in the same small area, which often damages the very thing they’re heading there for.

What if you introduce randomness into that process? What might you see which you might have otherwise unconsciously avoided? If we dispense with the idea that you must be going ‘somewhere’, what strange or unexpected sights might you see?

I really need a walk, but I’m so tired I can motivate myself to go anywhere. If you really can’t motivate yourself to go somewhere there is a temptation to stay exactly where you are, because you’re not sure of where you should go. In which case why not just walk without any specific destination? At least it gets you out of the house!

When leaving the house without a destination the first thing I do is look up and down the street. Then I walk whichever way looks the more interesting at that moment. If I walk up the street than that usually means I’ll walk south and south-west from the town; if I walk down the street I may head north-west and north, though often I’ll head down to the town centre and the bus station.

housing development at Drayton, Banbury Today I head for the bus station, perhaps to catch a 500 bus to the east.

At the bus station I usually take the first bus to depart – for anywhere. I buy a ticket that’ll take me six to ten miles (depending upon the hours of daylight left) where I’ll get off and walk home.

Problem.

Quite apart from local cuts to bus services ordinarily, it’s Sunday. Next to no buses, and the next bus service east has just started a new timetable; the next isn't for half an hour. From the bus station I might walk across to the railway station; but again, it’s Sunday, no service to Cherwell valley stations.

Next to the bus station is the Oxford Canal. This is one of the most direct routes out of town running north and south. When there is no bus for the next twenty minutes or so I often take the canal instead – as I can be easily reach the edge of town in fifteen or twenty minutes.

Today I head north, past the lock and the museum café into Spiceball Park. On the far side of the park there’s a fork: left continues along the canal north; right goes past the reservoir, or crosses the railway to leave the town to the north-east.

I go left.

It’s a lovely sunny afternoon, albeit rather late in the day as I’ve been working this morning. However, plodding along the canal tow-path isn’t really getting me ‘anywhere’. I feel the need to branch-off. I cross into Southam Road from the canal. I’ll have to stay on a tarmac pavement for another mile if I stay on this road, so I quickly take a left up the Oxfordshire Ironstone Railway.

This isn’t a footpath; it’s not a route on the definitive map. For forty-odd years, before my teens, I’ve been walking this route. It’s recognised by the local council as route connecting different parts of the town, but there is no ‘legal’ right to walk here.

housing development at Drayton, Banbury This is a much nicer route, through tunnels in the scrub, or fringed with trees where a surfaced path has been created as part of the residential developments along the former minerals railway. All to soon though I get to the top of the hill, and what was once a railway line disappears into an arable field...

Or rather, it used to. Today the track terminates in a brand new housing development – yet another piece in the puzzle that is the sprawl of Banbury into the surrounding countryside.

There is a tall wire mesh fence around the edge of the development site. However, accepting the reality of the number of people who walk the old trackbed, they’ve left a gap in the panels at either end so that the locals do not have to demolish the whole fence (as they would likely do if obstructed!).

Beyond this, the countryside opens out – and the trackbed disappears off into the middle of this scene, which is why so many people use it:

Panorama over Drayton, Horley, and the Oxfordshire Ironstone Railway

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I’m not carrying a map today. Within ten to fifteen miles of Banbury I’ve walked nearly all the ‘legal’ rights of way. In addition to those I know many more ‘informal’ routes too, the use of which is more uncertain.

Technically following this route along the former mineral railway isn’t legal. It’s not a criminal offence (unless I obstruct the work of the landowner); it’s the civil offence of ‘trespass’, for which I could be sued for damages, or have a court injunction placed upon me to prevent me walking here in future.

Could I care? Not today. It’s beautiful. I didn’t mean to come here, but now I’m here I really glad I bothered to come.

The minerals railway ends where the engine sheds, which served the ironstone quarries to the west of Wroxton and Horley, used to be. In total, well-over a square mile of the surface of the land around here was removed to produced iron ore, then taken down the railway to the steel furnaces of Corby and South Wales.

That half-century of quarrying finished in the mid-1960s, when much better iron ore from South America started to arrive by ship. Coincidentally, meaning that the then empty trackbed of the mineral railway would be used as a recreational resource by the residents of the new houses plonked down beside it.

From the old sheds I take Drift Lane towards Wroxton – itself part of a landscape restored following the cessation of mineral working in the 1960s. Through Wroxton village, I enter Wroxton Abbey Park, a 250 year-old landscaped stately home park long since degraded by its return to agriculture.

Past the obelisk on the far side of the former abbey-cum-stately home I can see the 1771 folly – Drayton Arch. Today though it looks rather different, even from just a year or so ago. More new sprawling housing estates now fringe the view to its left, and soon, to the right too.

Panorama over Drayton Arch from the Obelisk in Wroxton Abbey Park

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With more housing coming to the town, we need better, ‘non-mechanised’ connections to the countryside so that those in the town can find some sanctuary in their hassled existence. Some of the most valuable routes now available, such as the mineral railway, have no security; they operate at the sufferance of the landowner – who could, if they wish, prevent people using it.

If the Government get their way, especially as part of the new ‘Joint Statutory Spatial Plan’ for Oxfordshire (or ‘JSSP’, something I don’t want to explain here), the development pressures on Banbury will only get worse. If people want to have access to their countryside they’re going to have to enforce their common law rights to use it…
that said, if anyone has been walking the mineral railway route for more than twenty years, and you’d like to help make it official, please could you get in touch ASAP?

I pause for a rest at Drayton Arch, and watch sunset tip into disk. I can't walk straight into the town – the path has been obstructed by the new groundworks for the next phase of housing development. Instead I loop southwards, through Giant's Caves in the dark, and back into town along Broughton Road.

It's not necessary to have a destination when you go for a walk; partiuclarly if that destination is where you're starting from in the first place. A walk is a thing in itself, it needs no destination. As more eloquently put by Tolkein in 'The Lord of the Rings',
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”