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Saturday 27th October 2018

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Route: Charlbury Station, Walcot, Chilson, Wychwood, Finstock, Fawler, Oxfordshire Way, Charlbury

Distance: 17km/10⅗ miles, 4¾ hours

Ascension: 340 metres/1,115 feet

Wychwood, Autumn 2018

A cold and rainy circuit through the colours of the Autumnal North Cotswolds

Wychwood, one of the larger patches of ancient woodland left in England, is one of the most spectacular Autumn walks in Oxfordshire. Unlike the Chilterns, Wychwood's varying geology & soils have a greater variety of trees and scrub – meaning many more colours. Due to ‘distractions’ I missed it completely last year; this year I’ve been watching the countryside to find the best day to walk it. Rain is forecast, and there's cold and frost to come, so a heavy leaf fall is likely. It’s today or I might miss it again for another year.

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Out from Charlbury station, turn left, up the hill and then follow the track to the right. This is the old Medieval route along the southern/western side of the Evenlode valley. When the County Council (much to the objection of Cornbury Estate) created the path through Wychwood a little over thirty years ago they could only get a single path through the eastern half of the woodland. This old route will take me north around the bend in the Evenlode valley to the hamlet of Chilson, then back south again along the entire length of the path through Wychwood.

The rain has started. A stiff north-north-westerly is dragging light showers along gloomy spindles of cloud. The view is brilliant though. As the trackway takes the bend in the valley, the view opens from Charlbury and the woodlands of Ditchbury Park beyond, across the Evenlode to the Chadlington Downs along the horizon, and then, from the ancient settlement on the ridge near Sarsden, back across the Evenlode to the high points of Wyck Beacon and Icomb.

Well, it would, if it didn’t keep disappearing behind the veils of wind-whipped drizzle, dragged across the scene on the icy wind.

I’m so glad I repacked my day bag for Winter. Walking today is going to rely on those various layers I keep in my rucksack. Each layer performs a different function to prevent my body-heat escaping, or the cold wind penetrating, or the rain soaking through.

I pass a couple walking silently in the opposite direction; their two dejected looking children are trailing behind. Woolly hats and anoraks are of no use in this weather: the wool doesn’t stop the penetrating wind and the anorak doesn’t stop the drizzle from slowly making your clothing wet. That’s the tricky thing about England’s Winter climate. It has the worst of both worlds; cold and wet.

I’ve a couple of thin insulating cotton layers, then my coarse wool ‘hippie hoodie’, and then my wind and water resistant nylon outer layer.

If you put the water-resistant outer layer directly onto a dense cotton or wool insulating layer, vapour from your body will condense on the cold outer layer, before it has a chance to escape through the weave or vents; that will make you just as wet on the inside, and cold, as if you hadn’t had the water-resistant layer at all.

The coarse wool beneath the outer layer prevents the condensation from water-logging the insulation; theoretically that stops you getting wet from the inside. To the people passing, however, I probably look a bit over-dressed.

I love the first real cold-snap of the Winter though. It’s like an old friend, dropping around to remind you that there are some fun days ahead. Especially when you have a view like this:

Westward Panorama over Wychwood, Shorthampton and Evenlode Valley

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I reach Chilson and turn left; this is where the climbing begins. Though this walk isn’t overly long, at a little over ten miles, it has a surprising amount of hill-climbing, over 1,100 feet. It’s a long haul over the two hilltops and the steep-sided valley through the heart of the woodland. For that reason I always stop on the bench just above the hamlet, take a little food and drink, but mostly I sit and take in the panorama over the village.

Wychwood is a National Nature Reserve. I could have gone to the Chilterns today. What makes Wychwood special is that it has a variable geology, and soils from alkaline limestone at the lower levels, through cornbrash and mudstones, to acidic sand and gravel deposits across the higher ground.

What this means is that you can be walking through beech woods one moment; then through birches and confers with a lowland heath under-story, than back into beech woods or hazel coppice. That gives far more variety, both above your head, and also around you at ground level.

The higher parts of Wychwood, reaching over 600 feet above sea level, are usually quiet. Due to the long walk required fewer people seem to make it up here. It is, though, one of the nicest parts of the woodland – which at this time of year is a diverse patchwork of colours from the beech, birch, oak and conifers that make-up the woodland. In Spring, this is one of the best areas for bluebells too.

Today though, after entering the woodland, I’ve come across an unfortunate problem. There is no understorey. It’s been cleared, creating a clear view across the ground-cover layer of the beech woods. At various points notices have been nailed to the trees:

Cornbury Park
No public access
Shooting in progress

It would appear that the estate has cleared the undergrowth to permit their shooting parties to have easier access to the woodland. Problem is that takes not only the ground cover for the birds and small mammals, but also the rich variety of seeds and berries from the understorey plants which they feed from.

As I said earlier in the year about Sarsden Woods, again managed for shooting (and which today sound like a distant re-enactment of a World War I battle), when you clear a wood to benefit shooters much of the rest of nature loses out.

I go over the hill, with it’s heath-like birch and bracken layer shining in the damp drizzle, dog-leg along the road that crosses the Wychwood to Leafield, and then back into the main wood.

Next problem. They haven’t just cleared the understorey; all along the main ride down to Cornbury House they’ve taken the trees and shrubs as well – creating a wide empty strip big enough for a trunk road. The trees and shrubs appear to have been fed into a mobile chipper that’s spewed smashed shards of wood across the forest floor. In today’s rain this makes the going very uneven and slippy underfoot.

As I pass over the hill and descend towards Cornbury House, I start seeing more walkers. Most come from the house up towards Seven Dials – where a number of rides intersect – and then go back again.

Even without the scurrying of dogs though, the wood is abnormally quiet. All that heavy plant emasculating the woodland has caused the natural inhabitants to relocate. There were signs of badgers ripping the bark off of old logs just after the road, and a woodpecker just before that, but the rest of the wood is eerily quiet today.

Approaching the main park complex I take a right-turn towards the sawmill. This is a younger, more productive woodland of mainly hazel, ash and oak. There was a stone quarry too, but that finished quite recently. Beyond the sawmill the path drops away steeply in to the valley that cuts deep into Wychwood, its bottom turned into lakes and fish ponds.

’What goes down must go up again’; the climb up the gulley on Patch Hill might be steep, but that does give you time to admire the overhead arch of hazel which lines the route to the top. With a thicker understorey, there are more birds here too. All-to-quickly though the track broadens, and then trees give way to fields as you head towards Finstock.

I take a pause in a bench in Finstock. The drizzle had transmuted into rain during my time crossing Wychwood. Now that steady rain was thick with sleet.

Finstock is very quiet. Everyone seems to be hiding inside from the weather. Left at the school, and then right down a track towards the allotments, I leave the village along the deep, usually dry valley that runs down to the Evenlode. ‘Usually’ dry; four years ago during the wet Spring a small brook rose and carved a gully down the centre of the bridleway. In places it has still yet to soften, making it difficult to walk on the now slippy mud of the trackway.

The ‘official’ circular walk through Wychwood goes down the busy Charlbury-Witney road at Finstock and then back through the lower end of the park. It’s mostly fields, not trees. I like to go along this steep valley because it adds more distance, but more importantly the dry valley is a feast of wildflowers in the sheep pasture for much of the year.

Half-way down the ways part: Left goes back across the lower park, direct to Charlbury (too short, and flat, for today’s outing); right takes you along the Evenlode valley, past the Roman villa and ultimately to Hanborough station (not enough time for that today); straight on goes across the river to the hamlet of Fawler, where you can climb to the ancient trackway – now the route of the Oxfordshire Way – that follows the rim of the valley back into Charlbury.

The rain continued, but without the sleet. I pondered about changing my outer layer, but I’m toastily warm, and it doesn’t seem heavy enough to bother.

At the top of the climb the sky changes colour. The gloomy slab of cloud is tinged with red and purple – picking out the reddish hues of the local soil in the fields. The mist of rain and drizzle means that everything is a blur; my camera’s motor whines as it jiggles back and forth, trying to find something to focus on. In the grey-red gloom, the view over the valley to Wychwood, draped across the far rim of the valley, looks most peculiar:

Drizzly, Gloomy Sunset Panorama over Wychwood and Evenlode Valley

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For the last section, along the Medieval track back into Charlbury, I'm on autopilot. The rain slackens, slightly. The sky gets darker as dusk takes hold. Charlbury is empty, other than convoys of cars scurrying along the road in the grey rain.

I plonk-down on the station bench; half an hour to the train. I remove the outer wind-proof/water-resistant layer; the coarse wool below is damp but not wet. I remove it, add another layer of thick insulating fleece, and then put the two outer layers back on again. When you stop on a day like today you will get very cold, very quickly as your muscles stop producing heat. In my bag I've a couple of crusts from an own-made loaf of bread, which, along with the endorphins coarsing through my body, adds flavour to a very pleasant and peaceful end to the day. The train ride home, however, was chaos... a sudden fall of leaves on the line!