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Saturday 9th February 2019

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Route: Banbury, Bretch Hill, Drayton Arch, Drayton, Moor Mill, Hanwell, Hanwell Castle, Hardwick, Banbury

Distance: 14.5km/9 miles, 3½ hours

Ascension: 210 metres/690 feet

Winter Breaks

Life begins to stir as the freezing weather subsides

The grip of Winter, perhaps temporarily, appears to have been broken. Things are waking up. Crocuses and daffodils are beginning to sprout in Peoples Park. In the parks and gardens of the town beyond birds are beginning to stir, leaving the cover where they’ve been hiding for the last few weeks. Spring is near!

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Still not being able to walk directly into the bright sun I decide to walk north-west to keep the glare on my shoulder – heading for my ancestral villages of Horley and Hanwell. Leaving the town centre to walk the long ridge upon which Banbury sits, separating the Cherwell valley from Sor Brook, a bank of cloud moves in and the wind strengthens… an interesting walk awaits.

Despite the gusty wind there’s a breath of warmth in the air – unlike the previous few weeks. Walking-off into the rough land beyond the housing estates, in the under-storey of the hedges the growth of new, bright green cleavers and cow parsley has been joined by other – as yet nondescript – small leaves.

Bretch Hill Tower clearance Reaching the water tower on Bretch Hill I find that the rough scrub – a great home to nesting songbirds in the Spring – has been cleared; presumably for new development. Such a pity. It means I’ll have an extra few minutes to escape the town in future. Passing into the fields beyond the town a kite is soaring on the wind, scouring the fields for food. Finches and sparrows scurry in the hedges, while higher up in the trees tits tweet loudly to one another.

The recent rain, and the lack of frost, mean that the ground is soft and muddy. Today though I’m feeling more ‘rambler-like’. Not only do I have a nice weighty rucksack for the first time this year, I’ve got my gaiters on too. Mud is not an issue!

Beyond the old ash that guards the western footpath to North Newington I turn north, skirting the new housing developments around Withycombe Farm. The wind is now whistling forlorn tunes through the wire fencing panels erected around the edge of the site. In the opposite direction the view is less disturbed; green rolling hills meeting the grey rolling cloudscape above at Sibford Heath.

I could go straight on, but decide to take a left to Drayton Arch. Pausing for a while at the recently restored folly, looking up and down Sor Brook, I ponder the walks I might do off to the west… another day! In lieu of that greater expedition I continue down to the bridge and then double-back into Drayton, passing the site of the more ancient Saxon and Norman settlement, and its lichen-patterned church, before walking into the ‘modern’ village.

Beyond the village I cross the old mineral railway and then have to halt for a while – lost for which path to take. I had intended to go straight to Hanwell, but I feel attracted towards Moor Mill; I follow my instinct and take a left across the fields. Passing along the hedgerows beyond I’m rewarded with a pair of buzzards, swooping low over my head, calling and circling around one another. In the fields the pigeons, oblivious to the boom of the gas guns nearby, scatter when the buzzards approach.

I reach the road. This was the site of Moor Mill, one of the many water mills that barred the course of Sor Brook. The footpath crosses the road here and follows the well preserved mill leat into the village of Horley. From here I could carry on, taking the nice path that skirts the village and then climbs to rejoin the ridge-line between Shotteswell and Hanwell. I ponder how my back feels, and instead take the road straight into Hanwell

When he was a boy, my Granddad had to walk this road each day to school in Horley; there was no schoolroom in Hanwell. I reach the top of the hill and survey the scene behind. Horley opposite, the squat square church tower of St. Etheldreda’s at its apex, lays across the ridge rising from the fork in the valley – where the watercourses from Hornton and Edgehill meet at Moor Mill below.

As the road levels out a sparrow hawk is hovering above the hedgerows, occasionally darting back and forth – so close I can see the patterns on the underside of its wings. As I enter its hunting ground it flees to a distant tree.

I have to admit that if I had a free choice where I could have a shack to live in, and a garden to get my food from, it would be here.

Panorama over Horley and the Upper Sor Valley

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Trespassers will be shot I cross the main road. Passing a gate on the other side there's a (dubiously lawful) sign basically saying, "trespassers will be shot". I wonder if Brexit and its ‘hostile environment’ is making farmers and landowners more hateful towards ramblers?

Into the village. I stop near the village hall to take a picture of the snowdrops. Compared to the others I’ve seen today, the Hanwell snowdrops have much bigger flower heads, and their intense whiteness almost has a luminous quality.

When I was a boy, my Granddad explained that the owner of the castle at the beginning of the Twentieth Century imported some special snowdrops from the Alps – and had them planted around the old fishponds at the edge of the castle grounds. They thrived in this environment. Over the year the locals ‘borrowed’ the bulbs, and soon they sprouted all over the village.

I decide to go left and have a look at my grandparents old home. Every house across the village is far neater and tidier than forty years ago. Their house still retains some of its features though, like the ill-fitting iron-framed windows. What I really miss is the wild vegetable garden on the raised plot next to it, where I learned so much about digging dirt, composting and growing food.

I go a little further down the road, and see a kerfuffle around the gateway to the castle and parked cars everywhere. I ignore it and take a right along the little track towards the church. Half-way up I remember: it’s the castle grounds’ open day today. I double back to have a look inside.

As I child I did odd jobs around the castle and grounds, helping my Dad and Granddad who also worked there (my Great Granddad also worked there too). Walking around inside the recently renovated castle and its grounds, with memories peaking out from beneath the cleaned stonework, was an interesting half hour.

I wandered back up the drive and then around to the church. I cleared the rubbish off my grandparents grave, paused to look at the view from the top of the castle gardens, and then headed back into town. The sun is setting in a haze of cloud now, and the wind has regained its recently icy caress. Even so, to the east, the ridge footpath from Wardington to Thorpe Mandeville and around Greatworth looked inviting… another day!

When I first walked this route out of town to my grandparents house more than 40 years ago, drawn by the certainty of tea and own-made fruit cake, much of the ‘old’ Hardwick Estate had yet to be built. Then again, why is it called ‘Hardwick’? Hardwick Hill is the one I can see opposite, on Southam Road, which now hosts the town’s cemetery. This hill, with the Hardwick Estate on it, is actually called ‘Pin Hill’. Did someone in the 1960’s planning department fail to read a map properly?

Passing the new housing developments, only a field away from Hanwell itself now, the wind is whistling forlorn tunes through the wire fence panels that surround the half-finished shells. I greet the huge ash tree (the one you see on the ridge in front of you descending Oxford Road into South Bar) that guards the northern footpath into the town, and then plod home through the windy streets.