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Friday 15th February 2019
Route: Banbury, Grimsbury, Nethercote, Overthorpe, Middleton Cheney, Thenford, Farthinghoe
Distance: 10.5km/6½ miles, 2½ hours
Ascension: 170 metres/560 feet
When you walk an area for a long period of time, so that you can follow all the paths without a map, you develop a sense of ‘freedom’; no guide required. And on the most well-used routes you can even walk in the dark of a moonlit night. I lost that last November when I couldn’t see. Since the beginning of February, when my full sight returned, I’ve been taking carefully planned and executed "routes". Today though I went for a "walk"; unintended, definitely not planned, and far more wonderful as a result.
Out of the town centre, stopping to make a delivery on the way, I head east towards the motorway along the Causeway. Simple plan for a short walk; out to Nethercote, turn right over the First World War munitions factory, then walk back into town via Canal Lane. Crossing the M40 I realised that this was a silly idea; the din from the pre-rush hour(s) motorway was painful. I had to let go of the fixed plan; that’s where the walk started.
OK, alongside the motorway is not an option right now. I’ll circle Overthorpe into Canal Lane; that’s always a nice walk at sunset. Two possible paths from the Bowling Green Inn: right, direct into the village, is the shorter route; left, across the boggy fields below the village to the crossroads at the top of the hill and down through Warkworth, is the longer.
I go left.
Over the sticky ploughed clays at the bottom of the valley is hard going, but as the slope rises up the hill the going gets easier; temporarily.
I’ve been walking this path for at least 40 years, first coming here to collect mushrooms and pick berries well before my teens. Below the village, as it circles the hillside, the footpath crosses an area of upwelling springs; the water doesn’t run across the ground, it rises up from beneath. I found out how to cross this section many years ago, by trial and mud-splattered error.
A few years later when I went backpacking in Wales and Scotland, after my early training here, I found that I already had the skills required to deal with mountain bogs.
Despite past experience I’m still sinking into the field half-way up my shins, near to the top of my gaiters. I get to the firm bed of the stream on the far side and walk up to the stile in the corner of the field. In the pasture-now-paddock on the other side of the hedge the process is repeated three times more as I cross the three upwelling springs in the next field.
Why bother with all this? For the view.
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Especially around sunset, when the ‘layers’ of the land in this area are highlighted by the low-angle western sun, you get a brilliant view over Banbury and the countryside beyond.
I reach the crossroads at the top of the hill. Pretty much a 360-degree view from here: west across Banbury to the edge of the Ironstone escarpment; south down the Cherwell valley past Heyford to Beckley; east across the land rising to the watershed ridge between Farthinghoe and Greatworth; and north beyond Overthorpe Hill to the high ground around Edgcote, Danesmoor and Thorpe Mandeville.
Now definitely rush hour, the noise from the A422 is rising and the rat-runs around junction 11 of the M40 are starting to get busy with vans and cars. There’s no way I want to walk a mile down the road through Warworth right now.
I walk on towards Middleton Cheney, the ironstone spire of All Saints now luminously shining in the light of the setting sun.
It’s a simple alternative route: This tarmac cycleway will take me to Astrop Road on the edge of Middleton, then Astrop Road down to the bottom of the valley, and then the field path across the valley floor which leads to Canal Lane near to the railway bridge. Easy.
Down to the Middleton bypass, and then right parallel to it to get to Astrop Road – where cars are queuing on the single track road. Even this, it appears, is now a peak time rat-run; perhaps a symptom of the recent bridge closure at Farthinghoe when people learnt of new ‘alternative’ routes from A to B. Walking a mile and a quarter down this road will not be easy.
At this point my legs, muted for the past few months, speak up with a suggestion: "Farthinghoe".
What! That’s silly. Can’t possible do that. It’s too late. Not enough daylight…
Sometimes though you have to accept what gut instinct dictates, especially when it’s the only rational way not to terminate the walk early.
I check my pocket; £5, enough to get me home again on the bus. I check the moon rising in the east; waxing gibbous, certainly enough to walk by when the sun goes down. I check my left eye; not hurting, so no obstruction to doing another few miles.
Hemmed in by rush hour rat-run traffic there are not a lot of options… Why not!
I shift gear and pound around Middleton and onto the path to Thenford.
The sun has now set; the shadows have stopped growing in length and, in reciprocal motion, the land around starts to darken and merge into the shade of the shadows. Ahead of me a group of roe dear rush across the field and jump through a gap in the hedge; no point trying to photograph as in this light they’ll all be just a blur.
Into Thenford, where for the first time in ages I see a flock of starlings fly their roosting acrobatics around Thenford church. Up through the village, then across the lawn of Thenford House, I take a right down the bridleway to Farthinghoe.
Camera struggling in the failing light, I stop for a moment to changes my lens for something more wide-angle. I also take a moment to look around as the darkness gathers in the east.
This route is an old favourite. I find the most ancient routes have an ‘ergonomic feel’ about them; gently meandering, following the landforms, avoiding steep inclines, which makes the act of walking itself far easier. Probably the route of the ancient Portway road, demoted 200 years ago by land inclosure, it traces a line from Kidlington and Kirtington north to Staverton and Braunston.
The dusk is now falling into twilight, highlighted by the tree-lined western horizons of Thenford Park and, demarcated by the scurrying pairs of red and white lights on the main road, Purston.
Arriving at the bridge over Farthinghoe Stream I press my camera down onto a post and take a 6 second exposure. I’m not sure if this attempt to catch the azure gloom of the valley floor will work or not, but it’s worth a try (still travelling light I haven’t got a tripod, so any passing flat-top gate or post will do).
I climb towards Farthinghoe. Passing under the large three-arch railway bridge of the Banbury and Verney Junction line I can see, in its shadow, that the moon is now my main source of light. It’s difficult to see any path or track ahead of me but my legs know the way, gently arcing across the field, slowly rising up the slope, arriving spot-on at the gateway which leads me on to the edge of the village.
I take New Road to the top of the hill where I can get a view to Banbury in the distance, now perceptible only by its illuminating lights, below what remains of the deep red and purple thin twilight sunset on the western horizon. Along Queens Street and left I arrive at the west-bound bus stop. After a wait of fifteen minutes or so the bus arrives to take me back into town. I ponder my route as I am driven back along it: Walking is so much better when you can abandon any fixed destination, or route, and just go with what’s the most obvious and suitable route in that moment.