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Tuesday 19th February 2019

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Route: Tackley station, Old Whitehill, Sturdy's Castle, Wootton, Woodstock, Bleinham Park, Combe Mill, Long Hanborough, Hanborough station

Distance: 14.9km/9¼ miles, 3⅔ hours

Ascension: 200 metres/660 feet

The White Van Man Variations

reworking a favourite route to avoid getting squashed

There are some walks that you do over-and-over again; old favourites for particular times of the year. The problem is that sometimes they change. Lately I’ve had a problem with ‘white vans’ – delivery vans driving at speed around rural rat runs, and who don’t really expect to meet walkers wandering down single track roads in the middle of nowhere. A solution to this problem has come to mind for my favourite route through Blenheim; time to try it out.

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Spring is surging, and it’s only just over half-way through February! As the train leaves Heyford station I can see rooks nesting at the top of the trees beside the line in Rousham Park (they must think it’s going to be a fine dry Summer). Then just before Tackley station, in the ox-bow lake beside the Cherwell, a swan is sitting on a large raised nest while it’s partner forages for more bull rush stems in the water at its edge. I arrive at Tackley station and get off, choosing to take the longer route along the River Cherwell rather than the direct path around the village.

The clear morning has given way to ‘little fluffy clouds’ (that tune haunts me until I reach the top of the hill). Out of the station and down to the Cherwell I’m dazzled by the light until I turn west. It’s warm – too warm, even though there’s a breeze rising. A lovely day for a walk. Today though I’m trying something a little different so I can’t put my feet on autopilot and enjoy the ride.

Passing the Cherwell a kite is hovering over the river {only later, inspecting the photos, do I realise that in concentrating on the kite I missed an otter surfacing in the river below}.

A quick right-left at Old Whitehill puts me on Akeman Street – the east-west Roman route from St. Albans to Cirencester, its course still preserved in the raised bank with a ditch either side. It’s a great way to trace a direct path cross-country, from Bicester and the Cherwell valley in an almost straight line to the Evenlode and the Windrush valleys, and Burford to the west. So exceptional, they made it part of the Oxfordshire Way.

That’s why I like this route. It’s a nice wander between railway stations.

The problem is, the Internet.

The take-up of on-line shopping amongst the more affluent residents around Oxford and the Cotswolds now means that some of the nicest minor roads along tiny lanes, cutting cross country, are plagued with white vans driving at speed – not wanting to slow down for a stroppy walker who refuses to jump head-long into the hedge at a moments notice. Over the last three or four years some of my favourite routes have become not just plagued by speeding vehicles, they have dangerous and/or irksome to walk as a result.

From Old Whitehill, to beyond Sturdy’s Castle on the main Oxford Road, Akeman Street is made-up of bridleways until it reaches Samson’s Farm. The narrow minor road which traces its Roman course for about a mile beyond used to be a nice down-and-up stroll across the Glyme valley. The bridge over the river was always a lovely first halt; sitting on the parapet of the narrow bridge watching the ‘bright stream’ (the Glyme’s ancient Celtic name) gurgling beneath.

Today though it’s not a joy. Coming down from the ridge at Sturdy’s Castle, every minute or so, I see van after van stop by the farm buildings and turn down Stratford Lane. Despite this, my annoyance is tempered by the lovely sky above, alternating with sunshine and dark black cumulonimbus clouds on either horizon.

This why I’m varying my route today. I don’t want to dodge vans, I want to walk.

At Sansom’s Farm I take a diagonal right towards Wootton. I normally only do this route when I walk from Tackley to Charlbury, via either Ditchley and/or Kiddington. The difficulty is that its flat bottom, and high river level between the banks, it’s often difficult to pass after heavy rain due to either mud or standing water. This route might be a fix for today; under other circumstances I may have to think of more esoteric solutions.

The Glyme valley is a little local hidden gem. Largely wild, its clean, limestone-fed waters mean that it’s a haven for water-life – both submerged and around its banks.

I pass through the farm and its now defunct, snowdrop- and alder-fringed millpond beyond, and cross the valley into Jubilee Fields and Long Meadow Nature Reserve. Up the bank a little there’s a strategically placed picnic bench, where you can sit and look out over the confluence of the rivers Glyme and Dorn in the valley below. I stop to have a late lunch; as does someone else, because I notice shortly after that I’ve got my first horse-fly bite of the year on my leg.

Panorama over the confluence of the rivers Glyme and Dorn

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The path goes left before Wootton, running along the side of the Glyme valley all the way to the village – crossing Statford Lane where, again, I have to stop and wait for two vans to try and pass each other in the narrow gully. Beyond that the path has good views up and down the valley, and eastward towards Beckley, especially today as the still-rising wind is blowing in more cloud from the west. At Woodstock the main road, with its stream of heavy lorries, is a bit of a shock. I cross over quickly and dive into Blenheim.

Blenheim footpath entrance, Woodstock The little gate in the wall opens onto a flat area with a view over the grounds, lakes and house. Coming down from the top of the ridge I merge with the stream of visitors walking from the car park out into the grounds (I am eyed suspiciously; "he didn’t pay"). Around the edge of the smaller Queen Pool, a right at the stile takes me up and over the grounds to the far side of the estate. After crossing the long vista, past the statute on its column, keeping the post and rail fence on your right guides you to the small v-shaped valley that takes you on and out of the grounds.

Walking down past the trees I notice something small and reddish brown scurry from a stump into the woods ot the right: Not a grey squirrel; there's no red squirrels here; and its tail was flat to the ground… must have been a weasel!   {again, with the inadvertant otter incident earlier, something that's relevant to current events}

Normally, without the detour, I’d enter the park on Akeman Street then turn left and walk down the long drive – for almost a mile. Today’s route, along the Glyme valley, is probably more scenic, though you then have to content with Woodstock at the end of it… no score draw. However, the picnic bench is probably a much nicer lunch spot than the parapet of the bridge on Stratford Lane.

Either way, you always end up at the long arm which emerges from the lake on the far side of Blenheim. This is the best place to see waterfowl – though today its infested with mallard, while a kite patrols overhead. Sometimes, after long Winter rains, the lake floods into the valley beyond and you have to wade through standing water at this point. Today, after the dry Winter, the water is well within its usual bounds.

Now begins the climb up through the High Park – what I think is the best part of the walk through Blenheim. It’s an area of old managed forest, full of old gnarled oaks, beeches, birches and pines. Over the last few years, being around 250 years since the park was planted, some of the most ancient oaks have succumbed to age and now lay flat on the ground. It’s a haven for woodland birds, though today I mostly see finches and blue tits.

There’s a lot of noise from above though. The rooks must be laying eggs in the tall beech and oak trees as a pair of kites keep repeatedly trying to raid the nests – causing clouds of rooks to erupt and chase them away.

I haven’t seen walkers since the ‘Column of Victory’. As I reach the top of the hill I begin to see ‘locals’ who have come for a late afternoon stroll in the woods from the Combe Gate. The top of the ridge is just before the right-turn out of Combe Gate; from here it’s all downhill to the Evenlode.

The sun is tipping over onto the now hazy, cloudy horizon. I pick up speed on the steadily descending road. Combe station comes into view – now largely defunct since Great Western cut the service to one train per day each way, thus avoiding a Parliamentary process to shut it completely. I’m hoping to see a train fly by from right-to-left, towards Oxford. That guarantees I won’t have long to wait at Hanborough station at the end of the walk: No train.

Down the road I find the milky grey River Evenlode burbling along its channel. Unfortunately, due to the large settlements along its route, as well as more intensive agriculture, by comparison to the Glyme it’s pretty dead.

Left over the bridge I climb up the rise beyond to the ‘welcome bench’ – the small park bench that’s been erected on the edge of Long Hanborough. It’s a great place to sit and look directly down the Evenlode valley which, as this is usually the end of the walk for me, can be timed to give you a splendid Cotswold sunset.

As it’s less than a mile downhill to the station, the bench is a nice place to sit, have a drink, and finish-off your food. As I arrived at the bench a train had passed towards Oxford. I’ve plenty of time. I take the opportunity to sit for a while at the bench, listening to the birds in the thicket behind, and watching the sun falling to the horizon above Abel Wood on the far side of the valley.

I gather everything up and plod the short distance to the main road, now filling with cars exiting Oxford for home in West Oxfordshire. The pavement conveys me the short distance down to the end of the walk. It’s a long wait at Hanborough station, though do I get a ringside seat for a long, animated sunset as the rising wind continues to accumulate blackening storm clouds from the west.