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Thursday 11th April 2019
Route: Wardington, Edgcote Hill, Danesmoor, Culworth, Sulgrave, Stuchbury, Halse, Brackley
Distance: 19.5km/12⅛ miles, 6 hours
Ascension: 215 metres/700 feet
HS2 is bugging me again. I’ve a few gaps to fill in my photographic reconnaissance of the route before construction begins. The problem isn’t walking the route. The problem is, with my currently ‘challenged’ eye capacity, putting all those images in the web is still beyond me (perhaps they'll cancel it before I have to do that!). Now that the bird nesting season has commenced, and the law protecting nest sites has kicked in, I want to get out and complete my documentation of the route before the end of the nesting season in the Summer.
If you look at the route map for this walk you’ll see rather an excess of ‘viewpoint’ symbols. That’s because HS2, as it passes this area, traverses some of the best and (for this region) relatively remote countryside it’s possible to fit the line through. Currently much of the focus for development has been in London and the Chilterns, where tunnelling means that work there needs to start well-ahead of the rest of the project. In this area many high viaducts, long engineered cuttings, and large embankments are required. This means work will have to commence here relatively soon too; when that will be is still uncertain.
I begin the day on the 200 bus service from Banbury to Daventry, getting off at Wardington (and as I’ll be coming back on a different bus service I buy a Dayrider Gold ticket so that I can save a little money compared to two single tickets). I'm also travelling with an 'enhanced' day pack. Still on my track for my 'special project' at the end of the month, today it weighs 16 kilos (35lbs). This is my first 'long' walk with this weight and I'm really looing forward to it; given the weight, I'm also using both my walking poles today.
The difficulty with having the 'full kit' on my back is that you "look" like a walker; people are always curious. Just after leaving the bus stop I meet someone in the village. "Where are you going?", they ask. When I say that I’m following the route of HS2 from Brackley I get an animated download of the iniquities of the proposed project – and that a contractor on the local section has already gone into liquidation because they can't do the work for the amount of money provided.
I quickly get to the top of the ridge above the village to partake of the beautiful view, one of my favourite local spots for a brew (unfortunately I don't have the time to stop today):
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I wander over the flat-dome-top of Edgecote Hill, taking time to look at the views north and west along the way. Unfortunately the rapeseed has now come into flower, and stuck in the middle of it all my nose is beginning to twitch and itch a little.
Over the top, past Lodge Farm, and I get to the first point on my list of photo sites for the day; Danesmoor. From just beyond the farm there’s a wonderful view across the plain below, scene of two historic battles in the Tenth and Fifteenth centuries. Beyond, on up the Cherwell Valley, the view extends to the high hills around Byfield, Charwelton, and Badby.
Today this is the scene of another historic battle; a civil war between local people and the government. Currently HS2 will go straight through the middle of this valley on a high embankment, required to get the track over the large viaduct that’s necessary to bridge the gap across the Cherwell's flood plain, almost directly over the relatively diminutive (and ancient) Trafford Bridge.
I go down the hill to the flat fields at the bottom, where I decide to record a sound sample. Danesmoor is one of the most remote and sheltered locations in this area where, providing there’s no aircraft, you begin to approach something like ‘tranquil’ silence. It was here some years ago that I last heard the call of a curlew in this area. I’ve been coming here for almost 40 years, and it rarely disappoints.
I climb over the small hill in the middle of the moor, past the derelict barn, and down onto the track that’s probably part of the Medival Portway route – which is why those warring armies met here in the past. Trafford Bridge was the main crossing point on the northern section of the Cherwell Valley, with old roads fanning out in all directions from the present-day bridge and the mill just upstream from it.
I continue on, up and over the next hill towards Culworth. I sit near the top of the ridge after the climb to enjoy the birdsong and the wind in the trees.
The oak leaves are just flushing, while the buds of the ash further down are still solid and black. "Oak before ash, in for a splash". Certainly the ground is already dry for early April, and in places the clays have started to crack as they dry our in the warmer weather. It could be a rather hot Summer ahead!
Down to the stream and then back up, under the now rusting railway bridge on the disused Banbury to Woodford Halse Branch Line. This was once a link for express and freight trains between the Great Central and the Great Western railways, from Culworth Junction to Banbury. Now the bridge is showing signs of its untended age, with the steel panels of the bridge rusting to holes. On the path near the top of Danesmoor, the old over-bridge on this same stretch of line is now closed as it has become too unsafe to use.
Climbing the rise into the village I turn and see the view down the stream to the top end of Danesmoor – where another viaduct and embankment will fly through the scene as HS2 leaves the lakes at Thorpe to the left and then dives into the hill on the right through a large, gash-like cutting.
In a house on the edge of the village someone has made a scarecrow for their garden – created using a Donald Trump face mask. Such little joys are randomly found when out walking!
Carrying on into the village I meet a man walking a dog. "Lovely day! Where are you going?". When I say that I’m following the route of HS2 from Danesmoor to Brackley I get an animated download of the iniquities of the proposed project – and why they're worried that ten years of round-the-clock construction will ruin the local rural environment.
The next part of the route takes me south along the rim of the valley to Sulgrave Crossroads, then on down the road to pick-up the old ridge route, passing over the hill above Sulgrave, to Stuchbury.
This is the regional watershed. As I walk south everything to my right drains into the River Cherwell and the Thames estuary. As I walk over the ridge heading east I look over the source of the River Tove, which flows through Towcester to the Grand Union Canal near Stoke Bruern, then it joins the River Great Ouse just north of Milton Keynes, and ultimately flows into The Wash at Kings Lynn.
I look across towards the former RAF Greatworth radio base (now a business park). HS2 will run across the valley on an embankment here before diving into a cutting on the other side. I meet a woman, from a nearby house, walking her dog. "Where are you going?", she asks. When I say that I’m following the route of HS2 from Danesmoor to Brackley I get an animated download of the iniquities of the proposed project – and why they’re worried that the springs they depend upon will be cut-off by the project, and that the technology chosen creates more noise and vibration than conventional high speed trains.
Just before the next hedgerow, sheltered from the cooling late-afternoon wind, I stop for a very late lunch. Apart from the faint hiss of rat-running traffic on Welsh Lane, all I hear are larks, hedgerow birds, and the wind running across the landscape.
I carry on to Stuchbury, a very ancient hamlet with its old stone hall. I take a picture of Helmdon and the large viaduct on the Great Central Railway. Someone comes out to see what I’m doing. "Where are you going?", they ask. When I say that I’m following the route of HS2 from Danesmoor to Brackley I get an animated download of the iniquities of the proposed project – and the scandal of the contractors discarding all equipment after six months of use so that they can buy new plant and bill it to HS2.
If South Northamptonshire is remarkable for anything then it’s the green lanes. Some of the most beautiful green lanes imaginable can be found between Brackley, Daventry, Northampton and Milton Keynes. Crossing the valley from Stuchbury Hall I walk down a lovely green lane, and cross the bridge-less ‘boot splash’ at the bottom (a good day to be wearing gaiters).
On the far side of the field beyond I cross the trackbed of the Northampton and Banbury Junction Railway, which once connected the London and North Western Railway routes between Banbury and Blisworth (now the West Coast Mainline) and on to Northampton. Here too the old over-bridge is now closed, and I take the new diversion around it. This takes me to the top of the hill on Welsh Lane, where I cross onto the green lane towards Halse and Brackley.
Like many of the paths I’ve taken today, this is another ridge route, running slowly downhill into Brackley and the crossing on the River Great Ouse – the source of which lies in the valley off to the right, below Farthinghoe. The track takes me past Halse Copse, which will have a large area taken-off by the cutting that will drive HS2 through the ridge, between Radstone and Greatworth. There's quite a noise of birdsong coming out of the copse; I decide to take another sound sample.
Last year the contractors turned up here, fenced off large areas of land, built a compound for their equipment (picture, right), and dug some trial pits. Then they left. Now just the open, water-filled pits remain and the land is growing weeds (picture, left).
That's symbolic of the problem here: No one really knows if the project will go ahead; if so, when, and what local disruption that will create; and in the meantime local people's lives are left in limbo, their land or house blighted; while, in Westminster, as has been demonstrated with Crossrail, politicians trade-off the political kudos invested in the project against the billions in overspend the project is certain to generate.
Rather than follow the bridleway I take a short right-left onto the footpath which continues down the top of the ridge, past the iconic Halse Water Tower. The path eventually leads me to another green lane, The Worlidge (after many years looking, I’ve yet to find any reference as to where that name comes from). I meet someone out for a run. "Where have you come from?", they ask. When I say that I’m following the route of HS2 from Danesmoor to Brackley I get an animated download of the iniquities of the proposed project – and why this political vanity project should be cancelled as a complete waste of public money.
I get to Halse Road. I pack away my cameras and walking poles and set off at speed into the town. I get to the bus stop just as the 500 bus arrives, quickly jump aboard, and ride back home.
Through the front windows of the bus on the ride home I’m treated to a spectacular sunset, as the large deep red sun sets in an orange and gold sky across the horizon of hills and valleys to the west of Banbury. Irrespective of whether the "facts" of what people told me about HS2 are true or not, just about everyone I meet around here doesn’t want HS2. If a Conservative heartland like South Northamptonshire doesn’t want it, you have to wonder why the local MP, and the Government she serves still do.