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Thursday 18th April 2019
Route: Chipping Warden, Aston le Walls, Appletree, The Boddingtons, The Priors, Hellidon, Charwelton
Distance: 22.9km/14¼ miles, 6⅔ hours
Ascension: 300 metres/1,000 feet
It’s not a good day for photography. It’s humid. After leaving Chipping Warden it becomes apparent that visibility is only a mile at most. No matter. If last week’s walk was about following HS2 through the undulating hills of South Northamptonshire, this week I’m going to follow the Ironstone escarpment, where HS2 will emerge via a tunnel and embankment to cross the relatively flat plain of Warwickshire beyond.
I’m having problems fitting more ‘weight’ in my day pack. I resort to a lump hammer and a new box of wood screws to add another 1½ kilos; 17½ kilos in total. I jog down to the 200 bus service from Banbury to Daventry, and buy a return to Charwelton. Getting off at Chipping Warden I set off across the aerodrome.
A few months ago the contractors for HS2 cleared a swathe of land around Chipping Warden for a new bypass, required as part of the development to take traffic around the village. Now, nothing. Between the metal mesh fence panels the bare soil is beginning to grow weeds, the snails-pace transformation overseen by many small solar powered lighting installations with CCTV attached, with regular toilet blocks spaced along the route, and a large compound at the north end of the development which oversees all the inactivity on the site.
Seemingly they spent an awful lot of money to do nothing; perhaps a metaphor for the greater HS2 project?
The path follows the taxiway of the World War II airfield, departing the now decaying concrete on the far side of the airfield into the secluded hamlet of Aston le Walls, sitting on the rim of the Ironstone escarpment.
Around the edge of the manor house, the path follows the Ironstone escarpment along a relatively straight lane, emerging into open pasture. After spending a tense ten minutes crossing one field full of bullocks who tried to push me over, I retreat from the second field where they tried to jump on top of me. I take the farm track back to the parallel road and divert around, meeting the path again near the Medieval settlement of Appletree.
Time to get off the escarpment, and cross the flat plain to the hills in the murky distance. It’s here that HS2 comes out of it’s “green tunnel” and descends ito Warwickshire on an large sloped embankment, passing Lower Boddington. I follow the road down from the escarpment and take a right across the fields towards the Boddingtons.
Considering my recent tangle with antisocial bullocks this might be a dangerous area for ramblers. Someone’s obviously taken offence at the footpath sign, now standing at around 30° to the horizontal, the metal sign board crimped in the middle.
On the far side of the first field the path meets a low embankment; the route of what was once the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway between Fenny Compton, Byfield and Woodford Halse. Now it’s a tangled mass of scrub, the ground littered with small eggshells from recently hatched birds – which are singing loudly all around as I pause for a drink in the shade, and to remove a layer in response to the rising temperature.
It’s a relatively flat route for a mile or so to Lower Boddington, the hills around forming a green, tree fringed amphitheatre. The prairie-like arable monoculture down here is far less pleasing than the mixture of fields, pasture and scrub on the hills above.
I arrive in the ‘lower’ of the Boddingtons and take the longer route up the hill which gives an open view across the plain below. Back onto the road, the best view is to be found halfway between the Boddingtons, which, if it were not so misty, allows you to see past the Avon and Burton Dassett hills off into Warwickshire.
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Happily I’m done with HS2 for the day; I can just enjoy the walk along the escarpment. The small settlements here are ancient, with many old stone manors, farmhouses and cottages, giving it a seemingly remote character compared to the busier, more developed areas all around. I drop down through Upper Boddington, past its historic Thirteenth Century Grade I listed crumbling church, and then start on the long climb of Berryhill beyond.
The Ironstone escarpment hereabouts is the 'borderland'. Before the Norman Invasion, England was split into separate historic kingdoms, the north and east forming Danelaw – claimed by descendants of the Vikings (which, incidentally, the Normans were too). There was also a separate Danish 'burgh' of Northampton, fairly contemporaneous with modern-day Northamptonshire. After the Norman invasion the bureaucracy of these small states were retained, dominating local administration in England until the local government reforms of the 19th Century. Arguably these historic, somewhat tribal boundaries still leave an imprint upon English society today.
In Medieval England the county boundary demarcated not just where tax was paid, but the entire system of Feudal government. In a time before accurate maps this meant people's relationship to the land had to be defined within 'immovable' borders – such as rivers or earthworks. Crossing Berryhill towards Hardwick Hill the land retains this delineation in a very physical form, as a large bank and ditch – similar to the Saxon boundaries of Wansdyke, or the even more ancient Grims Ditch.
As I straddle the border between the two counties I try to take a photo that captures the earthwork's size within the ‘line on the map’. Unfortunately the fish-eye photo that results rather distorts reality – as with many of the ideological views of geographical borders over history.
We might ridicule Donald Trump for his ‘border wall’ today, but it’s an ancient idea whose folly is given greater meaning when you see earthworks such as this; where the landform remains, though we have little idea as to the people who made it or the purpose for which it stood. Perhap Trump is just our contemporary Ozymandias.
The route off the hill begins with the remains of a green lane, reminiscent of the lanes which run from here along the escarpment past Badby and Flecknoe, and off into Northamptonshire through Canons Ashby. Some of these are likely the remains of the Jurassic Way, which I followed a few weeks ago; and which merge with the Medieval Portway, beginning in the Thames valley near Goring, following the eastern side of the Cherwell valley, then crossing South Northamptonshire into Leicestershire beyond Rugby.
I follow the 'scenic route', taking a left turn to the top of the hill above Priors Hardwick and its wonderful (though today, hazy) view to Napton beyond. The shapes of the land here shows that the green lane along the top of the ridge must have descended here into the village, past the Spring at the top of the field. As with the 'border wall', it's a lost history preserved only in the shape of the ridges and furrows in the field.
From the spring and its murky pond I descend and pass through the village, follow the Welsh Road for a short distance, and then cross to Priors Marston along the flat byway.
I had stopped for lunch on Hardwick Hill. As the foods seeps into my bloodstream my speed increases, along the byway and then straight up Marston Hill without a pause. At the top I have to stop and cool down. It’s hot today. The heat accentuates that fact that my pack is being annoying. Too much weight in too small a pack, the weight isn’t well distributed, and the shoulder straps are pushing down heavily on my shoulder blades. To fit-in more weight before my imminent excursion I will have to transfer everything to my ‘proper’ backpacking pack.
The walk over the 200-metre/660 foot Marston Hill is great at any time of year when visibility is good; which means it isn’t today. I get back onto the road and walk towards Hellidon, where the view runs in a rising arc across the plain below, to Catesby Viaduct, across the village, and then up to the local high point of Arbury Hill – the central watershed of southern England, where water flowing from the hilltop may end up in the Severn Estuary, the Thames Estuary, or the The Wash.
I skirt Hellidon. At the start of the meandering path towards Charwelton I have to take off my pack to squeeze through the gate into the field, and take the chance to have a drink and a walking scone before continuing.
With a refreshed spring in my step I pound up the hill and instantly hit an obstruction on the other side; potato planting! The fields beyond are being engineered by a fleet of tractors pulling a variety of mechanical implements to wall-up and sow potatoes. There’s no way I can cross this and so I have to walk the boundary of two fields.
Back onto the sheep pastures beyond I enjoy the walk, past the incongruous blue brick air shafts of Catesby Tunnel, over the undulating fields at the head of the River Cherwell, and into Charwelton.
The clayey ground around here is already beginning to crack and heave after the dry winter. It makes me appreciate the fragility of the land, given that other parts of England, Wales, Yorkshire and Scotland are currently on fire. If we don’t have appreciable rain soon Spring will be short and the resulting Summer ghastly.
Arriving on the edge of the village I find that the old iron bridge, part of the former Great Central Railway station, is closed. The signage says it’s ‘weak’, though in defence of its designers you could also say that today’s traffic is simply too heavy. I take the bridleway into the village which brings me out onto the Fifteenth Century packhorse bridge over the River Cherwell. Some structures, it appears, last better than others.
Five minutes to spare, I await the bus back to Banbury. It doesn’t arrive.
I do the next logical thing and begin to pack away my cameras and maps into my bag, which usually means the bus arrives when you’re least ready to jump on. The bus dutifully arrives before I can collapse my walking poles and fit them back onto my pack.
I sit on the high seat behind the driver to get the best views on the ride home: Through Woodford Halse, where new housing is gradually erasing the Great Central Railway’s junction; back into sleepy Byfield with its high-spired church; speeding down Redhill and on past the HS2’s untended roadworks on Welsh Lane; through Wardington, and the hazy view over Banbury beyond; then down into the Cherwell valley and across the choked M40 into the town.