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Wednesday 15th May 2019
Route: Banbury, Bretch Hill, North Newington, Broughton, Crouch Hill, Banbury
Distance: 13.3km/8¼ miles, 3 hours
Ascension: 205 metres/670 feet
Lately I’ve been “going places” – walking somewhere, be it following the route of HS2 or looking for megaliths. I realise how much I miss just leaving the house and taking whichever path ‘seems to look most interesting’. A walk to, ‘nowhere’. Or, as that great character once said when trying to divine the way, “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
I decide to go to the bus station and take the first bus that will leave the town, six or eight miles in any direction. In town I decide that the route to the bus station isn't that inviting, and so head out of town west on foot. The benefit of getting to know and identify with an area of land – your own personal ‘indigenous bioregion’ – is that maps and planning are not required. You can just ‘go’, secure in the knowledge that whilst you can’t ‘get lost’, you can find something more interesting when you leave the route to random chance.
I pass the water tower and communications mast on the western rim of the town and then step out into the countryside. It’s hot. The sun is beating down and under-foot the sandy Irondowns earth feels powdery. Near Withycombe Farm I pause: I could go north and tour the high ridges; south and follow the lanes; west and cross into the fields. While I wait for an answer I put on my hat to stop my head from scorching.
West it is; downhill, through the woods towards Sor Brook and the rolling hills and yellow fields beyond. Before too long though I come across an elder tree collapsed across the path. People have been struggling through the undergrowth either side to get around it.
I don’t have to, I could struggle around like everyone else, but I get the saw from my bag. Sometimes I can be walking back into town this way, after a very long day, with failing light, and little obstructions like this are the sort of things that you can easily fall over. In a few minutes I’ve cut through the stems and dragged the carcass of the elder tree off to the side and pressed it down – where it might form cover for some small animal or another.
I pull my 14.5kg bag back on my back (I’m still keeping the weight on to go backpacking again soon) and head off again.
I pause on the edge of North Newington to have a drink, cool down and look at the view. Once you’re even just a mile or two outside the urban area the background blanket of noise falls away and the volume of the birdsong rises relatively higher. There’s a kestrel flying over the fields beyond the manor, soaring, hovering, and then moving on again, looking for food. It’s quite mesmerising, but in the end I move too.
Through the village, I halt again at the green. Four options.
I very quickly take a left past the pub and right on the path to Broughton. This is the undulating path back across Sor Brook rather than the ‘high road’ over Sandfine Hill and back through the grounds of Broughton Castle. Given it’s so dry, I might find more life around the relative dampness of the clay valley floor compared to the sandy hill top.
The path follows the edge of the valley and then crosses Sor Brook near the sewage works. Then I cross to the road and go up through Broughton. From here I could carry on through the Grange and into Bloxham. That’ll add at least an hour, and in the bright sunshine today I know my skin is already feeling a little ‘warm’. Instead I follow Wykham Lane and then take a left back towards Crouch Hill.
There were more insects in the valley, though it’s early for the water-borne flies to emerge (perhaps in a week or two). And with the insects there were swallows, swooping low at speed across the fields. Back up on the flat ironstone plateau beyond the Grange the dry sandy soil has few insects. What birds there are seem to be deep in the shade of the hedgerows – perhaps hiding from the circling buzzards overhead. Soon though, approaching Crouch Farm, the jelly-mould shape of Crouch Hill looms into view.
A few years ago I came across this path at dusk one May evening, and every dock and bramble seemed to be crawling with burnet moths. That’s the thing about random walking. Unless it’s random, you don’t find the serendipitous treats that the countryside has in store if you visit regularly enough.
Like the sheep in the valley below, the long-hair ginger highland cattle at Crouch Farm are sitting in the minimal shade offered by a small hawthorn tree. They barely stir as I walk by. Then beyond the next field, stripped bare now as it awaits a new housing development, I get a few moments of cool relief as I cross into the tree-line shade of Salt Way.
Of course random walking becomes increasingly less random as you proceed along a walk. The need to get back to a certain point, by a certain time, or the limit of your daily walking distance, means that with every choice of a certain path the number of possible options reduces. Of course, if you could carry food and shelter on your back you needn't stop; you could just keep going. Now I have my bug-out-bag reassembled for backpacking this year, such options are possible – though the constraint of needing to earn some money after my long convalescence does rather reduce the possibility of that too.
Crossing into Salt Way gives three possible options. Choosing to go straight-on – to the top of Crouch Hill for a last long-distance look at the view – reduces them to zero; this is the last path that will lead me to my front door.
Surprisingly there’s not too much haze today. There’s a good view across the Irondowns, from Big Hill and Arbury Hill north-east near Daventry, around 180° to the north across Edge Hill, to Whichford Heath in the south-west. To the south I can see the dim shape of Beckley Hill near Oxford, and south-east is Graven Hill near Bicester. Nestling on the western horizon are Greatworth and Halse.
I wonder about stopping for a while, but I need to get home to cook dinner.
Emerging from the thicket I find a couple lost in the view, and I point them out the features they can see – using church spires, towers and radio masts as landmarks. Obviously local, they’re still surprised at how much of the landscape hereabouts they can see. Then its on down the grassy slope of the park and I dive back into the shoreline of the hot urban sea; and paddle through its waves and currents of noise, road traffic, streets and houses until I find the small island called “home”.