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Thursday 14th March 2019
Route: Hook Norton, Rollright Heath, Great Rollright, Rollright Stones, Little Rollright, Salford, Chipping Norton
Distance: 15.2km/9½ miles, 4¼ hours
Ascension: 300 metres/980 feet
As I leave Hook Norton it begins to rain again; hard. A steady fifteen or twenty mile-an-hour wind, gusting in wet squalls to thirty or more, is blowing. It’s been raining hard off-and-on for the last day or so. It’s nice to go out in weather like this, "because it’s there"; if only to check your wet gear still works for the time when you really need it. Rather than struggle in the mud of the wet valleys the best option is to find a long ridge, with a free-draining geology, to traverse. Today’s ridge walk, though, is rather special.
Amidst the seeming Brexit hysteria it’s nice to get out and ponder some ‘deep history’. Humans have been in this landscape for millennia: from the now forlorn, ivy-covered pillars I see reaching to the sky as I climb the hill out of Hooky, which once supported the massive iron-grid-box of the railway viaduct; to the older marks in the landscape, made by now forgotten highways where our ancient peoples once travelled. In the attention-deficit ‘now’ of the 24-hour-rolling-mass-media you don’t get this viewpoint of time. You have to leave that behind to see a different perspective.
The steep slope that climbs South Hill out of Hooky – with its large slumps and landslips from geological history – is still pastureland. That makes it a whole lot easier to climb the soft Whitby Mudstone sediments that make-up the top-half of the slope. At the crest of the hill the soils are soft and sandy with white fragments of limestone, part of the Chipping Norton limestone plateau – which is what I’ll traverse for much of the rest of the route.
It’s a must to turn and look at the view from South Hill, even in the rain. The view over Hook Norton, and surrounding high ground of Whichford Heath (to the north-west, this is the highest point at 239 metres/784 feet), Sibford Heath (north, 217m/712ft), and Tadmarton Heath (north-east, 196m/643ft), create a huge amphitheatre of villages, farms and rolling fields. Away to the east the distant horizon is the high ground of South Northamptonshire, although the next highest point from Whichford Heath going east is the Teutoburg Forest in Lower Saxony.
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Crossing the top of the hill the clouds break in spectacular stacks and layers and the sun comes out. When I reach the road I stop and shed my waterproof layers. I also admire the roadside verge which, despite the recent cold, is now developing a varied ground cover of different leaves and the odd clump of violets.
After the double bends I take a right-left towards Great Rollright, across the large plateau that makes up Rollright and Whichford heaths. Soon after the wind begins to come in gusts again, feeling and sounding like standing in front of large (though invisible) waves breaking on the sea shore. In the distance a black mass of cloud is moving in from the north-west. Not many minutes after I’ve taken it off, I put my wet gear back on again.
On my way to Great Rollright the rain hammers me like falling gravel. Quite a few of the droplets seem to have a solid or sleaty core that sting as it hits my face. In the towns an villages around people are probably complaining about this right now. In contrast, I’m happy for the exercise. If you can stand this kind of battering around here and get used to it, you can probably do equally well in the uplands of Wales and Northern England too – where these conditions are more common.
Arriving at Great Rollright’s Medieval church the rain stops again the sun emerges once more. I skirt the churchyard and go through the village, emerging beside the now derelict and even more dilapidated Unicorn pub. I wander up to the crossroads where a well-placed bench allows me to peel-off my wet gear and have a drink.
These crossroads, and the village/church next to it, are ancient. A possible Neolithic trackway, the Jurassic Way, passes through here – running from Rutland, down the edge of the ironstone escarpment on the Northamptonshire/Leicestershire border, to these crossroads, and then off across the Cotswolds towards Burford and perhaps Averbury (basically, the route of the modern A361 today). These crossroads are where spurs run off from that old route: One westward along the ridge towards Stow and the North Cotswolds; the other eastwards following the long ridge to Buckingham and the valley of the Great Ouse beyond.
The sun is beating down from a blue sky. I finish my lembas scone (my own-made wholemeal scones, filled with mixed nuts and Besan flour to create a sustaining wayfaring ration), fasten my pack and wander off down the road.
A short while later I take a left off the road and follow a path that runs along the top of the ridge. The current ‘modern’ road past the Rollrights is probably Medieval, later reinforced by the Woodstock and Rollright Lane Turnpike Trust in the Eighteenth Century, before it was ‘metalled’ at the turn of the last century. This route runs parallel to that. It begins as a green lane between two hedgerows, and once into the open fields it is possible to see a broad raised strip which shows the significance of this route in the past.
I cross the A3400, down its impossibly steep concrete steps and up the other side, and across the fields beyond. Near Brighthill Farm the woodlands are full of ‘natural’ artworks, part of The Whispering Knights Project. Through the woodland, and across the stile at the end, I emerge into a "Neolithic landscape".
The Rollright Stones is a group of three separate ancient monuments. Though they are grouped together, they span over 2,000 years of history – from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. A permissive path begins from the stile on the public footpath and runs up and around the field so that you can visit them all – though the £1 the wardens might relieve you of at the end of this path is well worth it!
The first site you meet is The Whispering Knights, a dolmen, or burial tomb, built around 5,800 years ago. It may have been enclosed in a large earth mound, though that has since eroded away. If you walk in the ‘Celtic fringe’ of the British Isles, you may have seen other similar monuments.
This is one of the oldest and best preserved dolmens in England. Another, the Hoar Stone (though that is in not as good condition), lies about 6 miles south-south-east of here, on one of the ancient tracks which runs off of the Jurassic Way beyond Chippy.
Again, the presence of this and other monuments is one of the arguments for the significance of the Jurassic Way, and its role in the movement of ancient peoples across England in the Neolitihic.
As I climb the field the storm clouds are gathering once again, and the wind is starting to gust. The path runs around the edge of the arable field to The King’s Men stone circle – and forward in time over a millennia to the Late Neolithic, 4,500 years ago:
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Looks can be deceptive. The King’s Men circle has been significantly damaged and cack-handedly restored over many centuries. Stones have been taken away for use elsewhere, and some of the stones in-situ have been damaged by antiquarians chipping pieces off to collect their own mementos.
This site was one of the first few to be protected under the first 'modern' historic conservation laws passed in 1882. Though the site was "re-erected", a lot of that is based upon conjecture, and many of the stones grouped close together may have once been large single stones that were broken apart over time.
Despite past damage, the site has improved over recent years with the setting up of a new trust to look after the site. The lovely Three Fairies willow sculpture is once such example (modelled on the fairies from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream – which I once saw a theatre company perform here many years ago).
Leaving the circle behind I cross the road and go through the gate on the other side, where, coming forward another millennia into the Bronze Age, I find The King – a once large megalith that has been shrunken by damage over time.
As with The King Stone, there are other large single megaliths in this area too, such as The Hawk Stone near Charlbury – once again, just a short distance away from the putative course of the Jurassic Way, and not far from what was once the Sarsden Stone Circle (much of which was relocated to landscape Churchill churchyard in the 19th Century).
There are some strategically placed lumps of rock on the brow of the hill just beyond The King Stone. I sit down not just to look at the view, but also to re-apply my waterproof outer layer. I can see a large black mass of cloud emerging over the top of Ebrington Down ten miles away, with rain streaming from its base.
I walk a ways down the busy road. If I had an hour's extra daylight I could carry on down the ridge to Chastleton Barrow – a late Bronze Age enclosure on the spur of the Jurassic Way that leads to the North Cotswolds – and then loop back into Chippy via Cornwell. I could go left at the crossroads, and take the shortest route into Chippy via Over Norton, but it's tarmac all the way.
Instead I carry on along the road to just beyond the crossroads and take the footpath into Little Rollright – which avoids the narrow winding downhill section of the Over Norton road, and which has a far more pleasant view. The only problem is that as I descend I fall below the level of the Chipping Norton Limestone, meaning that the tracks beyond this point are more muddy and slippy. On the plus side, at least I lose the hammering and banging from the quarry at the top of the hill.
The undulating paths, through occasional dense conifer woods, are very pleasant. These take me into Salford. The rain has stopped, and so I pause to pull off my wet gear once more. I’m undecided how to finish the walk. In the end I opt for the byway to Over Norton, which takes me to the far more pleasant ‘back entrance’ into Chipping Norton – past its imposing castle and fish ponds (What?! Didn’t you know it had one?… it’s a well kept secret).
I climb the streets to the Market Place. Well after five, people are bustling home. I check the Town Hall clock, and the time of the 488 bus to Banbury, and then sit and watch the last of the sunset catching the honey-coloured Cotswold stone of the town while I await its arrival.