New Year at Christmas (Common)

Happy New Year, looking forward to 2021. This year we greeted the year around Christmas Common in Oxfordshire.

(A difficulty with listing recent walks, is that certain people of ill-will may look upon the list under their furrowed eyebrows and treat it like a charge-sheet in waiting. However actually, even under the strictest rules, going out for exercise is legal. So there.)

Christmas Common is a hamlet in the Chilterns, near the escarpment above the village of Watlington. It is in Oxfordshire, close by the Buckinghamshire border, and close by Oxfordshire’s highest point too (Cowleaze Wood).

The National Trust car park was a convenient place to start. It is begirt by woods, which were thickly covered by frost in the morning. It started to snow gently. The gorgeous views over the fields below were hidden in fog.

The path tracks slowly down through the edge of the woods, down Watlington Hill, until emerging at the road. The woods were sparkling in the frost and though busy with walkers the closing in of the fog seemed to emphasise its loneliness.

It is a short way along the modern road to a more ancient one: the Icknield Way (which features in many walks in the Chilterns and was a memorable part of the Hertfordshire Border Walk). It is an ancient way, walked by Stone Age men and all the ages which followed. Now it is a broad, chalky path, running along the lower slope of the scarp. (A sign at one point specified the vehicles permitted to use it, which does not allow anything with a motor, but a horse-drawn carriage was depicted as a permitted conveyance.)

Crossing the Icknield Way is the Oxfordshire Way, and we turned up this to climb the scarp again. It started as a tarmacked path, quite as wide as a lane but serving just one farm, then beyond it a more conventional path entering the woods. then crossing a field to emerge at Christmas Common, and a short walk back to the car park. It was three and a half miles all told – a good family welly walk. It must be revisited too when we can see the views.


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Henley and the Thames

In the hot sunshine, beside cool water, the Thames has many charms all along its length, and none better to my mind than the middle reaches below Oxford. here we wandered on a short family walk, just six or seven miles, from Hambleden Lock along the Berkshire bank up to Henley, then back over the hill.

We started at Mill End, Buckinghamshire, where there is a convenient car park. This is a boaters’ place, once built around a mill, Hambleden Mill (which still stands grandly by the river), but now a village with possibly more boats than people, some in its snug marina. The river is crossed here by an odd-looking crossing system: a long, narrow footbridge crosses slantwise across the river above a long weir, then reaches Hambleden Lock, which seemed constantly busy with pleasure craft, and it was a fine day for it.

Having reached the south bank, all in Berkshire, we met the Thames Path, which runs up beside the river, following a big loop. The houses we could see over the water on the Buckinghamshire bank are quite something, each with a garden running down to the water, some with private boathouses, and all no doubt with eye-watering price tags. The Berkshire bank at first is mainly green fields, though which estate it belongs to I could not say.

In time, the river bends round, and we were fortunate to encounter a cluster of boats moored up for a display which was officially cancelled but they came anyway: for the fortieth anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, several of the ‘little ships’ were there. It is astounding that such small vessels, designed only for the river, not the towering open sea, could take to the ocean to perform the miracle of Dunkirk, but there they were; small, heroic boats.

Passing on, Henley soon comes into view. Now there were boathouses on both banks, and a couple of private lodes (or that’s what they would be called in Cambridgeshire, about which I will be writing before too long) linking boathouses to the river.

We crossed the river on Henley’s stone bridge, pausing to admire the views up and down. This was our brief encounter with the Oxfordshire bank. This is also incidentally the end of the Oxfordshire Way, so I can say that I have walked the beginning and reached the end of the Oxfordshire Way; it’s just that I have not yet done the 68 miles between.

After a very pleasant lunch, we re-crossed the river and headed away from the Thames for the first time.

The way we took is part of the Chiltern Way Berkshire Loop (the other end of which I had encountered on the Buckinghamshire Way). It is a gentle climb over the hill cutting off the loop of the river, but with the river below always in evidence.

The path drops down to Aston, where there is a beautiful pub, the Flower Pot, seemingly in the midst of leaves, and a lane runs down to a riverside meadow full of revellers with picnics, canoes and paddleboards or just swimming.

The path then leads back upstream to Hambleden Lock again, busier still in the early afternoon, and over the weir-bridge back to the start.


Freeland: a celebration

Freeland is an Oxfordshire village, in the green middle of the county, the star and finish of a celebration walk of 17½  miles.

The walk takes in some pretty, hidden villages, a canal built for industry but now serving leisure, broad farmland, and the mighty estate of Blenheim Palace. It takes in at one point part of Shakespeare’s Way, reminding us of where we are in the middle of the British imagination.

The path through the estate runs to the north end of one of the great lakes of the park, and round the Column of Victory, celebrating the feats of arms achieved by the Duke of Marlborough, and on through some of the finest of the grounds.

Even at the end of January, or the dawn of a new age, there is no better way to wash the old air out of your lungs than with a vigorous walk n some of the loveliest countryside.

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New Year’s Day welly walk in Stokenchurch

A Happy New Year to all.  Today the family enjoyed a gloriously muddy walk in the Chilterns to greet the new year and see if we approve of it.

It was a welly walk, as so often and just five and a half miles across fields and woods and valleys on the intertangled border of Oxfordshire with Buckinghamshire, beginning at Stokenchurch, in Oxfordshire.

Stokenchurch is a pretty place to start, at the village’s wide, scattered village green, and soon you escape the village, turning north into fields which were almost deserted.

The path climbed up and down, reaching the Buckinghamshire border invisibly at the edge of Crowell Wood at another fold in the land, before a short climb up to a lane. More woods followed, to Town End, one of the hamlets which makes up Radnage.

Radnage is a scattered place – not a village as such, it appears, but a collection of hamlets.  The path leads to one of these, ‘Town End’, though with no town in sight.  (At the south end of the parish, not on this walk, is a hamlet called ‘The City’. That might have to come into another walk some time.)  The parish church is not on the planned route either, but wander down the hill a little into Town End and it is across the fields, and worth a visit.  We had a picnic lunch at Radnage.

The return journey is on part of the Chiltern Way, over the fields to Grange Farm, where the lane marks the county border again so it is back into Oxfordshire. Then up and over the hill again – very muddy in winter, with many warnings to keep dogs away from sheep – but we had no dog with us, and saw no sheep – there was a llama though, and two great, black, hairy pigs rooting with delight on their snouts in the mire they had made.

All too soon it was back to Stokenchurch. A lovely day, and yes – we approve of the new year.

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