Chiltern Chain Walk – Walk 17

The draft version of my journal entry for Walk 17 of the Chiltern Chain Walk, which I did on Tuesday.


Walk 17 10/06/08 – Watlington Hill and Park Corner (14.5 miles approximately)

Parked at car park at top of Watlington Hill.

I managed to leave home a few minutes earlier than usual and started walking just after 10am. Rather worryingly, despite a forecast for good weather, the skies were overcast, quite grey and threatening – it didn’t look too promising at all. Fortunately the forecasters had got it right, and it started to brighten up about 11am, the afternoon then being very warm and sunny.

Watlington Hill is a good site for seeing Red Kites, and has extensive views over the Oxfordshire Plain. On the steep slope overlooking the ancient market town of Watlington is the ‘white mark’, a triangular chalk carving 270 feet high and 36 feet wide. It was designed by the local squire Edward Horner in 1764, so that Watlington church appeared to have a spire when viewed from his home.

I went out of the car park to the road – opposite was the entrance to Watlington Hill farm, and I was slightly disappointed not to see the Highland Cattle that are sometimes there. I turned right for a few yards, and then right again, following the footpath that started beside the car park (most normal people would have taken the shortcut straight from the car park to the footpath!). The footpath passed a line of beech trees, with a field beyond them on my left, with the wood surmounting Watlington Hill on my right. Beyond a gate, the footpath forked slightly right, away from the field edge, and followed a fence of wooden palings past a large number of Yew trees on my right. I spotted a Chicken of the Woods fungus on one of them, much smaller than the specimen I saw near Dunsmore on Walk 13 (as this one was growing on a Yew, it would be poisonous and not to be eaten!).

The path was heading fairly gently downhill, and soon came to a more open and grassy area, though still with the Yew trees to my right. This was a very pleasant section of walking, with a good path descending easily and a nice view ahead over the lower flatter region of the Oxfordshire Plain. But I found I was stopping every few yards to take photographs, so it was very slow going! There were simply so many wildflowers here – the predominant ones were Common Rock-rose again, as at the start of the previous walk (in fact, the early part of this walk was similar to the previous one, in that it started with a long descent from the escarpment, a section along the foot of the hills and then a steep climb back up the escarpment). But there was also Germander Speedwell, White Campion, Thyme, White Bryony, Yellow-wort, Agrimony and two or three others that I didn’t recognise. I also spotted a Robin’s Pin-cushion, not a flower but a gall on a wild rose caused by a gall wasp. I also photographed a Green Woodpecker on a Silver Birch tree, but it was too far off for a decent shot.

With Mother Nature distracting me in just about every conceivable fashion, it took me almost 25 minutes to reach the bottom of the hill! The path continued between hedges to reach a farm drive and then soon reached a road (the one I frequently use between Watlington, to my right, and Nettlebed). I turned right for a short distance – there was a reasonable verge on the left where the grass was quite long but a thin line showed where people must walk here regularly. I spotted some Red Campion here. I then turned left on to what, for me, is now a very familiar section of the Ridgeway (it’s also part of Swan’s Way). I chose to follow the permissive path to the left of a hedgerow, rather than follow the hard-surfaced farm drive. At one point I stopped to look back and photograph Watlington Hill. I noticed some Bladder Campion in the hedgerow, so I’d seen all the three Campions I know in a very short distance. At the end of the field the permissive path ended and I rejoined the official Ridgeway route at a track junction by a couple of properties.

I now followed a good track running between hedges. Soon there was another permissive path for walkers only, running parallel a yard or two to the left of the bridleway. As the ground was generally dry, I stuck to the bridleway, just using the path a couple of times to avoid muddy sections. I spotted some Cuckoo-pint here, in the form of a spike of green ‘berries’ (they’ll turn reddish/orange later). Where the path ended there was a notice board about Red Kites, and fittingly I saw a pair of them here. The track widened out now, with lower hedges so that I could see the fields either side. There were a lot of Poppies in the corn field sloping up the hillside to my left. I soon saw some more Red Kites and managed to photograph one that was carrying some straw in its talons. I crossed over a lane, and passed a notice board proclaiming that the farm here was part of LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming), an organisation that believes ‘Efficient production of wholesome food can be combined with care for nature’ – a very sensible idea. A little further on I saw two male Yellowhammers chasing each other up and down a hedge and then having a mid-air fight.

The Ridgeway soon turned left by North Farm but I continued ahead on the track, still on the route of Swan’s Way. To my left, a large corn field sloped uphill, while to my right I could occasionally see across fields to Britwell Salome House. After about half a mile a wood started on my left, the track keeping between the wood and a high hedge on my right. At the end of the wood, near a sharp bend in a lane, I turned left and followed a path climbing steeply uphill through the trees – I had now left Swan’s Way but joined the Chiltern Way, my third long-distance path of the day. There were a few Yew trees again amongst the other trees and shrubs as I plodded slowly uphill. It wasn’t too long a climb (not that any of them are in the Chilterns!) and I soon emerged on to the long flat grassy top of Swyncombe Downs. There were more wildflowers here, of course, including Common Milkwort, Common Rock-rose and some type of Scabious. There were good views all round, along the line of the Chiltern escarpment on either side, and looking back over the Oxfordshire Plain.

The grass ended after a few hundred yards, where the path went through a gate and continued between bushes. Just beyond the gate I photographed a butterfly which I later identified as a Large Skipper. To the left of the path was the large corn field I’d seen earlier from the track, while in the trees and bushes to my right was the long linear earthwork known as the Danish Intrenchment (thought possibly to date from the failed attempt by the Danes to conquer southern England in the 870’s). Further on there was another area of grass to my left, and I saw some Common Spotted Orchids. The path then turned slightly right, into the trees, where it soon came to a junction with the Ridgeway again.

I turned right and followed a good track through a wood, meeting two ladies walking the other way (I’d only meet one other walker all day). At the end of the wood, the path continued downhill along the edge of a large meadow, before rising up the other side of the valley. There was a new fence here, certainly put in since I was last here a couple of months ago, so the path was restricted between the fence and the hedgerow on the right. At the end of the meadow I reached a lane junction, where I went straight on. The lane descended slightly and turned right. I stopped here to take my usual photo of the ancient Swyncombe church, before turning left on a footpath through the churchyard.

The Church of St Botolph, Swyncombe, dates back to the 11th century. It consists of a nave, chancel and semi-circular apse – the division between nave and chancel isn’t clear from the exterior, but inside there is a large chancel arch that was widened in the nineteenth century. There is a plain font, which is Norman or possibly even Anglo-Saxon. In the apse are faint remnants of wall paintings, including votive crosses thought to have been painted by knights before setting off for the crusades. A window in the chancel shows the coats of arms of the Chaucers and the Suffolks – Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the poet, married the Earl of Suffolk, and owned both Swyncombe and the neighbouring estate of Ewelme.

Beyond the churchyard I turned left, soon crossing a drive to a farm and entering a large empty pasture (usually there are sheep here). The path went gently uphill and slightly right here – the pasture was dotted with mature trees, either singly or in small clumps, and was obviously part of the parkland surrounding Swyncombe House. On the far side I reached a wood, where I immediately turned right at a path junction, leaving the Chiltern Way. The path continued through the wood, going very gently uphill at an angle – this was one of numerous places that I saw Wood Avens and Herb Robert today. After a short while I came to a junction, where I turned right on a wider path. There was soon a gap in the wood, with a view downhill to the right over Swyncombe and the Oxfordshire Plain beyond. The path continued through the wood, crossing a drive to Swyncombe house, and then passing through an area of younger trees to reach a stile on the edge of the woods.

The next section of the walk was very pleasant indeed. The path followed the left edge of a huge meadow, sloping steeply downhill to my right. Again this must be part of the parkland around Swyncombe House, as there were small stands of beech trees studded amongst the long grass. A couple of Buzzards circled overhead – in the past I have twice seen or heard Ravens in this area. Occasionally there were some good views out to Swyncombe Downs and the Oxfordshire Plain. There were more wildflowers amongst the long grass, including Common Mouse-ear and Lesser Stitchwort. The meadow went on for about half a mile – at its end I went over a stile and turned right, briefly rejoining the Ridgeway which I followed through a couple of fields to the farmyard at Ewelme Park, where I turned left onto a bridleway along the stony farm drive.

I passed a row of estate cottages on the left, with some paddocks and a small enclosure containing game birds on my right. When a wood started on the right, I took a track leading into it, close to the paddock on my right. I soon reached an open area in the centre of the wood, where I saw a hare on the track ahead of me. The footpath went left at a T-junction of tracks, and soon exited the wood, running along the right edge of a meadow, before switching to the right of the hedge and continuing alongside a large arable field. At the end of the field I passed the end of a narrow belt of trees, and then turned right alongside the tree belt with another arable field on my left. I descended into a slight valley and at the bottom of the field entered a wider and more mature tree belt, where I turned left at a path crossroads (briefly rejoining the Chiltern Way). The path through the tree belt was muddy in places. Beyond the trees, the path continued between hedgerows and then beside a wood on the right to reach the Watlington-Nettlebed road again in the hamlet of Park Corner.

I crossed over carefully and took the lane opposite that led into the hamlet. It soon turned to the left, where I took a byway going right which was signposted ‘Bix Bottom 3 miles’ – I wasn’t going that far, but would be following the byway for quite a distance. The track led very slightly downhill, with a wood on the right and a cattle pasture beyond the hedge on the left. Beyond the wood it continued between hedges, with a series of meadows either side. The taller hedge on the left overhung the track, so that I was almost enclosed in a ‘green tunnel’ – I was grateful for the shade, as it was now pretty warm. Eventually I passed a farm on the right and then the track turned left, following the valley bottom with cattle pastures on the steep hillsides either side. I soon came to a junction, where another track went off to the left and a couple of footpaths started either side – this is the point in the valley of Upper Bix Bottom where the Southern Extension of the Chiltern Way splits off from the original route. I stopped to eat my lunch on a stile sheltered in a hedgerow, as it was now almost 1.30pm – with so many stops to photograph flowers and other bits of nature, it had been a slow walk this morning!

I then carried on, following the same track as before as it followed the valley to the right, soon entering the woods of the Warburg Nature Reserve. A Land Rover passed me a couple of times as I followed the long track through the trees for over half a mile to reach the car park and visitor centre. I then turned left on a footpath, climbing quite steeply uphill through the trees, with the fence of the reserve on my left. I stopped a couple of times to take a photograph of the reserve, as usual probably as an excuse to get my breath back as I struggled uphill. Though I was mainly in the shade of trees, this did seem to be an unusually lengthy and steep climb by the standards of the Chiltern Hills and I found it warm work. At the top of the slope the path emerged from the trees onto a track, which I followed a few yards to the left to reach the end of a lane in the remote village of Maidensgrove.

I was again briefly on the route of the Chiltern Way as I turned right on the lane, almost immediately turning left on a path that initially ran along a drive beside some cottages. On reaching a field corner, the Chiltern Way went half-right across the field (heading towards Stonor), but I continued along the hedgerow on my left, now following part of the Oxfordshire Way which would take me most of the way to Christmas Common. After a while the path turned left and crossed the field (a meadow that had just been cut, the grass was still lying in strips across it) and passed through a holly and beech wood to another lane. The path continued on the other side through a similar wood, staying close to some gardens on the left at first. Across a couple of path junctions, following the ‘OW’

signs painted on the trees, the path started to descend steeply through the wood, now with a wire fence on the left. I passed a lady walker coming the other way – like me she had a map case hung round her neck, I soon regretted not stopping and asking if she was walking the Oxfordshire Way.

When the path left the wood, I continued alongside a hedge on my left through a large meadow, descending slightly still to the valley bottom and then up the other side. Beyond the meadow I reached the end of a drive or lane, where I turned right. There were views to my right towards Stonor, and the parkland around Stonor House (the grand house itself was hidden from view in a small side valley). I soon came to Pishill church on my left – a notice by the gate enticed me into the church porch, to pay 50p for a very tasty slice of Flapjack (free help-your-self Tea and Coffee were also available). I had a quick look inside the church then continued on my way.

The village of Pishill takes its name from the Latin  for pea, pisum, because of the great many pea farms that once existed in the area. The village lies in the Stonor valley. It contains a 15th century pub and an 11th century church perched on a hill above the valley.

At the end of the lane, I turned right along the minor road that runs through Pishill and Stonor, but soon turned left onto a footpath. This ran along the bottom of a valley, with grassy meadows either side of a new fence (being erected when I walked through here a couple of months back). There were a lot of red Poppies in the meadow on the hillside to my right at first, further on they were replaced by yellow Wintercress. After almost half a mile I reached College Wood, where the path went half-right gradually going uphill through the wood. After another half-mile, the path left the wood at a stile and crossed a small meadow or pasture to reach Hollandridge Lane, a track that is thought to date back to Saxon times.

I turned left, and headed down the hedge-lined track. I tried to walk quite fast, as the afternoon was getting on, but I was feeling a bit tired as it had been quite a warm day.  I had to follow the track for around a mile, with fields either side at first and then woods. As it entered part of the village of Christmas Common, I started to retrace my steps from the last walk. I turned left along a drive, but almost immediately forked half-right into Queen Wood – I must have been tired, it seemed twice as long through here as it did five days ago! I emerged on the main road through the village beside the converted church, and turned right, soon passing the Fox and Hounds pub on the left.

I went straight on where a road came in on the right, but then turned left at the next junction. In the field on the right were the Highland Cattle I’d missed seeing at the start of the walk. It was now just a quarter of a mile down the road back to the car park where I’d started – I spotted my first Field Bindweed of the summer, and admired the view over the Oxfordshire Plain from the entrance to Watlington Hill farm.

I was tired but happy when I got back to the car about 3.40pm. It had been another excellent route, with lots of ups and downs, some good views and a variety of scenery (woods, downland, parkland, arable fields and meadows). But I think I’ll remember today for the variety of wildflowers that I saw, including many that I saw for the first time this summer. There was also a new butterfly, the Chicken of the Woods fungus, the gall, the hare and various bird sightings too, so all told I saw quite a lot today.

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