Shortest Day

Tuesday 22nd December 2015

Bus to Balscote, Wroxton Quarries/Abbey/Park, Withycombe Farm, The Bretch, Giant's Caves, Broughton Road, Banbury
10.3km / 6⅖ miles – 150m / 490ft

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route map Shortest day, the Winter Solstice – a day that needs to be marked with a walk as the world wheels on its axis and heads for Summer. And just before noon the first bus from the bus station (the 270) takes me to... Balscote.


Climbing out of the sheltered bowl of the village, there's a warm damp mizzle blasting in on the back of a gusty south-westerly.

Not wet, but not dry. Nothing my coarse wool winter jumper can't handle – no need to don plastic layers and steam-cook myself.

Next year is the bicentennial of the "Year Without a Summer". With this warm, damp blast from the Caribbean, this seems to be turning into the "Year Without a Winter" – and what 'post-modern' Promethean stories might we write about our contemporary climate chaos?

Weighing up the options I try cutting though Wroxton Quarries. Last time I tried to come through here – on the day of the partial solar eclipse in March – the path wasn't so much blocked, as non-existent. They chose that day to open up a new extraction area and I was confronted with the path disappearing over a sheet cliff face.

Today though the path is restored, and takes me past some deep greenish-blue Marlstone, or Ironstone – once quarried all around here from the First World War and ferried away by train to Corby steelworks.

In the 1940s, around the middle of World War Two, they gave 'interim development orders' on all the land hereabouts to allow the quarrying of the stone to make steel. Then in the late 50s the arrival of richer iron ores from South America made this comparatively poor local resource unprofitable. But those government development orders persisted in law, and were formalised in the early 1990s – which is why it's still being dug up today.

This is the really hard stuff which, though it begins as this greeny-blue colour, gradually weathers with time to a dark khaki brown. Coming out of the far side of the quarry there's the old, perhaps a century or more, scar of the older quarries at the top of Padsdon Bottom – now weathered to a deep brown with a veneer of pale lichen.

I emerge on the edge of Wroxton at the guide post. Just as the road signs today try and direct traffic to the M40, even when it's in the opposite direction, the finger on the post points to London via North Newington and Broughton. That's because in 1686 when it was erected, before the turnpike road was made into Banbury from Stratford, the main road went in that direction – to pick-up the former Roman 'Salt Way' which crosses the Ironstone plateau into Buckinghamshire and then on to London.

Cutting around the primary school I go into the back of Wroxton Park – the damp brown stone of the abbey, streaked with the dark stripes of its mullioned windows, showing through the trees – and then off past the obelisk towards Banbury.

Even though the drizzle is picking up now, along with the wind, it seems too early to rush into town. I sit on the bench of the folly arch for a while, then head into town via Withycombe and Broughton Road. As the sky darkens with the mizzle, it creates shaded pastel layers on the folds in the landscape rising to Tadmarton Heath – a pleasurable last glimpse before returning to town.