'The First Hard Frost of Winter', Wednesday 30th November 2016 » Banburyshire Rambles Photo Journal » Paul Mobbs/MEI

The First Hard Frost of Winter

Wednesday 30th November 2016

Train to Kings Sutton, Walton Grounds, Rainsborough Camp, Charlton, Kings Sutton
10.1km|6¼ miles 150m|490ft

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route map Working late. At 5am, as the cold begins to penetrate in my workshop, I decide that today's the day for a walk to wind-down the long working day. I have a feeling it's going to be a spectacular dawn. If I go to the station for an early train down the Cherwell valley, away from the heat island of the town, it's bound to be a misty, frosty dawn.

£3.70 buys me a return to Kings Sutton on the 6.30am train – arriving five minutes later. Heyford or Tackley would be equally good destinations, and Tackley gives the opportunity to walk across the Dorn, Glyme and Evenlode valleys. But given the temperature, probably a good idea to stay close to home.

Though it's dark as I walk through the large village of Kings Sutton, windows occasionally lighting-up as people rise for the day, in the east there's a thin red and azure band along the horizon. I take the road towards Walton Grounds. It'll be quiet at this time of day, and will speed me towards Rainsborough Camp – the real destination for the walk. Provided I don't dally taking too many photos, I should arrive just before the sun rises.

For the first twenty minutes, until the blood is pumping, it's noticeably cold – even with two layers below the waist, five above, and a hat and keffiyeh wrapped around my head. I'd estimate it's at least -5°C, if not more. I've a thermometer tucked in the top pocket of my pack, but it'll still be warm from the house and train.

Though the lane is quite dark, with almost no traffic, it's not quiet – the roar from the nearby M40 adding eerie sound effects to the frosty scene. In the still dark sky above, the planet Jupiter is shining an almost steady light, the star Acrturus higher to the left. The lack of twinkle from the stars shows that the atmosphere is very stable, allowing the heat to radiate away and cool the landscape.

At this time of year the sun rises near it's southern-most aspect, almost on the south-eastern cardinal point. If you can find the angle at which the sun rises (or sets), using an astronomical program or an almanac, you can plan the walk to take advantage of views which only occur for perhaps a week or two each year.

Today the sun will rise at 125°, across the 'long' axis of Rainsborough Camp from the best vantage point. Also, if I run around the other side, it should be rising just behind the radomes of USAF Croughton.

I take the path through Walton Grounds, where I run into a fox skulking in the gloom across the frozen fields, then cross the ford and take a left up towards the top of the hill. I'm climbing into the dawn, the still, clear air making the trees and shrubs along the ridgeline stand in dark silhouette against the red and yellow sky.

A frosty Rainsborough Camp at sunrise
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Rainsborough is a large, very well preserved 2,500 year old Iron Age hill fort. Enclosing an area of 2½ hectares (just over 12 acres), its ramparts are now fringed with beech and ash trees, the land within and around kept close-cropped by the sheep from nearby Camp Farm. The fort lies across the ridgeline of the hill, 145 metres/475 feet AOD – which means you get a commanding view across the landscape from its ramparts.

You get a good view at any time of year, but at dawn the sun highlights the hills and valleys to the west across the Irondowns and, beyond, the Cotswolds.

I arrive just as the sun crosses the horizon, casting an orange hue across the frosty grass within the fort – though the sheep seem rather surprised to see someone around at this time of the day. I walk around to the south side of the fort, which gives a (literally) brilliant view of the sun rising across the hills of north Buckinghamshire (the view to the Chilterns lost in the illuminated mist). And buried in the bright layer of mist across the landscape, the unmistakable masts and radomes of USAF Croughton.

Sunrise inside Rainsborough Camp

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I wander around Rainsborough for a while, taking in the view. I change the lens on the camera, and decide to check the thermometer inside the top of my pack; -4.5°C. The air temperature will be a degree or two less than that … Cool!

It's not the sort of morning to linger motionless, and so I press on towards Charlton.

The local landscape has some impressive oak trees, each a deep orange-bronze colour as they haven't yet shed their leaves. As I approach one of these trees on the track to Charlton, even though there was no wind, it was silently showering its leaves like confetti – the result of the hard frost.

I reach Charlton for the post 8am rush-hour. Luckily I don't have to spend long on the road before taking the path from Charlton into Kings Sutton.

The path from Charlton, which crosses an impressive long bridge across a boggy spring as it leaves the village, undulates along the side of the valley. This is really a Summer track, good for birds, flowers and insects. Today it gives rather monochrome views across the misty landscape, though as the rising sun melts the frost in the hedgerows, the bushes begin to glisten in technicolor with minute rainbows of refracted sunlight.

As the path crosses the ridge I see Kings Sutton below, and beyond the landscape of the Irondowns all the way to the hills along the escarpment – from Whichford Heath around to Shenlow Hill and Edgehill. Crouch Hill marks the position of Banbury in the mist, and beyond the ridge running to Warmington Hill.

I check the time, and the temperature. It's now warmed to a balmy -2.1°C. Realizing that I'm likely to miss the train, and have an hour waiting for he next, I pick up speed – bounding down the steep hill, overtaking a group of dog walkers on the footpath into the village, arriving at the station with five minutes to spare. Not a wasted five minutes, as Kings Sutton station gives great views across the water meadows of the Cherwell, which today are glistening with frost.

The train is a few minutes late. Waiting on the platform I'm feeling rather hot from my charge to the station. I remove my hat and scarf and lean against the wall of the station's shelter. Two other people on the platform are looking at me. I probably look a little strange as whisps of steam are rising from my head and body as the hot vapour from the saturated layers of clothing diffuse into the cold air.