"Oak Before Ash"… and Snow

Tuesday 26th April 2016

Bus to Fenny Compton Wharf, The Tunnel, Slade Lane, Farnborough, Farnborough Park, Mollington, Cropredy, Oxford Canal, Spiceball Park, Banbury
19.6km|12⅕ miles 190m|620ft

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route map A busy few days deserves an outing, if only because the weather is forecast to turn today. As I'm up early I take a less travelled bus route to Fenny Compton Wharf – on the 66 service to Southam and Leamington. You could walk straight down the canal back to the centre of town; but it's all downhill from here, and buried in the bottom of the valley. Instead I head for the ridgeline above Farnborough, and a view.


Bright blue sky as I leave for the bus station. Clouding up as I step off the bus on the Southam Road, just down the slope from Fenny Compton Wharf. On top of the now redundant humped back bridge on the canal I get the equipment out of my pack, add a layer against the chill wind, greet the curious postman, then set off home.

I head down the Oxford Canal for short distance, along 'The Tunnel' Straight. When the canal was built, in the late 1770s, this was a tunnel. The building of the adjacent railway in the 1850s changed the landform, and almost a century after its construction the tunnel was excavated and demolished – leaving the narrow straight which exists today.

I leave the canal at the 'Turnover Bridge' – which takes the towpath from one side to the other. Although not a footpath the track from the turnover bridge passes through a nature reserve with public access, run by the Warwickshire Butterfly Conservation group and the Canal Trust. The track emerges on the main road, where you double-back across the road bridge to look down on the Turnover Bridge below.

"Oak before ash, in for a splash, ash before oak, in for a soak"

Along the bridgeway towards Farnborough I notice that the oak trees are covered in pale yellow/green new leaves – way ahead of the local ash trees whose black buds are still sealed shut. According to the old tale that means we're in for a dry Summer.

The more technical interpretation is that the flushing of oak leaves is temperature sensitive, while ash leaves are sensitive to daylight length. That means while ash will flush around the same time each year, oak trees change depending upon the warmth of the season – and a warm Winter and Spring is more likely to bring on a warm dry Summer, while a cold early season portends more rain in the Summer.

Then again, oaks are flushing ever-earlier as a result of climate change – so the tale may no longer be valid.

Walking along the track towards Slade Lane a yellowhammer settles in the field near me. We peruse each other, and it stands pouting while I take its photo, its chest shining bright in the sunlight.

I move quickly along the lane and then climb the first hill of the day. This area around is reminiscent of what it was once like around Banbury, before the arable boom came. Not just the pasture, but also the small groundwater-fed ponds which pockmark the countryside along the springline – home to a myriad of insects and amphibians in Summer. No need to pipe water the animals here.

Reaching the top of the hill I survey: the scene across Farnborough to the south; the valleys and hills to the east and west, streaked with shadow from the gathering clouds; and then I turn to look north to see… big black storm clouds.

They're early!

I descend past more ponds into the village, then go up through the churchyard with its old lychgates and out the other side. This takes me into Farnborough Park, and the path to Mollington – out past the obelisk, along the ridge which gives views across the valley, to Warmington and down the escarpment to The Knowle.

I'm not feeling brilliant today. The first hill was tiring (perhaps empathy for the somnolent sheep?). Climbing the steep track out of the cleft valley that shelters the ancient village of Mollington feels even harder. Rejoining the main road again, though it's almost another seven miles home, that's roughly it in term of effort – from the top of the ridge it's pretty much all downhill into Cropredy, and then flat all the way back into town.

I've had the odd fleck of snow since I had a rest just beyond Farnborough Park. Since then the great black storm clouds flowing from the north would amass behind me, then veer off towards Brailes or Towcester. Descending towards Cropredy, Red Hill (near Byfield) was shining as black clouds dropped their cargo all around it. As I cross the canal bridge in Cropredy I could see big anvils of heavy shower cloud forming in front of me.

They're closing in!

As always I paused on the bench at Slat Mill Lock – four miles home from here, an hour under ideal conditions. As I rummaged in my pack for a ricecake I heard a curlew call on the floodplain of the Cherwell, its melodic modulations echoing across the valley. This is one of the few places around here you can see curlews, but unfortunately not today. Though hearing is a wonderful treat, stirring memories of upland walks.

Then a gust of wind came with more snow flecks, and behind Peewit Farm a mass of black cloud is swirling higher. Time to leave, and make best speed down the towpath. Finally the storm catches me with a heavy blast of hard cold snow just as I enter the town centre from Spiceball Park. A good end to the walk.