No, this really is work

Thursday 5th May 2016

Bus to Croughton, Astwick, Juniper Hill, Tusmore Park, The Portway, Croughton
11.9km|7⅖ miles 150m|490ft

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route map I have an overdue job that urgently needs completion. I finally found time for the desk-work, essential to scope-out the idea. Now I need to go and do some field-work. That requires a rather slow and short walk rather than my usual longer-distance excursions.
…though this might look pleasant, it's actually the precursor to many hours in front of a computer screen.


This is a really pleasant (though for me) short walk through some really nice countryside, across the rolling limestone- and clay-covered hills on the border of Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. Save, that is, for two significant features:

I almost called this walk, "From Larkrise to Sana'a", but that's probably a little vague for most people – allow me to explain.

I'm applying for some research funding to produce a more detailed study on USAF Croughton, and its satellite facility, Barford St. John. This strange-looking site is a key part of the USA's 'network-centric warfare' system – acting like a giant hi-tec telephone exchange between US military and US government intelligence sites in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, linking them to the continental US.

The site is about to get a major upgrade, creating a new "intelligence fusion" centre that will co-ordinate US power across Africa and the Middle East – with Africa being the important new covert battlefield in the US' military agenda.

I get off the 499 bus service in Croughton, unpack my gear, then wind around the village school and set off across the fields. The roads around here can get quite busy, so I've planned an off-road circuit of the site to carry out some photo-reconnaissance.

It's a clear sunny day – so clear and sunny that the deep blue sky makes the Spring grass and foliage look a deep bright green. The yellow oilseed fields are glowing in the sunshine, and in the dark grasses of the field verge the dandelions, cowslips and celandine shine brightly too. The walk to the top of the hill is quite gentle, though walking through the grass ley of the silage fields is hard-going as the soft sticky blades of rye grass claw at your boots.

At the top of the hill I pause and pre-emptively drink a quarter of all my water. It's hot – hottest day I've been out this year. A nibble at a water biscuit, and then I go down the hill towards the old Astwick quarry.

This area was very popular with the local ramblers in the late 70s/early 80s, particularly the routes around Astwick and Juniper Hill – which is how I got to know these paths.

There used to be a bridleway through the middle of the base itself. Then, with the ratcheting-up of the Cold War under Reagan, barbed wire was strung across it. For a while I used to lead walks across there to keep the route open, often with more police than ramblers in attendance!

Today we're back at square one – the US is once again ramping-up it's military technology agenda, and this base is being expanded to play a key role in that process.

At Astwick Farm, now a private garden, I have problems finding the, now broken style which is buried in undergrowth. Take a left along the perimeter fence and then I begin to climb across the uneven sandy soil of Juniper Hill, pockmarked with rabbit warrens and wartime bunkers.

Coming down the fence line I spot a pair of roe deer trying to look inconspicuous in the long grass of the adjacent field. Perhaps it's because I'm coming down the fence with the sun at my back, but for some reason they seem unaware that I'm there. I climb a spoil heap next to the path to gain a couple of metres to get a better photo – at which point they bound off across the field.

I cross the busy A43, which is not too difficult at this point as the traffic is slowed by the nearby roundabout, and then go down the road to Juniper Hill. Here I pause for lunch on the verge – looking at the round radomes, their shape echoed in the round trees on the edge of Tusmore Park, and the round dandelion clocks in the verge.

Juniper Hill was the birthplace of Flora Thompson, who immortalised the hamlet as the fictional 'Larkrise' in her book Lark Rise to Candleford. Nothing in there about the colonial chums next door spying on the German chancellors phone, or guiding the drones that carried out unlawful bombings in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

But that's the whole point.

The site, though it looks rather alien, doesn't give any clue over its role, or its global impact. Recently they've undertaken a mass tree-planting and landscaping project to try and soften that public image even more.

Thousands pass by every day without a second thought about what it is here to do. After many years looking at the site, documented in piecemeal-fashion through the 'Croughtonwatch' website, that's what the new study I want to produce is intended to tackle.

The second crossing of the A43 is more difficult – though the construction of a refuge for walkers in the central reservation helps. A mile from the roundabout the traffic is now going at full speed. It takes two or three minutes for two successive breaks in the traffic to come along so that I can cross.

The next section is a bridleway which goes around the south of the site to The Portway. This was the bridleway that I used in the early 1980s through the middle of the site. After a long period denying its existence, the MoD accept its legitimacy. Almost immediately Northamptonshire County Council issued an order diverting it along its present route.

The sun swings lower towards the west, which lets up on the direct heat, only to be replaced by even more uncomfortable rising humidity. I pause beyond The Portway and down the last of my water. I need to pack an extra container!

The last mile into Croughton across the now dry and dusty fields – such a contrast to only a couple of weeks ago – pass gently. A last haul up the steep slope into the village, where I arrive with fifteen minutes to wait for the bus home.