Towers, Spires and Mud

Saturday 30th January 2016

Bus to Deddington, Deddington Hill, Gated Road, Milton, Bloxham Grove, Lower Grove, Bodicote, Banbury
11.3km/7 miles – 110m/360ft

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route map There will be mud! Even so, I throw myself on the lottery of the first available bus. And the first bus out of the bus station is… the S4. Not the straight-through service to Oxford, just the local village service to Deddington (which my be cut from next month). In any case, Deddington is about as far as I can go with the three hours I have before sunset.

As the display boards under the town hall outline, contrary to appearances Deddington isn't a village it's an 'historic' town.

Back in Medieval times Deddington was set up, like Banbury, as a town with a charter and market. Unlike Banbury, Deddington didn't develop on the back the Industrial Revolution – marooned over two miles away, and 150 feet up a steep hill, from the canal and subsequent railway construction in the valley below.

Deddington sits five to ten metres below the summit of Deddington Hill (if you stand on top on a cold windy winter's day you'll appreciate why) – which is a flat-topped 133 metres/430 feet AOD. From the top of the hill you get a sweeping view over the Ironstone slab to Whichford Heath in the west, Aynhoe Hill to the east, and Crouch Hill and Edgcote Hill to the north.

430 feet is not much higher than many parts of Banbury. It's not a flat route though. The land between is a gentle roller-coaster, cut by the valleys of the River Swere, Bloxham Brook and Sor Brook.

Trouble is, how to get there…

From here you can take an undulating arc eastward through the Cherwell valley and its watermeadows – which today are likely to be flooded, especially around Sor Brook.

Or you can take the hillier western route through the Barfords and Bloxham – which is likely to be as sticky as epoxy glue given the recent rain.

Much of the arable land between Deddington and Banbury has been ploughed and sown with winter wheat and oilseed. If I go 'off the track' I'll sink and slip most of the way.

Through it's a pain (literally – to much road walking jars the joints), I decide to stick to the backroads and farm tracks all the way back into town.

Irrespective of which route you take, along the walk some of the most eye-catching features in the landscape are the spires and towers of the surrounding village churches. Especially today; good visibility. The sky is a clear light blue – with no con-trails as the recent storm has probably dragged cold dry polar air in at high altitude (dry air = no vapour trails).

Though the day is bright, the natural world seems to be bedded down today. Few birds. No other wild animals visible. And apart from early spouting cow parsley and cleavers under the hedgerows, and a few scattered snowdrops and daffodils on cultivated verges, only the evergreen shrubs are in leaf.

It's truly the mid-point of winter.

The River Swere is swollen after the rain, with a strong ochre colour as the rainwater carries the fine sandy soil off the arable fields of its catchment towards the Thames' floodplain.

Rising near the high ground of Over Norton Common, the Swere winds its way through a narrow valley until it meets the Cherwell a couple of miles to the west of here, below Nell Bridge. In the 1980s this was one of the most high quality rivers in the area, with coarse fish and crayfish. Since then the conversion from pasture to arable fields along much of its length has smothered its biodiverse gravels in largely dead silt.

Climbing back to the top of the slab the road undulates, past the former RAF Barford site (now part of the US military's Croughton communications complex) gently down to Milton. Beyond the hamlet, past the disused Banbury to Cheltenham railway, the land has been mined for ironstone. Crossing the boggy meadows of Bloxham Brook beyond takes you up to Bloxham Grove, and it's third-scale folly windmill.

The route straight into Banbury, across Upper Grove Mill and the flood plain of Sor Brook, looks a bit wet from up here. As there's daylight to spare I take a right turn and follow the longer route into Banbury via Lower Grove and Bodicote – the track of which is always passable in all but the most extreme floods.

The sunset is now lost in swirls of colour. For the last hour the clouds have been gathering in the west, and a slight drizzle has started – fortelling the approach of the next rain belt. It looks like I might have to keep off the arable fields and watermeadows for some time if the weather keeps wet.