Memory Lanes and Trackways

Monday 28th March 2016

Train to Heyford station, Oxford Canal, Upper Heyford, The Portway, Foxhill, Souldern, Aynhoe, Walton Grounds, Kings Sutton station
16km|10 miles 190m|625ft

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route map This isn't really a 'day off'. I'm still interspersing work with a walk, although today the walk doesn't have a strict time limit. As it's a Bank Holiday there are few local buses, so I take the train south to Heyford. Unfortunately last night's rain has swelled the river catchment, and my options are reduced as a result.

As the train passes Kings Sutton I see some walkers gingerly cross the floodplain. That looks like a good omen for my return journey. Even so, all the valley routes will be sodden and muddy, so I need to go high if I'm to keep a good speed.

The 'up' platform at Heyford gives access straight onto the Oxford Canal. I take a left and begin to walk towards Banbury. In places the river, which runs parallel to the canal with the towpath between, is less than a foot below the canal and is spilling onto the path. On days like today this might be easy by boat, but not on foot.

As I pass the ancient church and its 600 year old tithe barn at Upper Heyford I take a right turn; to escape the mud and head for a dry route over limestone along The Portway.

There are various theories about pre-Roman, 'ancient' trackways. One is that they date from palaeolithic times when nomadic people followed migrating herds of animals as they traversed the post-glacial landscape – primarily along ridgelines. The other is that, at a much later date, neolithic peoples carved these roads as they migrated into Britain from mainland Europe, following ridgelines to avoid the impassable flooded river valleys below.

Either way, I'm here for the same reason today – to avoid the impassable flooded river valley below.

The Portway runs from the ancient crossing of the Thames near Wallingford, twenty miles south of here, to Daventry and the upper Avon catchment, forty miles to the north. It skirts the eastern side of Banbury, around Farthinghoe and Culworth. This is the national watershed, where the hills split the flow of the rivers to the east and west. Tracing the long ridgeline means that it's not necessary to cross the deep and muddy river valleys which cut the surrounding high ground.

I used to come here a lot. Not just walking from Heyford station, but also Kings Sutton, and the bus stop on the Oxford Road at North Aston. As I reach the top of the hill the reason for those journeys is still plain to see – USAF Upper Heyford. It's now rusting perimeter fence topped with coiled barbed wire is still intact. In fact, the whole place is still intact – hangars, taxiways and everything. Almost as if the American air force planned to return at some point.

Upper Heyford was a key site in the rhetoric of the early 80s Cold War. The site was extended, cutting the ancient trackway and diverting it around the outside of the new perimeter fence. That's what first got my interest, back in 1983. Finding out: that there were aircraft permanently armed with nuclear bombs inside a high security hanger compound (still intact); and that yet more nuclear bombs were stored in the high security bunkers at the rear of the site (still intact) – grabbed my interest even more.

I used to visit the peace camp quite a bit, located on The Portway near Camp Road. However, for big events at the site, I always preferred to follow The Portway around the back to Gate 8. Although it was further from where most people gathered, it was 'nearer to the action' of where the nuclear weapons were kept – which also meant there was more security to deal with. Gate 8 is also where I went to my first Quaker meeting.

Thirty years later, those events are still marked by the 'peace daffodils' which people planted along the perimeter fence.

Beyond Village Farm, at the corner of the base, The Portway begins to return to something like its original condition. The best section is beyond Portway Farm, where it is a wide, straight grassy track. This carries on until, once again, it's diverted by modernity. In this case the M40, which cut-off the route in the late 1980s. The diversion takes you over Foxhill, which is an equally pleasant winding trackway.

I press on through Souldern as I'm planning to have a break at the top of the hill beyond Aynhoe, where the valley opens out to give a spectacular panorama:

Annotated panorama from Aynhoe Hill

Use the scroll bar to pan across the panorama.

In the valley below me is where the River Cherwell, the canal, the River Swere and Sor Brook meet almost in the same spot. Even at the best of times the path across the valley at Clifton below that point is easily passable for three months of the year. I remember many years ago trying to cross the from Clifton into Adderbury at this time of year – wading through cold, knee-deep floodwater, which at the time seemed preferable to a two mile diversion.

Looking north I can see the ridge at Astrop. I was off on a Spring walk there one evening, almost exactly thirty years ago, when I saw some American F-111 planes slowly circling. Unlike their usual flight attitude, these planes were literally crawling through the sky, engines loudly pushing them along. Next morning came the news that planes from Upper Heyford had bombed Libya.

That local involvement in offensive US military operations continues. To the west I can see Barford St. John communications base, part of USAF Croughton to the east of me, below the ridgeline. Croughton is actively involved in drone operations in the Middle East and North Africa today – a role which is currently being intensified as facilities at that site are expanded.

On cue, a chill wind is starting to blow in from the west. Time to move on. I go down the hill to Kings Sutton to cross the valley... '¡No pasarán!'.

The water has risen since I passed here on the train at noon.

The footbridge (yes, there's a footbridge in the picture 13, in front of the gate) is now underwater. If the footbridge is underwater then the path beyond will be a foot deep in water. Quite apart from not wanting to wade through half-a-mile of cold water, if you can't see a submerged footbridge, it's best not to try and step on it.

I don't want to take the lethal windy road to Twyford; going east over Astrop ridge will add a mile-and-a-half, almost an extra hour of walking; the western route takes more than twice that. Even with the extra hour of British Summer Time in hand, that's still going to put me in Banbury after dark.

I walk around the corner to the train station – just under half an hour till the next train. In any case, the growing noise from the M40 as people return from their Bank holiday revels, which I would have to follow back into the town, wouldn't make for a good end to a walk.

From the top of the footbridge in the station I can see how, since I passed nearly five hours earlier, the river has burst onto the floodplain. It doesn't matter whether ancient trackways were created by migrating reindeer or people. Functionally they're just better ways to travel on foot. Even so, gliding through the floods along the railway embankment, just a little bit of me wants to walk through the water – just "because it's there".