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Wednesday 7th February 2018

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Route: Train to Islip, Oddington, Otmoor, Backley, Elsfield, Woodeaton, Water Eaton, Oxford Parkway

Distance: 18.8km, 11⅔ miles, 4¾ hours

Ascension: 150 metres, 500 feet

Mud and Wildfowl

A long-overdue 'day off'

Getting my life back from over-work stage 1: defeat fracking in Britain… done! (well, just about… It's a zombie industry supported only by Govern-mental ideology).

Stage 2: rebuild all my computers… done! That's taken taken just over a month, not only to rebuild the hardware, but also to re-write the automated scripts that run the data processing that saves me so much time, so that…

Stage 3: Go for a really good walk! Ever since the railway line from Oxford to Bicester re-opened at the end of 2016 I've been longing to revisit one of my favourite walking places; Otmoor.

It's time I enacted that plan!

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It's been over a year since I produced a post for my walks journal. That's because it's been over a year since I've had a 'proper' walk (e.g. the last "walk" I had before this, two weeks ago, was an hour's jaunt from Old Street to Marylebone through central London). I can't complain about 2017 as I did some pretty good and interesting work; it was just unfortunate that I had to sacrifice so much personal space to do that.

Anyhow, press 'reset' and start again – quite literally so in terms of all the work I've done on my computer systems in the last month.

North Oxfordshire is one of the most land-locked areas of Britain. If you travel to the coast that makes the coast quite novel, or, conversely, it makes North Oxfordshire quite distinct from the coast. The most ecologically diverse parts of the coastline are estuaries and salt marshes. However, as I've often said, if you look hard enough you can find something locally that's comparable.

Otmoor is a freshwater marshland formed due to a deep geological anomaly that deformed the underlying rocks. That means the gently south-ward dipping lias clays meet the line of hills around Beckley, Bernwood and Brill, creating a natural boggy hollow. The marsh was quite extensive in the Medieval period, but the area was "improved": firstly almost 190 years ago when the land was first enclosed (which led to riots by the local people); and latterly by intensive agriculture and land drainage after World War II.

As I'm reliant on public transport getting to Otmoor has been quite difficult. The Oxford-Bicester railway line was (first) run down and then closed for upgrading. The train service from Oxford reopened at the end of 2016. Now there are trains to Islip direct from London as well as Oxford; and just for a little ride around, I came here from Banbury via Haddenham.

Islip station provides the quickest means of walking into Otmoor. Today I took the straight route to Oddington, mainly because I wanted to get back to one of my favourite spots in the village – the Medieval churchyard. It has a good view across the lowest parts of Otmoor and, being a churchyard, there are benches where you can stop for a picnic before heading out into the mud of the moor itself.

View over Otmoor from St. Andrew's churchyard, Oddington

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After a quick snack, I head off around the the village green and then take the trackway which leads out onto the moor.

Though bright and sunny, it's only a few degrees above freezing. Even though it's a cold day, four or five feet down in the sheltered drainage ditches there are small flies whizzing around in the sunlight. Come the summer the moor will be alive with beetles, butterflies and buzzing insects.

While Otmoor is noted for its 'fluffy' birdlife, what I've always loved about the place was the variety of insects that you get here. Bernwood Forest, at the top of the hill south-east from here, is fairly similar in that respect – and parts of both are projected as 'Sites of Special Scientific Interest' (SSSI).

This is probably the 'quietest' part of the year here; which is why I've come. As it's so long since I've been here I want to get a 'baseline' feeling for the place, and then make a few more visits over the course of the year to experience the land coming to life.

The 'top' end of the Medieval moor, around and beyond Bicester, is dryer because it's drained for agriculture. The moor today begins south of Bicester, around Merton and Murcott. Oddington is in the middle. Noke and Islip (where the River Ray enters the Cherwell) are at the bottom. I'll be walking around to the wetter parts of the moor where the RSPB have their nature reserve.

Though the track from Oddington is made of compacted stone, after a while it gives way to a narrow muddy track that leads around the edge of the moor. I can't say that it's ever been 'dry' when I've been here. After long periods of wet weather (I remember a walk in the mid-80s in particular) the tracks on the moor can be churned to liquid mud by passing farm vehicles. It doesn't require waders, as is the case with 'real' fenland, but gaiters are pretty essential if you want to keep your socks dry.

I've started late in the day, and it would be nice to linger, but I can't or I'll run out of daylight. Otmoor is an important winter refuge for wildfowl and waders. I can see wigeon, there's a whole flock of lapwings calling as they circle around, as well as various geese and ducks. In summer Otmoor has a whole variety of wildlife – reputed to include merlin and marsh harriers.

After passing through the RSPB's land you come to the end of Otmoor lane. Here there's an MoD firing range that prohibits access to the paths in the centre of Otmoor on most days of the week except Monday; and it's not Monday. The only sensible direction from here is to turn right and head to the top of the hill at Beckley.

The straight track through Otmoor is Roman, part of the network that linked to nearby Alchester. As you climb the hill it's worth pausing to turn and look behind as the view slowly opens out.

View over Otmoor from Otmoor Lane, Beckley

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Like the hills to the west of Oxford, the hills to the east are covered in small fields, rough heath and woodland, fly-tipped waste and palacial homes. Beckley like most outer-Oxford villages is affluent and thus full of large cars. Even before rush hour there is still a stream of large 4x4s coming down the road. If you come it's best to avoid rush hour, or come at the weekend.

Before the railway upgrade I used to walk from Otmoor, through Beckley or Noke, and then head into Forest Hill or Headington. From there you can get Oxford buses into the city centre and the railway station. Today though I'm heading northwest to the new Oxford Parkway station – over the hill and then across the flood plain of the River Cherwell.

From Beckley I take the Common Road past Folly Farm which takes me to the best viewpoint – looking north towards Banbury. If I were stood on Crouch Hill in Banbury, at 170 metres above sea level, I'd see this hill where I am now, at 132 metres above sea level, on the southerly horizon (it's hard to miss with the huge radio mast on top of it!).

It's a really good view, especially as it's almost sunset. Walking off the north-west flank of the hill I'll be peering into the sunset all the way back to the railway station.

As I meander downhill it's getting colder as the sun sets. The unnecessary layer I took off after leaving Islip has to go back on again. I skirt Woodeaton Wood (another SSSI) and then have to do a quarter-mile stretch of narrow road, which is now starting to fill with rush-hour traffic running the rat-runs out of Oxford. That slows me down somewhat as I keep having to jump in the hedge.

At the little village of Woodeaton I take a break on the village green, by the ancient stone cross, for a drink and a snack. It's getting dark, though it's a little less than an hour to the station now. As I know the way that shouldn't be a problem even if it is dark – unless there's been some massive new development that's diverted the path (which does happen from time-to-time).

From Woodeaton the tracks are broad – part of the Medieval and earlier road network that streched around the ancient crossings points of the flood plain north of Oxford – like the one found on the other side of the valley at Hinksey last year. Islip was the crossing point of the River Ray on the Portway ancient trackway. I'm heading to Water Eaton, a Medieval crossing point on the River Cherwell.

It's almost dark when I reach the long arched bridge, with the water audibly slopping underneath. Down here the river is more than twice as big as it is in Banbury. The last mile or so before 'civilization' is along a concrete track that leads from the hamlet of Water Eaton to the main Oxford Road. Walking in the almost pitch black, the tall, wide block of the John Radcliffe Hospital looks like an ocean liner at night, each deck lit with lights from the windows.

Since leaving Islip I haven't been on a major road; much of it was off-road. Consequently walking off the dark track into bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic streaming out of Oxford was a bit of a jolt. From the top of the hill at Cutteslowe it's all downhill on to the station platform for the train back into Oxford. Changing trains there I'm back in Banbury within an hour.