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Wednesday 21st February 2018
Route: Train to Moreton in Marsh, bus to Stow on the Wold, Maugersbury, Icomb Hill, Wyck Beacon, Hawkwell, Church Westcote, Bledington, Kingham Station
Distance: 13.9km, 8⅗ miles, 3¾ hours
Ascension: 180 metres, 590 feet
I hadn't planned to go for a walk today; there were other priorities. I've had four hard days, including a pre-dawn trip to London. As I open my eyes, looking through the window at the fluffy pink clouds in the dawn sky, through the haze of tiredness I realize I'm not going to get any brain-work done today. Probably best to go for a walk instead.
"The quality of mud is not the same; it forms from the gentle rain from heaven dropping on the unique soils beneath." OK, apologies to the Bard, but in all seriousness mud is not the same. It's as descriptive of the place as the hills and countryside itself. I'm going to climb a steep, high hill today for the view; but I know the mud in the valley below will be a lot harder to tackle.
Following the decision that a walk was the best option, I looked at my wall-chart of departing buses and trains. I've been south, and I've been north. Obviously I should pick one of the other two cardinal points... west?
The next-best option was marked 'Cotswold Line'. Immediately I thought of Wyck Beacon, which might not be too spectacular on this misty day, by it seldom disappoints. The price of that view, however, would be wading through some particularly tacky mud to return to the nearest station.
It's a bit of a trek to get to the North Cotswolds: Train to Oxford; change for the Hereford/Worcester train; get off at Moreton in Marsh; get the 801 bus to Stow or Bourton on the Water; then walk. Then I'd circle back to the Cotswold Line for the journey home.
Passing King's Sutton on the train just south of Banbury, the forking empty trackbed reminds me that sixty years ago I could have done this journey directly – from Banbury to Kingham or Bourton on the Water on the Banbury to Cheltenham Direct Railway.
Stow was it's usual self, seemingly unaffected by the proliferation of "to let" signs I see elsewhere around the country. Its artisan eateries well populated even though it's off-season. I don't stop (even if I could afford it) and plod on down the hill towards Maugersbury.
I'm crossing the valley to climb Icomb Hill. It's another of those ancient ridge routes that cross the northern edge of the Cotswold escarpment, running down to Burford to cross the Windrush and enter the Thames valley beyond.
The track from Maugersbury drops steeply down, under the open void of the bridge of the Banbury to Cheltenham Railway (now demolished), and steeply up the other side to the top of the hill. Isolated from roads it's a quiet track, through farms and fields.
The farm yard was full of dumpy bags full of nitrate fertilizer; "reassuringly British" pollution!
It's always good to look down – as well as up and around – to see what it is that you're walking over.
The bottom of Icomb Hill is very like Banbury. Charmouth mudstone (what used to be known as 'Lower Lias Clay' when I first studied geology) in the valley gives way to the Dyrham Formation marl (a.k.a 'Middle Lias'), a brief band of ironstone, and then tacky soft soils of the Whitby Mudstone Formation (a.k.a 'Upper Lias'). Each change is seen by a change in the angle of the slope.
What Icomb Hill has in addition is, about two-thirds of the way up, a sudden steepening of the gradient as you hit the Cotswold limestone (first the Salperton and then Chipping Norton limestone on top).
The hard puff to the top is worth it though; the views are brilliant, even on a cloudy day. On a clear day you can see up into the Avon valley. Today though it's difficult to see much further than the other side of the Evenlode valley, just five miles away.
I've a section of road for a while, up and down and up again as I navigate the ridge even further uphill towards Wyck Beacon. Unlike my meory of it, for a tiny Cotswold single-track lane it's really busy with traffic today. In the distance a Chinook from Brize Norton is doing 'circuits and bumps', punctuating the relative quiet with its characteristic twin-rotored "thwock thwock" sound.
Though the birds are beginning to bustle in the hedgerows, the countryside is still in the grip of Winter. There's not a leaf on most of the trees. In Gawcombe Woods, on the opposite side of the small hanging valley from the little lane, the conifers spread a mottling of dark green and browns across the hill-side.
I cross the main road and rise slowly towards Wyck Beacon. As the woodland falls away the view opens-up across the Cotswolds – looking west towards Cleeve Common and south-west across the rolling hills down the spine of the Cotswold Hills.
Well, if it were not so misty, that is.
Even so the folds of the landscape along the Windrush and Diklet valleys, rising to the hills around Ford, Snowshill and Condicote, create softly shaded abstract patterns in the sun-illuminated mist.
Wyck Beacon itself stands a little higher than the hills around Banbury – 250 metres/820 feet. The 'beacon' is a small tumulus (called Wick Barrow) that marks the hill top, occupied by a few trees and a rather wonky trig-point.
Though it's a great place to stop and stare, that's not the case today. Since Icomb Hill a mass of black cloud has been gathering to the east, and it's started to move this way. I need to press on – pretty much down hill all the way now – for Kingham.
The next part was quite spectacular, as the weather rolled in, creating animated cloud-scapes across the ridgeline. Down the lanes to Westcote it was variously sunny and windy. As I paused for a drink outside the church in Church Westcote the hard, lumpy hail hit. Forewarned, I was able to put on a waterproof layer (again!) before the icy-cold blobs of rain started to fall.
The plan was to follow the road down to Fifield and then loop around to Foxholes. Not any more – this rain will make the mud of the valley harder to cross. Even if I didn't run out of daylight I'd probably miss my train. Instead I took a left, steeply downhill, into the valley of the Evenlode... and the mud.
Mud is really interesting; if you bother to look rather than just complain.
Mud comes in all sorts of types. From the firm but very slippy mica-rich glacial silts of the Vale of York, to the sandy and peaty soils of coastal West Lancashire where you can quickly disappear upto your shins.
Locally the mud varies depending what you're standing in. If you are aware of those differences, you can factor them into route planning and timing your local walks.
The floor of the upper Evenlode valley is made of eroded Charmouth mudstone, fine grained, with occasional polished erratics of varying hues. It's a sandy clay that, like modelling clay, produces a stiff plastic soil when nearly saturated. In fact, they still make bricks from this stuff just down the road at Blockley.
Push it up to or past saturation, to the point where it oozes when you stand on it, and it has a very different quality; slippy, and capable of producing an intense suction force when you try and life your boots. That means you can't walk at speed because you're likely to slip one way or another; but it also means that even slow-speed walking becomes difficult as you have to lift your boots with some force to keep moving.
Falling down the hillside from Church Westcote the gradient slackens as you pass from the Cotswold limestones to the Whitby mudstones. That change also marks a springline, where water seemingly wells up from beneath your feet as you sink into the turf of the field. Then the slope breaks again, falling more steeply over the Dyrham marl until you reach the bottom of the valley – where a second springline dumps even more water into the growing number of ditches and streams. As you reach the bottom of the slope, to the rolling valley floor, you hit the Charmouth mud of the Evenlode valley.
However, all that mud has its benefits.
Along parts of the Evenlode valley, where the soil is saturated for long parts of the year, it's unsuitable for arable. There's a lot more pasture here, and thus more biodiversity. Where even the pasture is too saturated for use all year round there are still some 'wastes' – scrub covered land, parts of which escaped field inclosure, where fallen trees are quickly buried in mosses, and where the shrub scrub is festooned with lichens.
It's such a unique environment, it's worth the hassle of crossing the mud to find it!
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The rain eases, though the temperature is beginning to drop on the back-edge of the weather front that brought it. I slide slowly into Bledington, entering on the track by the church. As I pass The Mystery Machine I'm beginning to really feel like I need to stop for a 'scooby snack', but I must press on.
The schoolroom clock says 4.25; I'll make the train. From here it's a mile-and-a-quarter plod down the pavement of the main road to the station.
As I climb the steps of the station bridge, over the top of Stow the swirls of cloud make a dramatic silhouette of the buildings of the hill-top town. The train arrives on time. In the thirty minutes it takes to I glide down the valley towards Oxford, as the sun sets I'm treated to a misty scene bathed first in luminous orange and then maroon light.