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Thursday 1st March 2018

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Route: Train to Kings Sutton, Charlton, Newbottle, Astrop Hill, Twyford Wharf, Oxford Canal, Banbury

Distance: 15.6km, 9⅔ miles, 4¾ hours

Ascension: 200 metres, 650 feet

Hunting the 'Beast from the East'

An afternoon in the snow and ice, 'because it's there'

I've heard there's a "Beast from the East" stalking the land; it's from Siberia, so Russian involvement is suspected. I decide that I should use my local knowledge to track, hunt and trap 'the beast' to resolve the issue (I hope that my not-used-for-15-years conversational Russian is up to the test!)

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A few days ago I looked at the weather forecast, to find the coldest day in the midst of the current cold snap; Thursday. Accordingly I planned my week's work around taking the day off to go for a walk in the penetrating frost and snow. Why?… because it's there – and because £2.40 for a ticket to the next railway station down the track is a whole lot cheaper than a £170 ticket to Pitlochry to experience something similar!

I'd called up to my daughter that morning, "the college is shut, they're concerned about the Snowflakes".

She got, if unappreciatively, the joke.

Let's be clear at the outset; I don't consider this to be 'extreme' weather. If Russian school kids are expected to walk to school until the temperature drops to -30°C, I don't see why we in this country should go mad and flinch in horror at the prospect of a frost.

Then again I once walked around Prague one February in shorts, and even the locals were looking at me quizzically.

As I leave Kings Sutton station, and take the right just out of the car park to circumnavigate the village, my instant response is, "wow!". It's actually not quite as cold as I'd hoped, but it's sufficient to make the experience 'different' enough to be interesting.

Even if you've walked a path fifty times, walking it in wholly different weather conditions makes it a completely new experience, to be savoured not rushed.

What I find curious about the coverage of "Beast from the East" is that the whole construct seems to be based upon panic – as if making people afraid will in some way help them to get through the challenge ahead. Absurd!

What allows you to handle any weather conditions out of the ordinary is reslience; the ability to calmly measure and adapt how we live to meet the conditions. To do that you need interesting and well-communicated information on how to live when the things we might take for granted are no longer functioning; and, ideally, short spells actually experiencing those conditions to give you the confidence that you can manage, come-what-may.

Unfortunately well-communicated, practical information on how to adapt to these conditions is the one thing that the sensationalized media coverage of the current weather singularly fails to convey. For example, it's one thing to tell people to stay at home and keep warm, but what if the gas and electricity fail?

About 20 minutes after leaving the train, however, I really couldn't care less about all of that. I was simply enjoying being exactly where I was, in that moment, enjoying it for what it was.

Today's walk is one that's I've done many times before, though seldom like this. I'm climbing to the top of the hills above Kings Sutton to survey the scene. This walk is actually one of the best short sight-seeing routes near Banbury – which is why I've picked it today.

Last week I climbed a hill in the Cotswolds. By the end of today I'd have ascended more than than that route. And though the mist and snow mean that visibility isn't great at distance, the snow and ice give the landscape a wholly different, novel character:

Panorama over King Sutton (Banbury in mist) in the snow and ice

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Down in the valley my nose was telling me that the air temperature was around -3°C to -5°C (if you go out in cold weather often enough you learn to estimate from the sensation of particular body parts). Up here on the ridge, at an exposed 430 feet, the buffeting wind means that the wind chill is probably nearer -10°C to -12°C. I've two layers on my legs and five on my upper body, wind-proof gloves over fingertip-less wool gloves, a wooly hat holding down the keffiyeh wraped around my head, topped with the hood from my outer wind-proof layer. I'm toastily warm, as if it were a Summer day!.

Snow and ice changes the way we see the patterns of the landscape. For example, crossing the ridge I can see Rainsborough Camp, a beautifully preserved Iron Age hill fort, draped across the hill-top opposite – it's large bank and ditches accentuated by the snow.

The path I'm on curves to the left, taking me to the edge of the nearby village of Charlton. In Summer this particular route is brilliant to listen to larks and yellowhammers; today though all but the largest animals are quietly taking cover (then again, these days even the 'snowflake' stock in the fields have been put in sheds for the Winter).

Rather than entering the village I circumnavigate on a footpath, through the old stone quarries from which the local walls are built, which puts me on the short path into the ancient hill-top hamlet of Newbottle.

Crossing the hill-top the wind shifts slightly; then instead of blowing snow around my feet I hear the VHF-static white-noise staccato tones of fresh icy snow hitting the hood of my coat. I presume this is the promised change in the weather as 'Storm Emma' moves in. In case it's only temporary just beyond Newbottle, in the shelter of a barn wall, I stop to have lunch.

If you're camping outdoors in the cold, hot food is a great benefit, especially at the beginning of the day. Conversely, if you're only walking for a few hours, it's often a net loss. In the amount of time it takes to make a fire or get out the stove – which in this weather would have to be a Primus stove because butane gas will not work at this temperature – you'd lose a lot of heat, obviating the benefits of the warm food. For that reason I've brought some cold leftovers from home. I eat half, as I'm intending to stop a little later.

As waves of snow pass through the scene in front of me is constantly changing. No visibility one moment as the snow showers fall, clear the next when they don't. At any time of year, this little spot overlooking Astrop and Purston is a great place to sit and stare for a while. Today it's a wholly new scene from what I would normally see:

Panorama over Astrop and Purston from Newbottle

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From my lunch spot it's steeply down and then up again to Rosamund's Bower. I'm turning a broad circle, and now the weather is hitting my back rather than my front – which also means I begin to over-heat as my front is no longer exposed to the wind chill. I remove my keffiyeh, which makes me far more comfortable.

The gusting wind is arriving in large eddys, which sound like an empty lorry barrelling down a road. Like a wave on the shore-line, you can hear it approaching behind you for ten or fifteen seconds before it hits; or, a few seconds before, it seems to veer off and go one side or the other – dragging spirals of powder snow from the fields up into the air.

I thought I might get a picture of Banbury in the snow from Astrop Hill. Unfortunately the town seems buried in the mist and haze created by the falling snow, with only momentary glimpses of a silhouette of hills, buildings and radio masts demarcating its position.

What's also interesting about the recent media coverage of the weather is that while it obsesses about how cold it will be, it rarely considers why.

Britain's weather is largely controlled by the jet stream. That ribbon of fast-moving air is generated by the temperature incline between the polar vortex and the surrounding warmer temperate zone. As the north pole warms due to climate change the jet stream has been slowing. In the last few years the slowing jet stream has begun to oscillate in large loops, and the polar vortex itself has become less stable.

The looping jet stream, funnelling more heat northward, is the cause of the 'sudden stratospheric warming' which has caused the plunge of Arctic air down across Europe and across Britain. As warmer air then penetrates into the Arctic Circle to replace it, exacerbating the ice melt, that's also why Britain is curently colder than the North Pole.

That doesn't just mean we could get a lot more cold blasts, like this one.

As the jet stream becomes more perturbed, it also means we could experience more severe storms (like last year's Hurricane Ophelia) as well as periods of droughts and floods.

How do you adapt to that? How do you learn to deal with such unpredictable extremes of heat and cold, wet and floods?

As far as I'm concerned, I think the best way to deal with that is to go walking and camping in all weathers. After all, if you can live comfortably 'out here' then you can apply the same experiences at home too.

Astrop is a long ridge-line that descends into the Cherwell valley. It gives excellent views north and south, and directly ahead up the valley of the River Swere to the high ground at Whichford Heath. When you get to the bottom you emerge onto the short road crossing of the River Cherwell – where the Roman Salt Way used to cross the river valley. At three or four hundred metres, this the longest section of road I have to do today.

ravenous_robin I pause for a moment. I could take the path across the flood plain back to Kings Sutton station for a probably cancelled train… No! Walk back into town!

At Twyford Wharf I descend onto the Oxford Canal tow-path. This is another of my regular halts, just over three miles/roughly an hour outside of the town. Under the stone arch of the hump-back bridge I press myself up against the wall, out of the wind, to have the second half of my lunch.

The canal is frozen over. After eating for a while, watching the scene while lorries rumble overhead, a robin bobs up – barely a foot away. I throw it some cooked nuts and veg from my own-made pasta mix and it downs them immediately. We sit for a while, sharing the sheltered location under the bridge, and I occasionally throwing it a few extra bits and pieces until I've finished.

When I get up to leave the robin flies away again. I pack away my rucksack and pull it back onto my back and follow the tow-path into town.

It's a lovely walk back into town, and the tow-path's hedge shields me from the wind and the lashing snow showers. I sit and watch a yellow wagtail plucking food from the edge of the frozen canal ice – amidst the strand-line of vegetation and plastic waste accumulated there by the wind. Entering the town the snow is falling more steadily, accumulating on the roads. The few people who are around are walking stiffly, like robots, against the wind and snow, seemingly withdrawn into little stoic cocoons of pained indignance.

Today has not been an endurance, it's been a joy. And if it's been a joy, that's because I've accepted my need to adapt to meet the terms that the natural world applies to me rather than any dogmatic relationship I have chosen to apply to it. In the final analysis, I think that's why extremes of weather such as this vex and perturb our society – even with all our gadgets and technology, it requires us to accept that we are not the all-powerful beings we believe ourselves to be. And it's by abandoning such pretences that you can not only be comfortable, but be happy in conditions like this.