route map
click map to view the route –
mapping courtesy of OpenStreetMap

Banburyshire Rambles Photo-Journal,
Saturday 10th August 2019:

“Wind blows, rain falls…”, but no time for a fire

After two months easing myself back into work, I finally get to go for a walk

A month of getting ready for the festival season, followed by a month of travelling around for talks and workshops, and returning to a couple of thousand unanswered emails and much else besides. Everything now squared away for another year I ponder what to do next, but first, my necessary remittance… time to go for a walk!

Route: Banbury, Bretch Hill, Giant’s Caves, Salt Way, Crouch Hill, Banbury.

Metrics: Distance, 8.7km/5⅖ miles; ascension 155m/500ft; duration, 2½ hours.

Go to: Banburyshire Rambles Photo-Journal Summer 2019 Index (July-September)

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A quick arc through the town centre and then straight out towards Bretch Hill. I looked at the weather forecast earlier, found the time at which the wind speed from the unseasonably early Atlantic storm peaked, and then set out in time to reach the summit of the ridge-line west of Banbury to meet the gale head-on. It’s a storm; I can’t possibly miss my opportunity to do a King Lear!

The geology of Bretch Hill: limestone (yellow), sands (beige & orange), Whitby formation clays (brown), Ironstone (orange-red), Dyrham formation sandy limestone (dark orange), Charmouth formation clays (purple) – mapping courtesy of
British Geological Survey

As I climb from the valley floor through the housing estates it is spitting with rain. I reach the water tower at Bretch Hill. The field that was cleared of its blackthorn scrub over the Winter, presumably to survey for housing development, is awash with flowers and grasses – all buzzing with insects.

This hilltop is an ‘outlier’. It’s a small isolated section of the geology that can be found eight to ten miles south-west of here. At the top is a thin layer of Chipping Norton limestone, with Horsehay sands beneath. That means the ecology of the hilltop is very different to the other areas around.

Crouch Hill may be higher but, made of different ‘stuff’, this is the more ecologically interesting.

What I see straight away are a large number of scabious flowers, which love limestone habitats. All around there are bees, bumble bees, and hoverflies, all swarming around the mass of flowering plants that have re-emerged from the soil seedbank. Across the surface crawl beetles, shield bugs and, bouncing around, are a lot of grasshoppers. In the shelter of the scrub beyond, the belt of willowherb at the edge of the field is audibly buzzing with insects feeding on the profusion of purple flowers.

The first squall of rain hits just as I reach the cover of the scrub beyond the field. The surface of the path is strewn with sticks, small crab apples and sloes, all thrown-off in recent storms. Further along I have to dodge around a rotten tree that’s fallen, propped, across the path. I pause by the gate at the edge of the scrubland and, when the rain slackens, go into the fields beyond – and take a moment to scan the broad view south and west from the top of the hill.

Beyond the hedge-line to the right the ground drops suddenly. This marks the course of the Banbury Fault – a deep fault line that runs underneath Banbury, emerging here on the hilltop, and then running in a visible notch in the ground through the hill, then in a roughly straight line toward the next hill visible in Broughton Park beyond. That’s why the limestone is still here. The land I’m on dropped relative to the land in the fields to the right, meaning when everything was eroded the younger limestone remained alongside the older Ironstone slab.

Reaching the ‘crosspaths’ (you can’t call it a ‘road’) near Withycombe Farm the wind is winding itself up. All the insect and birds seemed to have dived for the cover of the undergrowth, except for a couple of buzzards that are circling the newly planted shelter-belt of trees running down to Broughton Road.

Every now and then there’s a lash of raindrops, but nothing persistent. From the small crest of the quarried hilltop the view extends westward to Sibford, Whichford and Tadmarton heaths; a view now changing colour in slow-motion, from golden beige to a dark reddish-brown, as the fields are harvested and the soils beneath show through.

A line from a film runs through my head. “Wind blows, fire burns, rain falls”. Unfortunately, in a rush, I neglected to bring my Kelly Kettle or my Stick-Fire Grate. That’s a pity as not only have the recent storms thrown a deluge of fire-making sticks over the ground ready to pick-up, but the field verge is also full of large yarrow flower-heads just asking to be made into tea!

Crossing the small dip of the fault line, before entering the trees that take the path down to Giant’s Caves, I stand in the field gateway and lean into the wind – allowing it to support me without falling forwards. It’s a constant blast. It feels like swimming in a fast-flowing mountain stream as the cool wind ripples and swirls around me.

After a few minutes I move on. Entering the relative shelter of the tree-line my exposed skin still vibrates from its drubbing by the wind.

Quickly through Giant’s Caves, I cross Broughton Road into Salt Way. The tree which had fallen across the path last year, which the County Council cut into logs and pushed to one side, has been subsumed in cleavers and elder over the Spring and Summer. And from the top of the camouflaged trunk now springs a huge fan-like fungus (a polypore of some kind?).

Crouch Hill trigpoint

Climbing the hill along Salt Way the path is strewn with sticks and hazelnuts – though when I break the shells open they all seem to be empty. There are no trees down, but as with much of the walk there are leaves and sticks scattered across the path.

Eventually I climb to the foot of Crouch Hill. I turn to look at the view. As I do Whichford Heath disappears in a mist. Shortly after, so does the ridge at Swacliffe Grange. Then Tadmarton Heath… I’m going to get wet!

At the last moment though it veers-off south across Hobb Hill and Bloxham. As the edge of the rain squall reaches me I dart into the scrub that surrounds Crouch Hill.

Very quickly the rain passes and I climb to the top of the hill – watching the dark mass of the squall disappear eastward.

In the wake of the squall the wind is buffeting the trees at the top of the hill. With the rise and fall of the buffeting gusts I think of the strains of an old song – not the original Kathleen Ferrier version, I remember instead the more recent sampled and looped reworking by Jocelyn Pook. It’s ethereal lilting melody fills my ears as I descend the hill and tramp back into town.