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Banburyshire’s Ancient Sites:

Rainsborough Camp

Straddling the top of a 145 metre/476 foot ridge-line, Rainsborough Camp, a hill fort on a par with many of the more famous sites along The Ridgeway, is one of the most atmospheric spots to appreciate the local landscape.

Landscape image: ‘A Frosty Dawn at Rainsborough Camp’, 30th November 2016.
‘A Frosty Dawn at Rainsborough Camp’

Rainsborough Camp is a Celtic/Iron Age ‘bivallate’ (double-walled) hill fort, that sits alongside an ancient trackway – The Portway.

It’s not an especially spectacular site; but the way it sits on the ridge, its circle of beech and chestnut trees providing shelter from the elements, while seemingly commanding the landscape all around, makes it a truly ‘ethereal’ location.

Walking the ramparts it can be difficult to appreciate how big the site is: The bank encloses a 2.6 hectare/6½ acre grassy field; at the highest point the surviving banks are 3 metres/10 feet high, with up to a 4 metre/13 foot drop into the ditch; around the southern end, where it cuts into the ridge-line, the double-walled construction is still visible.

Summary for ‘Rainsborough Camp’:

Location: Charlton, Northamptonshire

Type: ‘Camps & Settlements’.

Condition: Open sheep pasture. No public access at present, but since my first visit people have been walking the earthwork for over 40 years (which is how long I’ve been visiting the site).

Access: Bridleway from the village of Charlton or the Charlton-Aynho road. The best walking route is from Kings Sutton/Walton Grounds farm, looping back via Charlton.

OS Grid Ref.: SP526348.

Further information: Wikipedia.

This is an image of the ‘First Series’ Ordnance Survey map for Rainsborough Camp.

When first learning to explore the local countryside, certain sites on my old 1960s ‘One-inch’ Ordnance Survey map intrigued me. Rainsborough was a strange circle in the landscape with bridleways leading right to it. I had to go an see what it was!

One day, probably aged 13 or so, I decided to walk there; and I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve been there in every weather, but, when sorting through my collection to make this page, I discovered that walking to Rainsborough is definitely an Autumnal activity for me – with nearly all the sets of photos taken during November or December. In part that’s because when the nights and mornings draw in, around when the clocks change, it is possible to see a sunrise or sunset at Rainsborough and still leave or get back to Kings Sutton station with sufficient daylight to walk easily.

Excavations in the early 1960s estimated that the site had first been constructed in the Fifth to Sixth Century BCE, 2,500 years ago, in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age. Initially it was an undefended settlement, having the defensive walls added in around the First Century BCE.

That dates its construction just after most of the ancient sites to the west of here. This was when Bronze Age communities were transforming into the tribal Iron Age/Celtic culture, with its more organised systems of agricultural fields and enclosures.

After being empty for a couple of centuries, construction started again just before the Roman invasion and then stopped. The 1963 excavations suggest that is was systematically burned down after the Roman invasion, with later small-scale, possibly Roman occupation after that, which continued into Saxon times.

At the beginning of the Eighteenth Century the site was ploughed and levelled for agriculture, reportedly turning up Roman coins and other remains. These artefacts have since disappeared. In the 1770s a local landowner had the area landscaped, planting trees, and building a dry stone wall around the top of the earthwork. Those are the trees still here today, and traces of the wall can still be seen in some places.

Over the last forty years that I’ve visited, the ring of trees has become more sparse, as they age and topple over. The sheep do little damage, and keep the turf around the site well mown, which also prevents the earthworks becoming covered in scrub – which has taken hold on the east side.

Along with Whichford Hill and Sibford Heath to the west, and Marston Hill, Edgcote Hill, and Farthinghoe to the north, Rainsborough is one of the best vantage points with views over ‘The Irondowns’. From the north-west corner of the site, especially in the Autumn when the colours highlight the hills and ridges, you can pick out all the major hills from the end of The Cotswolds in a 90° arc around to Edgehill (after which Newbottle Woods get in the way).

Landscape image, ‘Rainsborough and a hard frost’, 30th November 2016.
Rainsborough and a hard frost:
Top-left, the view over Rainsborough from the opposite ridge, on the path from Charlton to Kings Sutton;
Top-right/bottom-left, the earthwork around the north-west corner; Bottom-right, the bivallate earthwork around the southern end of the site.

If you walk regularly around a small region you can create a mental map of where you are, and where everything else is. Visiting high points like this helps that process. As you appreciate from here, the local hills and valleys, and the woodlands or fields draped across them, all have their own characteristic shape.

The Situationists developed ‘psychogeography’ as an urban pursuit. Personally I think it’s far more enjoyable out here, where you get to peel away layers of history, do food foraging, and picnic peacefully or have a brew at the same time!

Despite its remote location the intensive arable fields around the area limit the local wildlife. With a number of local estates, the area is alive with game birds for most of the year. At most times of the year, though, you’ll see birds and mammals around the site as it’s an island of pasture in a sea of arable.

Most of the time it’s a fairly quiet location: A place to sit and take the world in, and relax for a while, before the inevitable walk back to ‘normality’. Or perhaps a mad dash, if you decide to stay for the sunset and then rush down the hill to Walton Grounds and Kings Sutton station before complete darkness arrives.

Landscape image, ‘Misty sunrise behind USAF Croughton’s radomes’, 30th November 2016.
Misty sunrise behind USAF Croughton’s radomes

One final point – as people usually spot it:

Go to the southern end of the site and look south-east and you see the large radomes and radio antennas of USAF Croughton.

Officially it’s a data communications and logistics centre for the US military. Technically it’s the conduit for a third of US military communications between the USA, Europe and the Middle East. Unofficially it’s a centre that co-ordinates surveillance, drone operations, and various forms of insalubrious military and economic warfare by the American state.

Rainsborough Camp is one of my favourite local sites, which I return to almost every year at least once to partake of the views and it’s quiet location. In snow, sun, fog or rain, it always offers something to grab your interest. More especially though, it’s just a really nice place to walk to for a day, stay a while, and return refreshed.

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