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Banburyshire’s Ancient Trackways:

The Portway

Early Medieval in origin, The Portway runs from the crossing of the Thames at Wallingford, past Oxford, northward along the eastern side of the Cherwell valley into Northamptonshire – heading past Daventry to Watling Street, and possibly Leicestershire beyond.

Landscape image, ‘The Portway across the Ploughley Hundred’, 22nd September 2018
The Portway, running across the Ploughley Hundred between Fritwell and Croughton

Discovered by various local historians of the late Nineteenth Century, The Portway follows the roughly north-north-east trending ridge that runs out of the Thames valley, almost certainly along routes that reused Roman minor roads. From the east side of the Cherwell, it crosses into Northamptonshire, heading towards Borough Hill (the Iron Age site east of Daventry), then on to intersect Watling Street at the Roman town of Bannaventa.

Though some sections are indistinct, many parts still retain their wide way-leave between hedgerows, with holloways on some of the steeper hill climbs.

Summary for ‘The Portway’:

Location: Medieval or earlier trackway; Wallingford, Forest Hill, Islip, Kirtlington, Heyford/Fritwell, Charlton, Farthinghoe, Thorpe Mandeville, Preston Capes, Newnham, Borough Hill, Bannaventa (Whilton).

Type: ‘Ancient Roads and Trackways’.

Condition: Mostly minor surfaced roads, with some good off-road sections on bridleways and footpaths.

Access: Almost entirely covered by public highways.

Landscape image, ‘A map of The Portway from Wallingford to  Bannaventa’ (thumbnail)
A map of The Portway from Wallingford to Bannaventa (click for a larger image)

The Route of The Portway

The difficulty with The Portway is that the route intersects with a number of other ancient roads – some minor Roman roads, others later Medieval drove routes – all pressed together by the local hills and waterways. Spanning Oxfordshire from south-to-north, skirting the western fringe of Northamptonshire, and on towards Leicestershire, any description of ‘the route’ is at best a guess, tested by actually waking the route to ‘feel’ how that route moves through the landscape.

Landscape image, ‘Upper Heyford Security Fence along Portway’, 28th March 2016 (thumbnail)
Portway Lane past the former Upper Heyford airbase – albeit it’s more likely a minor Roman link to nearby Akeman Street.

The Portway is clearly post-Roman, probably early Medieval, because of the way it cuts into those earlier routes. It passes many ancient manors and castles that were significant in the Medieval, most notably Wallingford, which was a key site in the history of early Norman England. But its exact course is complicated because of its later use as a drove road, alongside a similar route which it parallels for much of its length, Oxford Lane.

There is some discussion how much of The Portway is Roman: In the south of Oxfordshire its route tied up with the Icknield Way around Goring and Wallingford; the minor Roman road that ran from Dorchester across Otmoor to meet Akeman Street at Alchester, near Bicester; and around Banbury, with the route of Salt Way and the network of minor Roman road in the area.

Landscape image, ‘The Portway following the line of hills east of the Thames, viewed from Wittenham Clumps’
Near the beginning: Following from Wallingford along the line of hills east of the Thames past Dorchester (right), over Garsington Hill (hilltop, left) – viewed from Wittenham Clumps. Click picture for larger image

Wallingford to Akeman Street

From the crossing of the Thames near the Roman town of Dorchester the route probably skirted Oxford along the ridgeline – across Garsington Hill to Wheatley, and then along what is roughly the B4027 past Forest Hill towards Beckley.

Around the Woodeaton area the route becomes indistinct as there are a number of crossing points of the rivers Cherwell and Ray in this area. Apart from the more remote area around The Thames near Dorchester, and the Cherwell plain and Otmoor north-east of Oxford, it's also one of the more difficult sections to follow as it picks through the sprawl, road corridors, and traffic of Oxford.

The B4027 from Forest Hill to Islip is a fairly suicidal route to walk (or even cycle!). The footpath across the hilltop from Forest Hill, past Stanton, to Beckley, Woodeaton, and Water Eaton, is a far more sane option to preserve life and limb (optionally, Beckley, to Islip, to Hampton Poyle, but that involves far more road). Most likely The Portway crossed the River Ray near Islip, and continued along the east side of the Cherwell valley. Today, the imposing A34 road corridor makes it easier to walk via Water Eaton and Kidlington to Hampton Poyle.

The panorama below shows the route of The Portway running north-north-west, viewed from near the top of Beckley Hill (notable across Oxfordshire due to the prominent transmitter mast on top).

From Water Eaton and Kidlington, where the old route from Oxford crosses the Cherwell over the broad water meadows, the route literally ‘quietens down’ as it heads into the rolling fields beyond the hamlet of Hampton Poyle. At this point, or a little to the south-east of here, Oxford Lane diverges to the north-east, towards Brackley and Buckingham.

The route of The Portway becomes clearer once again after Hampton Poyle. The road through Bletchingdon to Kirtlington is walkable with care. Beyond busy Kirtlington, the route meets Akeman Street

Aves Ditch and Ploughley Hill to Rainsborough

On the far side of Kirtlington, a prominent route forks right along Aves Ditch. This might be another strand of The Portway – or this, and/or what is called ‘Portway Lane’, may be the route of a Roman road later used by Medieval travellers. As a primarily Medieval route, this ‘feels’ more easily walkable across the landscape than the direct route along the side of the Cherwell valley; or it may be that this was formed later and so is more well preserved.

Forming the prominent trackway which crosses the Ploughley Hundred, it bypasses Souldern towards Croughton. The first part follows a ditch and bank cross-country towards the former US nuclear bomber base at Upper Heyford. The site still obstructs the route, and the bridleway around the edge isn’t well used. The paths bypassing the base around Ardley (past the incinerator) aren’t that pleasant either as they are close to the M40. The road from Ardley to Fritwell is also very busy at rush-hour, as it bypasses the local motorway junction.

The road from Bicester, through Bucknell and Fritwill and on to Souldern, is most likely a Roman road – quite likely part of Margary’s road running north around the top of Banbury. Following later land inclosure, this rather complicates the route of The Portway, since the Aves Ditch or Cherwell valley routes all converge around Fritwell.

From Fritwell, this ‘bypass’ route turns north-north-east, crossing Ploughley Hill to Croughton. This is a lovely, walkable section across the rolling landscape. Entering Croughton, with a slight dog-leg to cross Ogilby’s Buckingham-Bridgenorth Road, the route turns towards Rainsborough Camp.

If you would like to explore Aves Ditch, the simplest option is to follow from Kirtlington to Camp Lane, then follow the road west through the middle of the former base (now a growing housing estate) towards Upper Heyford village – then turn north again along Portway Lane.

Portway Lane to Rainsborough

Perhaps Roman, the route from Kirtlington past what was once the US nuclear bomber base at Upper Heyford is clear. Defined as a broad way-leave between hedgerows, and running in a straight line apart from the dog-leg around the end of the runway, this section is a lovely walk as the ground rises gently to the north.

From Kirtlington the route is a minor road that is usually not too busy. Approaching the former base, at the junction with Camp Lane, the route straight ahead is overgrown. Turn left down the road towards the village, then right following the road north out of the village, where the path leaves the road to the right, climbing the field towards the fence of the site. From here-on the route follows the security fence, and then continues north-north-west along farm tracks.

The broad grassy track ends on the edge of an escarpment, overlooking the Cherwell valley, where the M40 cuts through the limestone slab and descends into the valley below. At this point the route becomes indistinct. Keep going towards Souldern along the road, then take the left along Foxhill Lane into the village to avoid the busier road section.

Beyond Souldern the route is lost once more. The modern-day main road is a Georgian turnpike, made at the end of the 18th Century, over-riding the historic rights-of-way as it runs between the two historic estates of Aynhoe and Tusmore. The straight line path towards Aynhoe and Kings Sutton is likely a Roman route. Around Aynhoe the route is made more complicated by Ogilby’s Buckingham-Bridgenorth Road – which may have split here depending upon the seasonal condition of the route crossing the Cherwell valley.

From Souldern, The Portway goes roughly north-east towards Rainsborough Camp – where it joins the route that earlier diverged along Aves Ditch. It may be that Aves Ditch was the later Medieval route (and is certainly easier to walk), while the route along the Cherwell valley represented an earlier pre-Medieval, possibly Roman route.

Northamptonshire and Beyond

Landscape image, ‘Sunrise over the main gate of Rainsborough Camp’
Sunrise over the main gate of Rainsborough Camp.

Beyond Rainsborough Camp the route is mostly surfaced minor roads; following the ridge-line between the catchments of the River Great Ouse and the River Cherwell, through Charlton and Farthinghoe (one source of the Great Ouse).

Around Charlton or Newbottle, the Medieval drove road of Welsh Lane diverged to the west, through Purston and Thenford, heading towards Southam and Kenilworth. This is also the point where the Roman Salt Way from Droitwich crosses west-to-east on its way to Finmere and Buckingham – then crossing Thornborough Bridge, the oldest Medieval bridge in Buckinghamshire, on its way to intersect Watling Street at Fenny Stratford. The discovery of a large Roman settlement on Welsh Lane near Chipping Warden also suggests a Roman origin for the later drove road.

Landscape image, ‘Looking north from Cockley Hill towards Greatworth and Marston St. Lawrence.’
Looking north from Cockley Hill towards Greatworth (right) and Marston St. Lawrence (out of frame to left).

Beyond Cockley Hill the route is lost once more, and might have gone via Greatworth or Marston St. Lawrence. Again this is complicated by local ridge-routes and green lanes interecting at this point, linking to Oxford Lane about five miles to the east.

Landscape image, ‘Looking south along the line of The Portway between Culworth and Thorpe Mandeville’
Looking south along the line of The Portway (from trees at centre on horizon, through Lower Thorpe in the middle of the frame, then along the hedge out the left of the frame) between Culworth and Thorpe Mandeville

Beyond Marston Hill the route becomes clearer near Thorpe Mandeville. Three major trackways converge on the village: Banbury Lane runs southwest-to-northeast through the village on its way to Northampton; Welsh Lane passes to the west of the village, running north-north-west; and The Portway passes northward through the village.

Becoming indistinct in the hills beyond, The Portway runs from Culworth, between the villages of Eydon and Moreton Pinkney, then climbs over the hill into Preston Capes – where it joins with Oxford Lane which diverged back at Kidlington.

Though the original trackway is lost on this last section, the modern road from Preston Capes through Newnham still shows signs of its age. Crossing over the ridge towards Borough Hill there are thick ancient hedgerows, and the occasional holloways on the hill-climbs.

Crossing the busy A45, the route is lost once more, and may have passed either side of Borough Hill, meeting Roman Watling Street a few miles on the other side. Beyond there it is lost within a number of ridge routes – along the course of the Jurassic Way – that cross the hills along the Leicestershire/Northamptonshire border.

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