Banburyshire Rambles Photo-Journal:

A Beltane Megaliths Trail

Tracing a path around West Oxfordshire's ancient stones for May Day

Beltane (1st May) 2018
Route: Train to Kingham, Churchill, Sarsden, Chadlington Downs, Hawk Stone, Dean, Lidstone, Hoar Stone, Taston, Charlbury station.
Metrics: Distance, 26.5km/16½ miles; ascension: 400 metres/1,300 feet; duration, 7½ hours.

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This walk started with a comment from a friend a couple of years ago. When I pointed out that there were far more megaliths in West Oxfordshire than just the Rollright Stones, he wondered if it were possible to walk to them. That thought has been in my mind ever since; today, as a fitting tribute to Beltane – traditionally marking the beginning on the ancient Summer – I thought I'd give it a go.

There are certain days in the year I try not to work, or even turn on a computer – if only because it guarantees I have some time off. The Solstices and Equinoxes, super-moons and planetary conjunctions (for night walks), and any day with heavy snowfall are absolutes. The other one I try to take is May Day. Celebrated by peoples across Europe as a traditional holiday, its roots are based in ancient Pagan festivities. Given the recent weather I need a high, dry walk on well drained soil. What could be better than the limestone high ground along the Evenlode valley, visiting the monuments of those who invented the holiday.

It's going to be a long one today.

I begin by repacking my day pack. It's currently rigged for Winter, with a tarp, blanket and other items. I don't have a mobile, so in case of any 'unforeseen' events I always like to go prepared, and having all that kit in tow allows for impromptu outdoor cooking when the opportunity arises.

I swap some of the equipment to Summer configuration; still fifteen kilos. I remove the camp stove, saucepan and a few other items, as I'm taking pre-prepared food today. Twelve kilos. That'll do.

The Cotswold Line is a wonderful way into some excellent walking areas; from Banbury, just one change at Oxford – though once we had a direct route right through the Cotswolds.

Today is something a little different to my usual 'rambles'. Instead of random rambling I'll follow a route I devised some time ago. I'm trying to fit in as many ancient megalithschamber tombs, standing stones, Medieval wayfaring crosses and tumuli – as I can.

West Oxfordshire, along the Evenlode Valley, has a lot of these.

In part that's because it had less Puritans than North Oxfordshire, who destroyed not only the ancient Pagan sites but also the richly decorated Christian churches of the area. Destroying historic sites, disfiguring carvings and whitewashing Medieval wall paintings – by comparison, ISIS are merely modern copycats!

I'm beginning in Kingham station. It's a nice even paced walk along roads and tracks, following the floor of the valley and then up into Churchill.

As you enter the village there's a chapel on the right. This is the original Medieval parish church. In the early Nineteenth Century the new, more elaborate church was built at the top of the hill. As part of that many large stones were moved to wall-in the mound on which the church was built. In the process, presumably to save money on quarrying, a number of local megaliths from around the area were hauled up to decorate the bank.

One survivor of that can still be found in the hedgerow on the way to Chipping Norton.

The best stones are near the gate. I take a break in the sunshine, on the bench next to the stones. Then off downhill towards Sarsden.

Sarsden, with its large hall, is the centre of the local estate. It's a significant crossroads on some ancient local trackways, and it's probably why the spot is marked with a wayfaring cross. The local ones are all fairly similar – Sarsden's is possibly a 17th Century rebuild, but there's a much older one on the route past Kiddington a few miles away. I don't sit and rest though; I've still a long way to go today.

I amble up to the 'modern' crossroads. I could go right here, past the Saxon Squires Clump burial mound, and then across the A361 to pass Knollbury camp. Unfortunately going that way creates problems later in the walk, and so I decided to take the high road – straight-on at the croassroads.

From Sarsden crossroads the surfaced road turns into a farm track, and then into a bridlepath through Sarsgrove Woods. The bluebells are not quite out yet – but they'll be great in a week or two. The woods are also eerily quite, with very little birdsong other than a few alarm calls from robins and blackbirds. It's a thing I've observed more in this corner of the county – and I've always wondered if it's related to the high level of pheasant and partridge stocking on the local estates, taking away food/habitat from the wild bird population.

Through the woods I've a short section on the A361, which takes me to the ridge-route, Old London Road, crossing the Chadlington Downs. The road skirts the remains of RAF Chipping Norton, a WW2 satellite station for the nearby Enstone Airfield, with the concrete boundary posts and rough area for aircraft parking pads still visible.

This is the high point of the day, at 204 metres/670 feet, with excellent views south over Wychwood. In the dim distance to the south – harder to see these days since it closed and demolition commenced – you can see the remains of Didcot 'A' power station. And beyond that, the dark undulation on the horizon is the outline of the Lambourn Downs and The Ridgeway track.

After a mile or so I fork right off the road to my favourite location of the day – taking in the excellent panorama along the Evenlode Valley and across Wychwood:

The hillside slowly falls away into the Evenlode Valley, descending through arable fields towards the hamlet of Dean. About half-way, sticking out a few fields ahead, you can see a single standing stone – The Hawk Stone.

After a short distance I arrive and dump my gear down on the grassy patch that surrounds it. I take another break.

The Hawk Stone is probably the single remainder of a group of stones that were part of a chamber tomb. As monoliths go, much like the symbolic block in the film 2001, this really does have the look of the 'real thing' – a symbolic if enigmatic communication from elsewhere in time. Like the Rollright Stones it's pitted and weathered, with a patina of lichen and staining suggesting a long time spent outdoors in this spot. Corbett's local history of Spelsbury says that local witches were once tied to the stone and burned.

I sit and rest a while. As I do I can see storm clouds gathering in the Severn Valley away to the west; and in the distance above Wychwood, the wisps on the trailing edge of the dark clouds suggests that there's a shower on the way. Time to leave.

I decide to take the upper route through the hamlet of Dean. Bad idea. The old sunken lane is a bog. I wade through, clean my boots in the stream at the bottom, and then take the long path up through the woodland to the hilltop – which today is swirling in patterns and shades of green as the passing clouds alternate between full sunlight and shade.

I emerge near the top of the hill, approaching the old trackway that runs from Chipping North down to the Thames near Eynsham.

I've come to see a group of three tumuli. After searching around for a while, and resectioning with my compass to find the precise location, I find that the first and second have been completely destroyed by ploughing (the crop marks can be seen on on Google Maps, just to the right and below the barns on the left of the field, and directly right of the barns on the right-side of the field a little before the road).

Technically this could be a crime – but for the fact the Government has consistently failed to prioritize enforcing the laws that protect our ancient sites against the ravaging whims of landowners. The tumulus near the barns was reportedly once 2.5 metres high; now it is gone (as shown in image, left).

I find this particularly annoying as, in the name of making a quick buck, this steals from all of us. Ploughing is nothing more than the slow-motion desecration of our heritage, in the name of the Greater God of Agri-Economics, that the media recently condemned when historic treasures were destroyed in Syria in the name of a less secular cause. Context, it seems, is everything these days.

Continuing up to top of the hill I find the third tumulusrelatively intact. This is easy to find because it has a trigpoint planted on top of it. On this side of the hedge, "protected" by the way-leave of the bridleway, the mound of the tumulus still protrudes from the level of the field; but as you peer through the hedge, looking down almost two feet, the other half of the structure has been levelled by ploughing.

I trudge unhappily towards Enstone; the dark clouds gathering in the distance behind me, and occasional washes of showers, perhaps reflective of my mood.

I'm starting to feel the distance – and the climbing. More importantly I'm slowing down. Not from choice, but because the GPS-assisted delivery vans are using this little single track road as a rat run, and they really hate it when you can't leap into the verge quickly enough, forcing them to slow down. All those jumps, and pauses while the next van arrives and passes, eat up time after a mile or so.

Passing Enstone I arrive at the second highlight of the day – The Hoar Stone.

Some people struggle to find this place – probably because it's right in front of them, but looks nothing like what they expect to find. To locate it: find the crossroads where the B4022 meets the small road out of Enstone village heading towards Fulwell; then 5 metres from the crossroads on the Fulwell side, it's on your right in the trees.

This is totally different from the others I've seen today. It's enclosed by trees, well shaded, and so the stones are covered in mosses and ferns. In the low-angle light from the clouded sky, everything is bathed in shades of green. As well as the large standing stones, there are equally large stones laid flat on the ground. One in particular seems to be worn by people sitting on it – so I plant my bottom on the 1953 Ministry of Works plinth telling you that this is a protected site.

I take my last break of the day. Unfortunately it's hitting peak time. That not only means that it's very noisy here. I know that in a few moments I'm going to have to do the worst section of the whole day – about three quarters of a mile of busy, straight road full of sports cars and 4x4s. As time slips by I can't put it off any longer, and so set off on my way.

It's a relief to get onto the 'C'-road to Taston. As most people are returning home now, nearly all the traffic is on the other side of the road. It's a gentle slope down into the village, left at the first junction, and then I see first the village's wayfaring cross, and then to the left, Thor's Stone. Normally stone crosses were Christian replacements for the earlier Pagan stones, so having both together is unusual.

No time to pause, I press on, past the Victorian Gothic Thorsbrook Spring (not a historic monument, just monument to the Victorian celebration of death) and out of the village on the path to Charlbury.

My legs are getting leaden, not helped by the pasture that's been ripped into lumps and holes by the stock. I descend the hill into Charlbury, in and out of the steeply sided Clark's Bottom, and then plod through the quiet town to the station. I arrive with about ten minutes to the next train. When it arrives, it's one of the new Class 800 trains. New, fast, seats not too bad to sit on, but the high seat backs give terrible visibility out into the countryside. Not that most people mind – they're all tied up in their screens. Gadgetless, I instead sit back and watch the approach of evening along the Evenlode Valley.