Banburyshire Rambles Photo-Journal:

The Anomalous Megalith (an equinox megaliths walk)

An equinox megaliths walk in West Oxfordshire to find a curious standing stone – and visit some of my other favourite ancient sites

20th March 2019
Route: Chipping Norton, Churchill Standing Stone, Besbury Barrow, Churchill standing stones, Sarsden Wayfaring Cross, The Roundabout, Lyneham Long Barrow, Chadlington, Dean, The Hawk Stone, Chadlington Downs, Chipping Norton.
Metrics: Distance, 21.7km/13½ miles; ascension 350m/1,150ft; duration, 6¼ hours.

Go to the Banburyshire Rambles ‘Permanent Collection’

Due to eye problems, from the end of November to the beginning of February I spent most of the time laid flat on my face in bed. During that time I still went on a lot of walks… in my head. Quite often those walks would come back to the same spot – one of my favourite local megaliths, The Hawk Stone. Given today’s auspicious astronomical events it seems a good day to visit it in person, and take care of another ‘anomaly’ along the way.

After last week’s "ramble ‘round the Rollrights" I feel I have some unfinished business. A while ago I noticed that there’s a local megalith which, apparently, is not listed on Historic England’s "list". Consequently, it might not be protected. Enthused by last week’s ramble, having been so close but I didn’t have the time to get there, I decide that I must visit it – in which case, I might as well visit a few other stones along the way. That, of course, requires I call in at The Hawk Stone.

I get off the 488 bus. I wander back towards the bakery to pick up ‘second breakfast’ and loop around the Town Hall – past, on the main road side, the remains of the historic wayfaring cross. This road is a continuation of the Jurassic Way which I described last last week – arriving here from Great Rollright via Over Norton. I’ll follow it out of the town to my first visit of the day, The Churchill Standing Stone.

Historic England's ‘list’ provides an unequivocal status for ancient monuments. Being on that list confers statutory protection – albeit that sometimes doesn’t mean much as many historic sites around here, as elsewhere in England, have been destroyed by agriculture over the past fifty years.

Last Beltane I went on a ‘megalith walk’ around this area from the railway side of the Evenlode Valley. While planning that walk I came across an anomaly. The Churchill Standing Stone is listed in many different places. However, when I checked Historic England’s "list", it wasn’t there.

Finishing last week’s weeks walk around the Rollrights I could see the location of the standing stone from the ridge near Little Rollright. I thought that I must put it to the top of my "to do" list.

A paved footpath runs out from Chipping Norton along the side of the B4450, all the way to the 'Old London Road' crossroads – and The Churchill Standing Stone. I found the short solitary stone (picture right), though it's buried well into the hedge-line. While it was visible today that might not be the case later in the Spring. I take some photos, and resection its position just to be sure of its grid reference. Then I take a few more photos.

Now I can ask if it is on the list or not, and if not, I can make a case for its inclusion.

Job done I take a left up the hill along Old London Road. In Medieval times this literally was the ridge-road from the South Midlands to London – though its role was supplanted when the turnpike companies built new carriage roads from Oxford to Chipping Norton, and Chipping Norton to Worcester, at the end Eighteenth Century. Despite this, the name persists.

Right on the footpath at the top of the hill, admiring the view across Sarsdengrove Woods along the way, I soon arrive at waypoint no.2, Besbury Lane Bowl Barrow.

It's not, 'impressive' as such, unlike better preserved bowl barrows. As the Heritage England listing for the site says, it's been reduced in size over the years by agriculture. At some point they wrapped the barrow in wire mesh to keep the rabbits and badgers out – but as the ground beneath was eroded, presumably by water and/or the feet of livestock, the wire has become exposed over large areas of the surface.

It’s not helped by the fact that manure has been dumped in the field next to it, which, by the heat of bacterial composting, has set itself on fire – drenching the whole scene in the smell of burning horse dung. I take some photos, and move on.

I always take a break at Churchill, if only because I usually walk up into the village. Today I cut across the green past the war memorial. Alternately, following the road route though the village, there are lots of curious looking stones which support the mound of land upon which the church is built. They were all ‘stolen’ in the Nineteenth Century.

The original Medieval church at Churchill is down the lane on the far side of the village. This church was built in the evangelical revival of the late Georgian/early Victorian era. Perhaps out of some sense of superiority, the story goes that there was an extensive stone circle deep inside Sarsgrove Woods, on the Sarsden Estate. They ripped up all the stones and carted them to the top of the hill to adorn the boundary of the new ‘Perpendicular Gothic’ edifice.

At the road junction is a convenient bench. Right next to the bench stands a row of ‘former’ standing stones, though year by year they become more buried under the ivy (picture left). Further down Sarsden Road, past the imposing last manse on the right, a track runs off up the slope to the left. Until recently the stones here were difficult to see, but they have been recently uncovered after the clearance of the scrub.

Whether there are any further stones in Sarsgrove Woods, or where that original stone circle was located, remains a mystery. There is no public access.

I cross the small valley, over Sars Brook, and walk up to the wayfaring cross at Sarsden. This was once another ancient crossroads. You can find similar stone monuments to this at nearby Kiddington (on Old London Road, and probably one of the oldest in the area) and Taston. Normally I’d go left at Sarsden cross, on the lovely track through the top of Sarsgrove Woods and on to the Chadlington Downs beyond. Right takes you down into the Evenlode Valley, and on past Bruern Abbey to Foxholes Woods Nature Reserve.

Today though I take the very rare direction, straight on, through the grand estate and on up to the top of the ridge above Lyneham.

This track joins the main road into Shipton under Wychwood. Just before that I take a left towards Chadlington. This brings me very quickly to a tree-covered areas called, The Roundabout.

As you get to the brow of the hill, with the road visible ahead, a farm track goes off to the left. This takes you into ‘The Roundabout’ – though the best view of the enclosure itself is in the trees just to the left of the track, where the bank rises up from the depression of the ditch.

According to Historic England’s listing, it’s likely a late Bronze Age/early Iron Age ‘univallate’ (single ditch/bank) settlement. It has been damaged by quarrying, the building of the modern A361 road, and by centuries of agriculture, which makes precisely dating its age and purpose difficult.

Where the farm track leaves the bridleway, if you look in the opposite direction, down to the bottom of the field near a scrubby patch, there is a large stone standing upright in the field (picture left).

This is a Neolithic site, the same era as The Whispering Knights site I visited last week – roughly 5,500 to 6,000 years old. The large stone is what remains of the portal of Lyneham Long Barrow (if you think of more well-preserved sites, such as West Kennet Long Barrow, you’ll be able to more easily picture what it is you’re looking at).

There's no fence here. There's no livestock in the grass field. So I walk down to the barrow. The ‘long’, chambered part of the barrow has been eroded over time – what is left of the earthwork is fenced off inside a scrub-covered area, the remaining stonework covered in moss and weeds. The portal stone is beautiful though, covered in a patina of lichens.

This is the most southerly part of the walk today. I sit down, with my back to the stone, to eat my lunch and watch the cloudscapes.

Refreshed I get up, head up to the top of the field and out of the gate onto the A361 road – a continuation of The Jurassic Way from Chipping Norton, past the side of the long barrow, and on, it is postulated, towards Avebury (click this… it's a brilliant paper!).

I’m not going that far today. Instead I cross the road into Pudlicote Lane and then take a left towards Chadlington.

This is a strange piece of road to walk. Once past Barter’s Hill Farm it’s a straight piece of tarmac for just over a mile – during which time it loses just over three hundred feet of elevation. It's a breeze to walk down; immensely boring to walk up.

With a cooling wind I fly down the hill and into Chadlington. I am greeted by a mass display of daffodils on the verge just past the village’s name sign. I turn right at the bottom of the hill and cross the field to a small bridge over the brook. Forgotten memories of this place, from well-over thirty years ago, come flooding back; I often crossed bridge with the Banbury Rambling Club on walks around this area.

This is the ‘bottom’ of the walk today; I’ve lost just over a 100 metres, or 330 feet, of ascension in the last two miles. Now I have to steadily climb over 150 metres, or 490 feet, to get to the top of Chadlington Downs… I decide to take a rest, listening to the burbling brook, and looking across the valley to Wychwood, draped over the top of the ridge beyond.

Enough! Time to go where I've been dreaming I've been since last November!

I pound through Chadlington, past the church, and fork left the other side on the track to Dean. In the hamlet I take a left along the single track road which carries me steadily up to the top of the hill. Into the fields, and in front of me I see two pairs of kites and a pair of buzzards, circling on the wind as they hunt across the arable fields. Very apt as, when I push through the hedge on the other side of the field I finally see, The Hawk Stone.

Evidence suggests that this is a single standing stone. What it’s significance was, 4,500 to 5,500 years ago when it was erected, we haven’t a clue. After all that time it’s extremely weathered, creating strange abstract patterns on each of its four faces, with each slightly differently patterned in lichens. And at the top, like some of the Rollright Stones, a hole straight through the forked crown of the stone looks rather like and eye (picture right).

Of all the stones in the area, this has the most placid, peaceful atmosphere. Well away from roads, the only disturbance is either agricultural vehicles or occasional aircraft flying onto nearby RAF Brize Norton.

Today, with its little patch of grass to sit and picnic upon, set within in a sea of arable crops on the hillside, and with a wide view across the Evenlode Valley to Wychwood on the ridgeline beyond, it’s just an immensely peaceful place to take a break from "modernity".

As I get up to leave The Hawk Stone, a pair of kites is hunting around the boundary of the field once more (picture left). I’d like to stay more, but I need to catch up with the rest of the world before it leaves me behind.

I head up to the ridge on Chadlington Down, today’s highest point (at 209 metres/685 feet), crossing the Old London Road once more into what was once RAF Chipping Norton. It was until recently pasture, but it’s been ploughed in the last few days. There’s only a couple of inches of soil here, with hard bedrock beneath – the same kind of rock from which all today’s megaliths were sourced. The soft, dry soil slows me down though – and though Chipping Norton is in sight, it seems to take ages to get there.

I miss the bus home by about 7 minutes, and I sit by the Town Hall, watching the setting sun highlight the ‘megalith’ of the Co-operative Society’s stone portico.

In the end though, it was the best thing which could have happened. That's because on the 18.10 bus, as it traverses the ridge back through Great Rollright and Hook Norton to Banbury: Through the back window I'm treated to a spectacular red, gold and orange sunset that goes on for the entire hour of the journey home; while through the front window, rising from the horizon, there's a full 'super-moon' rising. What a wonderfully ethereal way to conclude this first day of Spring.