Hard frost on Sibford Heath, following the route
of the Jurassic Way, December 2010 (click for location)
Paul Mobbs’ photographic record of the unique landscape of the Ironstone hills on the borders of Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, and Warwickshire.
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It wasn’t until I started travelling the country that I realised how unique the landscape I grew up in, and spent my early years learning how to ‘be outside’ in, was. The chain of hills that emerge from the flat plain near Stamford in South Lincolnshire, and slowly transform into the Cotswolds beyond the Evenlode valley in Northwest Oxfordshire, have a unique geology. That gives rise to a particular ecology. But of far greater significance is that as a barrier between the Midlands and the South East of England, these hills are a relatively empty and under-developed stretch of land.
For those who still eat locally grown food, these hills are, quite literally, in our blood.
The orange-brown soil comes from a hard, iron-rich sandy limestone – the Marlstone Rock Formation – that sits in a thick slab across these hills; thickest around Banbury, and then tapering away either side of Chipping Norton and Northampton.
On the map to the right you can see the slab coloured a dark orange-brown. Before Britain imported iron ore, it was the source of a small proportion of Britain's iron for half a century.
As shown the photo at the top of the page, stand at one end of the slab near Sibford Heath, and on a clear day you can see to the other end near Daventry, 20 miles away. Look directly east from this same point, and the next highest hilltop is 460 miles away in the Teutoburg Forest in Germany.
There are few north-east to south-west routes of travel in this area. Pretty much every major route passes north-west to south east, following the ‘passes’ along the river valleys that cut the hills. Except long ago:
During the Medieval period, when The Portway ran over the drier high ground from the Thames valley into the Leicesteshire;
The view from the ancient settlement on Tadmarton Heath
towards Barton Hill, March 2015 (click for location)
And in our ancient pre-history, The Jurassic Way ran from the East Midlands and East Anglia down this escarpment of hills to the great stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge.
Few venture deep into these hills, where in places – except for the overhead drone of aircraft – it’s still possible to escape the noise of modern life. The nearby walking honey-pots of The Cotswolds, The Chilterns and The Peak District ensure that we get few visitors here.
These hills have always been an obstruction that has ensured this land has been a boundary, at the fringe of human events, rather than part of them:
After the harvest at the source of Sor Brook,
near Ratley, September 2014 (click for location)
Two millenia ago, before the Romans came, they were the the meeting point of three Britonnic/Iron Age tribes – the Corieltauvi to the north; the Catuvellauni to the south-east; and the Dobunni to the south-west.
Those divisions still persist until the modern-day.
Looking across the Cherwell valley from Overthorpe Hill into the heart of Banbury, and the high hills of the Ironstone escarpment on the horizon,
February 2019 (click for location)
Just a few miles north of Banbury is where Warwickshire and the West Midlands Region of government, and Northamptonshire and the East Midlands Region of government, meet Oxfordshire and the South East Region of government.
Carry on along the escarpment a little further from that point, to the flat, boggy fields just to the east of the village of Hellidon, and you stand at the southern watershed of England: At the source of the River Nene which flows into The Wash; the River Cherwell which flows into The Thames estuary; and the River Leam which flows into The Severn estuary.
In short, ‘The Irondowns’ are at the centre of England, on the edge of everywhere,
and yet they are nowhere.
from near the site of the Battle of Edgehill, September 2014 (click for location)
Scenes from The Irondowns
A collection of some of the best scenic walks from
The Irondowns will be added during 2019.