The backdrop to the Banburyshire Rambles Photo-Journal are ‘The Irondowns’, the landscape formed by the iron-rich hills that mark the boundary of the neighbouring counties of Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, and Warwickshire.
© 2020-21 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: 30th January 2020; updated: 14st February 2021
Length: ~1,500 words
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 Rugby, 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 – and in modern Britain, any ‘under-developed’ area has an innately greater natural value.
What and where are ‘The Irondowns’?
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 towards 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.
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 ancient north to south routes of travel in this area that provide excellent ways to explore this landscape. In part that's because pretty much every modern route passes north-west to south east, following the ‘passes’ along the river valleys that cut the hills, leaving large areas of relatively undeveloped countryside between.
During the Medieval period, The Portway ran over the drier high ground from the Thames valley into the Leicesteshire; and in ancient pre-history The Jurassic Way ran down this escarpment of hills from Lincolnshire to the great stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge.
Few tourists 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 (and even mobile phone coverage!). The more spectacular attractions of the nearby walking honey-pots of The Cotswolds, The Chilterns and The Peak District ensure that we get few visitors here.
These sandy hills and their quagmire clay valleys have always been an obstruction; which is why this land has always been on the fringe of civil administration rather than a vital part of it. 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.
In short, ‘The Irondowns’ are at the centre of England, on the edge of everywhere, and yet they are nowhere – and that has been the case for almost three thousand years!
The Central England Watershed
Rocks are only one part of this story. Rocks, and the soils they create, are in turn shaped by water and the confluence of water into streams and rivers. Just as with the local rocks, to understand the topography and ecology of the area it’s important to understand its watercourses.
Carry on along the escarpment a little further north from Banbury, beyond where the three counties meet, to the flat boggy fields above 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.
Alternately follow the ridgeline from Charlton, through Newbottle, and Farthinghoe to Greatworth – which divides the catchment of the River Great Ouse from the River Cherwell. Or go west for a short walk from the Sibfords along the ridge through Swalcliffe Grange to Tadmarton Heath – which divides the River Cherwell from the River Stour.
This many sound all a bit dry and abstracted, but once you understand rocks, soils, and the water that flows around them, you understand the roots of ecology: Different soil types encourage different types of plants, and whether soils are wet or well drained creates completely different plant communities; if you are interested in foraging, moisture and soils have a big impact not only on what plants you find, but also how well they grow or fruit; and, if you are interested in spotting wildlife, then knowing the type of plants or ground cover they favour will allow you to find them more easily.