A Walk in the Oxfordshire Woods

We’re lucky to have a garden which ends at the edge of a nature reserve, so our own trees merge in nicely with those in the reserve (and there are some giants, as we found out when one came down in the storm a couple of years ago). On a quiet morning, with your back to the houses,  you could be in the middle of nowhere. Before here I lived about as near as it’s possible to live in the woods while being simultaneously 2 miles from Aldermaston AWE and Reading town centre – down a short lane off the main road and in behind the trees,  home was in a little terrace of four old cottages. When a friend visited from London she was alarmed at the lack of streetlights (I had moved there from Hoxton, just as it became unbearably hip). How did we cope in amongst all these dark trees? she asked. Well, we carried torches, it’s simple really. You’d think she’d been dropped into the wildwood of the middle ages  she was so spooked. I loved it.

While my first choice for a walk would always be along a wind-blown cliff top, a woodland walk comes a very close second. So, this last but one day of half term, I decided to take the boy for a walk in the woods. The woods I chose this time (we’re not spoilt for choice round here, woodlands everywhere) were Shotover Country Park, to the east of Oxford. I’ve never been there even though I’ve lived here for ten years or so, so this was a litte adventure for both of us.

Shotover is an SSSI and is run by Oxford City Council for everyone to use. It includes heah, marsh and meadow as well as woodland. It was a Royal Forest until the Civil War, when it became grazed land. The London Road – where travellers were prey to Highwaymen – ran across Shotover Plain. arming ceased in the early 20th Century and the land returned to woodland. It came into the care of the City Council in 1930.

The drive up to the main car park is up a huge hill, on a single track road. It’s about 2 miles away from where I work in Headington, but you feel miles away from Oxford, There are a few properties on the hill, how amazing would it be to live up here!


Oxford from Shotover Hill, from Recollection, 1791.   John Baptist Malchair (image ashmoleanprints.com) Highwayman days surely!


Part of the current sign/map/leaflet rack, a lovely piece of graphic design

We only explored a very small part of  the Country Park – while I’m trying to get my child to apprecite the absolute joy of walking, he’s eight and would rather be making a LEGO Bionicle or fighting Endermen, though he is now very keen on climbing trees! (see below).

We chose the Red path ‘Sandpit Walk’ – which it’s suggested takes 30 minutes (I’m playing the long game here, too much too soon will put him off for life I fear).  I will go back and explore the other paths and ‘desire lines’ before long, hopefully with some company.


We took a few pictures.

We found a beautifully climb-able youngish oak tree in a clearing, where for a brief and tantalising moment the SUN came out (we’re having a very wet, cold and grey start to June this year).

Most of the blossom is gone now, but the bracken is unfurling – these are delightfully called Fiddleheads in North America and Canada and probably elsewhere, I’ve never heard it used over here though. There was starry moss underfoot – I ‘found’ a rabbit hole shortly after I found the moss and did a spectacular roll to avoid dropping my phone, much to the boy’s amusement. Be careful out there. We saw some lovely lichen too.

In a slightly  more wooded area we encountered yet another climb-able tree, which got its own back by encaging the boy as he tried to get out. You shouldn’t annoy the woodland spirits.

Those tantalising little desire paths lead off into the trees, and at one point we had a bit of blossom ‘snow’ along one of the wider paths. Of course no woodland would be complete without some really spooky trees…here’s my favourite, with it’s woody ‘hand’ reaching towards us…

Shotover is lovely, I really can’t beleive we’ve never visted before, we’ll definitely go back, I’d like to see it in the early morning and the evening, in the sun, the snow and most of all, in the autumn, when it must be amazing. So that’s an Octoer half term day out already pencilled in, I’ll make sure that boy gets the walking bug eventually.


On White Horses

It was my birthday last week, I don’t get many actual birthdays due to being born on 29th February (this is my own fault, Mum says, for being late).  What better present could I give myself but a nice long walk without the boys (much as I love them, sometimes this has to be done)  on what proved to be yet another amazingly sunny February day. I had even taken the day as leave – with knitting as a backup plan if it was a normal wet, grey, February day.

So now I am twelve, but when I was two and a half (I’m sure you can do the sums)  living in our between the wars semi-detached in Yorkshire I was, like most little girls, very fond of horses. One of my school friends even had an actual PONY. Imagine that! Even in semi rural small towns near Leeds not many girls had actual ponies. I was also very keen on folk and fairy tales of any kind (still am) and stories featuring plucky middle class Victorian children (E. Nesbit? yes please!).

So you can imagine how enchanted I was by ‘The Moon Stallion’. Broadcast by the BBC in 1978 this tale – written for TV by Brian Hayes but masquerading brilliantly as a Classic Victorian Children’s Story was right up my street. It concerns a young blind girl named Diana, her archaeologist father and her brother, They visit friends in Berkshire near the site of the ancient Celtic horse cut into a chalky hillside. Diana has the “sight” which connects her to a mysterious white stallion, to an ancient legend of Arthur as a Celtic chieftain, and to danger from others who seek paranormal power. So for me this story  ticks all the boxes: blind heroine, gothic sensibility, Victorian clothes, pagan goings on, horse whispering, archaeology and amazing landscapes. Those last two feature in my birthday walk

The outdoors bits of the series were filmed in and around Uffington; the title sequence included a marvellous aerial fly-over of the White Horse of Uffington, it’s on YouTube (if it’s still there, whenever you’re reading this), and I’d forgotten how great the theme music was! I was completely captivated by this rolling green chalk downland landscape, so different from the moors, crags and hills of Yorkshire. The strange chalk ‘horse’ added to my fascination.

I never thought I’d find myself living half an hour’s drive away from it. We do go up there a lot (it is always ‘up’, it’s quite a hill) for Sunday strolls or to fly a kite, followed by a big lunch. But I rarely get to go when I know there’ll be very few people about, and that’s a different experience.


Uffington White Horse (image: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk-)

I parked in the National Trust Car Park and walked up to the horse  from there, you pop through a gate and are suddenly in front of the most amazing view over quite a lot of Oxfordshire. This is part of it, from above the horse looking over Dragon Hill – where my friends were handfasted a couple of Mays ago (a most amazing ‘wedding’ which has made this place even more special).

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View over Dragon Hill

I bimbled around up here for a bit, up and down the hill, looking in mole hills (one day I will find something ancient and fascinating in one of them) admiring the gnarly tree and wondering where the sheep were who usually live in Uffington Castle,  the Iron Age hillfort built next door to the white horse.

There were so many skylarks singing away, and a red kite flying above. I stood to watch the kite for a while, I can do this in the garden at home but it’s not quite the same. After a while the kite swooped down and was flying in the valley beneath me as I stood up on the hill, and I could see the back of the bird rather than the usual underneath. It hung about in the air for a bit and then was off. I think it was flying just because it could.

I carried on down The Ridgeway which at this point runs past the hillfort. It carries on to Waylands Smithy, the next stop on my walk. This also featured in The Moon Stallion, when our heroine bumps into Wayland, the smith of the gods, after a ride about on the Moon Stallion while wearing her long white nightie.

Today the Ridgeway was quite a slippery chalky adventure (I have known it worse) but I had  little chat about the amazing weather and red kites with a chap going in the other direction. One of the things I like about walking is that it’s almost compulsory to at least say a quick ‘good morning’ to people, and many of them will stop for a natter. I ended up with slightly clarty boots but managed not to fall on my bum. [Also a satisfying sense of smugness when I looked at this map board. Three years ago me and my friend the chemist rode the whole of that red line on our bikes, and onwards to Glastonbury, stopping halfway for a little festival and some pints at The Barge in Honeystreet. That’s another story though].

At Waylands Smithy – a Neolithic chambered tomb –  I bumped into a couple of ladies who pronounced me ‘very brave to be out here all on your own’ am I?. I feel safer here than I do walking in many big cities,  and god knows I’ve done some really silly walking round big cities, especially at night, and I’ve been in some horrible weather in the Welsh mountains in the past.  It just never crosses my mind that it’s risky to go for a country walk on a sunny day.

Anyway, Waylands Smithy is looking great and the long barrow mound very green today, sitting in its little tree surrounded enclave. There are snowdrops busting out all over.  I take loads of pictures, and have a sit down, some almonds, and a glug of water.

Once I am fortified with ‘smoke flavoured’ almonds and water I think maybe I will carry on for a bit longer. Though the call of the coffee flask is great, the sun is still out and I’m enjoying this walk.

There are more and more birds as I go past the little wooded areas; robins, chaffinches, loads of blackbirds. I am sure there aren’t so many on busier days. I made a very terrible recording of the birdsong (lots of leaf rustling noises) and failed to photograph a blackbird perching in a tree. The occasional gigantic military cargo plane or chinook spoils the peace a bit though they do look quite impressive when they’re flying low down (I expect they’re supposed to).

Up the track and past a barn, there’s a left turn to the tree line after which you can carry on to the Ashdown Estate and wander in their woods. I went as far as the trees and then realised I actually could do with some lunch, so I turned round and retraced my steps. But not until I’d had a good gawp at this big sky.

Home then (after the coffee) and I realised I’d walked quite a long way, so would have to spend absolutely ages doing the stretches my physiotherapist has given me, or stagger round like a person made from wood for days. But it was worth it.

This walk is on the NT website https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-horse-hill/trails/white-horse-hill-to-ashdown-walk . It is well waymarked if, like me, you like to wander off a bit.
More at English Heritage on the White Horse and Uffington Castle (there’s an ice cream van there on the weekends) and Waylands Smithy. Also you can search online for the gazillion books an articles written about the archaeology, myths and so on.
The novelisation of The Moon Stallion is available for the Kindle, and on paper at the marvellous second hand book addicts enabler http://www.abebooks.co.uk . The TV series is  on DVD but not in stock anywhere, as far as I can tell.