CYCLING IN OXFORDSHIRE
Steve Dyster went exploring in the Heart of England - well, you know what he means.
That this really was the Heart of England (east to west, anyway). struck home when I met a pair of teenagers crossing the Faringdon by-pass, the A420. It was just about the western extremity of my second day. Faringdon stands on a ridge that overlooks the Thames Valley to the north and the Vale of White Horse, to the south. The A420 links Oxford to Swindon; by the end of the day I would be in the Chilterns, almost in the Home Counties; yet my acquaintances were heading for Lechlade, on the upper Thames, and then away over the Cotswolds to the outskirts of Cheltenham.
I had stopped to allow two cycle tourists to come through the gate that allowed access to cross the Faringdon bypass to access the lane to Farnham and Little Coxwell. Both rode Dawes bikes, one even with drops. They enquired if they were on the right road for Lechlade. Sadly, they were asking the wrong person. They simplified things by asking if this was the way to Great Coxwell. As I had just come from there, I was up to the task. Clearly they came from a cycling family, “I think we’ve got a Supergalaxy at home – my Dad’s bike.” I’d guess they were in their mid-teens. They did this run regularly, and loved it.
There must be something in the west Oxfordshire air. I had already seen four pairs of young cyclists, with panniers and touring-type machines. And I do mean young people, i.e.clearly under sixteen and not just younger than me. Who ever said that touring cycling was the preserve of males of middle-age and over? Touch on nostalgia. Long-live “our kind of cycling”.
All of us were enjoying the sunshine of February half-term; not so much the heat as the absence of freezing cold. Earlier in the day, on the broad country lanes between Charney Bassett and Hatford, I’d been overtaken by a peleton of uniformed road-race lads. Challenged to go faster, I pointed out that I would if they carried my bags, but managed to hold on to their tails for half a mile, or so, during which, the talkative guy at the back berated those at the front for being lazy over winter and mocked them with my presence on an old steel touring bike, with panniers. We soon waved good-bye.
There were a number of cyclists out around Ewelme, on the Chiltern edge, later in the day. What a difference from the first day ride, with only two cyclists seen until descending from Cumnor into Oxford itself.
Rather than catch the train to Oxford, the mixed cycling country between Leamington Spa and Oxford, taking a sweep to the west via Chipping Norton, Minster Lovell and Witney, was too tempting. Actually, the familiar bit from Leamington to the Rollright Stones, provides wonderful cycle-touring. From thence, it was unfamiliar, but turned out to be really rather good.
Busy Leamington was left by a circuitous wander through Offchurch and Harbury, on the way to Chesterton windmill. This is a location of a British Cycle Quest clue. Unusually built out of stone in 1632 (neither of which is the answer), it stands on an open hilltop with views back to Leamington.
Zig-zagging across the Fosse Way several times to Kineton – attempting to find roads I had not cycled before – where there is a café and all the facilities of a small market town. Kineton’s main business now seems to be supporting the massive MoD facility nearby, though its past is that of an agricultural settlement amidst the mixed farms of the Felden. At one time, much of Warwickshire was in the Forest of Arden; the rest was the fields - the latter was the ‘Felden’ district.
Beyond Kineton there is even more rural bliss, though the prospect of the climb up Lady Elizabeth’s Hill from Upper Tysoe marks the start of a new section of upland farming and twisting valleys careless of the patterns so eagerly anticipated in physical geography text-books. The road is one of the gentler ways up the scarp that extends south-
westwards from the well-known Edge Hill, site of the first major engagement of the English Civil War. These hills, and the felden were ravaged by soldiers from both sides; Royalists determined to wreck communications between London and the Parliamentary strongholds of Northampton and Warwick; Roundheads trying to bar links between the King’s headquarters in Oxford and his supporters in the North. It is easy to feel that little has had such an impact since as one puffs and pants or glides according luck or careful map-reading.
Villages here seem to slide down spurs or nestle in sheltered combes. Sibford Gower is one of the former. Walls of local limestone enclose the lane that races down past the Wickham Arms and the entrance to the grounds of a Quaker Meeting House, hidden away but with its burial ground in a glade and the plain building as peaceful as a meeting of Friends. Crossing the nascent River Stour and rolling over another hill – cyclist number one spotted and greeted – I came to Hook Norton, sitting out of the wind in its wooded valley. The brewery is the main attraction here, and to my taste Hook Norton beers remain amongst the best. Too early for a pint, it was up the next hill and onto the prehistoric stones at past Great Rollright. The people who erected these stones seem to have found them locally and chosen a spot high on a ridge with open views all around. The north wind whistled and I was pleased once again to ride on with it at my back.
In some ways this contorted range of hills is an extension of the Cotswolds. Chipping Norton, the thriving, busy, self-reliant market town just to the south, is officially on the edge of the Cotswolds. Just outside the town notices welcome travellers to the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Chipping
derives from the Saxon for market, so it was appropriate that the market was on with the market hall looking over the car-ridden main street. The landscape does change on the official entry to the Cotswolds, albeit the eastern edge. The soil seems lighter and stonier, the valley-sides steeper and the grass more closely cropped by sheep; the building stone lighter. Chadlington has a CTC recommended café – the Café de la Post. I can see why, too. One of the best Capuchinos I have had and a good menu, too.
The five miles to Leafield started quietly enough, until the road entered the shaggy woodland of the Forest of Wychwood. It was a gentle slice of mid-Wales, putting me in mind of the area around Devil’s Bridge without a fraction of the effort. At a sharp left slew, the road emerged from the wood above a combe that appeared to be fathoms deep but was, in reality a small Cotswold Valley. Such was the way down to Minster Lovell, a place I had wanted to visit for years but had always managed to miss.
Was this because it is a beautiful Cotswold classic set amongst willow-girt pastures by the River Windrush? Was it the impressive minster Church or the remains of a medieval hall? For once, neither. This mellifluous spot attracted me because of my vegetable plot. I have always tried to avoid writing this, but, as Albert Winstanley used to write, “Forgive me reader, whilst I digress.”
After the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Francis Lovell found himself on the losing side. Moreover, he was one of the leading men – as the subversive rhyme of the time went, “A catte, a ratte and Lovell our dogge, ruyleth all England under a hogge” (Richard III being the latter) – on the losing side. Given the execution, judicial or otherwise, that gave the politics of the time so much excitement, Francis decided to run for it. He headed to Minster Lovell, probably passing through Northampton roughly along the line of the A43. Now, I lived just southwest of Northampton for a while and legend had it that he ditched his money bags close to village. Thus it was that each autumn as I dug over the allotment or the vegetable patch in the garden I expected to find myself a rich man. Hopes unfulfilled, I felt it incumbent on me to go and see the impressive ruins of the hall of a wealthy medieval magnate. Lovell, actually seems to have fled to Colchester, actively supported rebellions against the Henry Tudor, and disappeared in 1488.
The ride now changed. Witney is the last of the Cotswolds. Once a centre of the textile industry, now a busy market town, beyond it the hills fade away and the flat Thames valley stretches ahead. There is a museum and another BCQ clue at Cogges just outside the town.
I was surprised by the three towers that poked their heads above the bare-branched trees at Stanton Harcourt. The church, the tower of Stanton Harcourt Hall and Pope’s Tower, are an unusual trio for such a quiet English village. The latter is so named as the poet Alexander Pope translated volume four of Homer’s “Iliad” in one of the upstairs rooms.
Winter seemed to have returned and it was with relief that I passed through a handful more pretty villages to Cumnor, and followed the signed cycle route to Oxford. The YHA hostel is right next to the railway station. It gets excellent reviews and, if my stay is anything to go by, deserves them. Modern, but comfortable, the only minor disappointment is the small size of the self-catering kitchen and I could do without the piped music, too, but at £18 a night for a dorm bed, I’m willing to compromise.
Dawn was bright next day, so a good day in the saddle promised. I really felt like putting in a good mileage. Heading south towards Abingdon I tried out NCN5. This started well, but the sections along the Thames path and by the railway track had awkward-muddy and corrugated-but- hard surfaces respectively. It was a relief to return to the road to Sunningwell. With Boar Hill on one side and Didcot power station hidden most of the time, it was pleasant country cycling. Sunningwell is a pretty and interesting village. The pond, apparently, never freezes over as it is fed by a warm spring; the church has an unusual porch from the sixteenth century; the parish priests had links with the University. including the father of Dr. John Fell of Christ Church College, now most famous for being on the receiving end of;
“I do not love Thee, Dr. Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell …..”
My real aim for the morning was the Great Tithe Barn at Great Coxwell, a short distance to the west of the pretty and functional Faringdon. The Tithe Barn is something of misnomer, as it was a grange or farm belonging to Beaulieu Abbey and only a fraction of the produce collected, processed and sold arrived as tithes. The dimensions and wonderful roof-beams are testament to the skill of craftsmen and the wealth of their masters. The building shone in the sun. The stillness of the scene felt timeless, despite the fact that it would never have been so quiet when the barn was in use.
From there it was a rattle along the lanes to Wantage, stopping only at Sparsholt to add to my “list” of wooden funeral effigies from the middle ages. There are three in the church and less than a hundred in the entirety of England. Refreshed in Wantage, birthplace of Alfred the Great, I followed an indirect route to avoid potentially busy rural main roads to Wallingford. Wallingford, familiar to fans of “Midsomer Murders”, has some of the narrowest on-road cycle lanes I have ever encountered. However, it is another old market town with interesting corners and a bridge over the Thames.
Beyond this I headed to Ewelme, one of my favourite villages, on the edge of the Chilterns. Sadly the sky had become overcast, so there was no sunny photo shot of the watercress beds, the ancient almshouses and Church, burial place of Thomas Chaucer, son of Geoffrey, and Thomas’ daughter, Alice, First Duchess of Suffolk. She and the Duke set established the almshouses along with the school, in the fifteenth century. Both buildings are still in use for their original purposes.
Benson, with its RAF base, and Dorchester-on-Thames were my next objectives. Dorchester was once a place of importance. It still has its huge abbey church, and even some names that hint at its past as the centre of an Anglo-Saxon bishopric. The rush hour ride back to Oxford was a necessity rather than a pleasure. Oxford has a huge number of cyclists and its clogged streets mean that traffic moves slowly at best and at a cyclists pace for much of the day. There’s a need to watch out for some odd manoeuvres by some riders, but the city is definitely an example of “safety in numbers” rather than massive quantities of well-designed cycling infrastructure. In the very centre, where most of the tourist attractions are one can walk further to find a vacant bike parking place than to see the numerous places of interest. I tended to wander on foot when in the heart of town.
The last day could have been a circular ride to Woodstock and train home, but turned into a tour through Woodstock into north Oxfordshire and a ride back to base. NCN5 takes one north out of Oxford comfortably on residential roads. A short section of canal towpath was less jolly, being narrow and poorly surfaced. One is then put onto a shared path by the side of the A44 all the way to Woodstock. The best that can be said is that the surface is fine and it is probably better than being on the road itself when the traffic is busy.
Woodstock has cafes, hotels and pubs aplenty. It is an attractive town with the main street set aside from the traffic-laden A44. Blenheim Palace dominates all and takes a day to see round. I headed on.
Wootton hanging on a steep valleyside above the River Glyme is Cotswold without the crowds. What caught my attention was the apparent sectarian divide at the top of the hill, followed shortly by “Workhouse Court” and “Union Place”. From there northward the way was across the grain of the country, through Sandford St. Martin, past Iron Down, through the Barfords, Bloxham and Tadmarton, by Jester’s Hill to Shutford. All places where a “spell” would be repaid. Eventually contouring round to Sun Rising Hill and Edge Hill, with occasional panoramas over Warwickshire, it would be back to the gentle, rolling, riding, all the way back to Leamington Spa. And in this account of three days mostly in Oxfordshire, an eminence entirely in Warwickshire, but physically the marker between the two, is as good a place to cease as any.
There is so much accommodation in Oxford and the surrounding area that it would take an age to detail. Check out YHA Oxford at www.yha.org.uk but don’t forget that there are other budget options. Full accommodation lists are at www.visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com and many other websites. There old YHA hostel on the Ridgeway, above Wantage, is still open as an independent centre.
There are numerous bike shops in Oxford, with others in Wantage, Didcot, Witney, Wallingford, and many other towns. Oxford is on the railway line between Didcot and Banbury and Birmingham, There are local services, too, along this line serving smaller settlements south and north of Oxford. The Cotswold line serves several stops to the west of Oxford on its way to Worcester. There are no stations on the mainline through the Vale of White Horse to the west of Didcot, though Swindon gives easy access to the western extremities of Oxfordshire. Local trains between Oxford and London serve towns in the Thames Valley east of Didcot. Banbury also has direct rail services to London and Birmingham.