A Drive Through Rural Oxfordshire And Buckinghamshire

Oxfordshire
England is so much more than its cities.

Most itineraries take in London and one or two more: Oxford or Cambridge, Brighton or Bath. While I love all these places, and live part time in Oxford, it’s the countryside that I truly enjoy. Glimpsed from the motorway it makes a pretty backdrop, but get off onto the country lanes and you’ll find villages filled with history, old inns with great beer, and amazing stretches of natural space.

Oxfordshire is one of my favorite parts of England. While it’s more built upon than the northern counties it is rich in antiquarian landmarks. Yesterday my wife and I set out to explore them with the same two friends who took us out on our last rural ride through Oxfordshire. While I have a ton of work to do this week and next, I can never pass up the offer of a road trip through England.

I thought I knew Oxford University inside and out, but our first stop proved me wrong when we arrived at the university’s Harcourt Arboretum a few miles outside town. Peacocks strutted amid a forest of trees gathered from all around the world. I can’t say I’m a big arboretum goer, and while I prefer natural forests to artificial ones, I did enjoy it. The sight of power lines and the distant hum of the motorway did nothing to reduce the feeling of calm that settled on me. Thoughts of my book deadline and the thousand other things on my to-do list disappeared.

Soon we were off to something I know a bit more about – medieval history. Passing down narrow country lanes flanked by hedges and old, lichen-covered stone walls, we came to the village of Ewelme (pronounced “you elm”). Like many English villages, nobody knows just how old this cluster of thatched-roof relics and Victorian trophy homes is. Ewelme became prominent in the middle of the 15th century when Alice, wife of the Duke of Suffolk and granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, built a church, school and almshouses here.

The church is one of those magnificent little houses of worship you find all over England, such as in Dorchester or Binsey. Like with most of my visits to rural churches, we had it to ourselves, and we wandered at leisure admiring the heraldic carvings, fragments of original stained glass, and the alabaster tomb of Alice herself. The tomb is a bit grim even by tombish standards. In addition to carving her lying in state with her hands clasped in prayer in true medieval piety, the sculptor added a second image of Alice at the base showing her decayed and rotting. This was supposed to be a reminder of the way of all flesh. The creepiness still works six centuries on.

%Gallery-163241%Through a narrow doorway and down a flight of steps we entered a small cloister surrounded by 13 little houses. The charity that Alice set up is still in operation and needy people from the parish still live in houses paid for by Alice’s original donation. They are snug, tidy little homes and worlds apart from the grim concrete monoliths many of England’s poor live in.

The third building is a school that’s said to hold the record for the oldest continually operating school in the country, according to whoever it is who keeps track of such things. Sadly it was shut up for the summer, so we were left studying the worn medieval carvings on the wooden door and wondering what lay on the other side.

Suddenly this peaceful village scene was interrupted by the roar of jet engines. Seven red fighters shot overhead, trailing colored smoke. They were the Red Arrows, putting on a show at the nearby RAF airfield. They banked and looped and resisted all attempts at a decent photograph. After a while I stopped trying and simply watched. As we retired to a nearby pub for lunch (fish and chips and real ale, what else?) the Red Arrows were replaced by noisy relics from World War II that flew so low we could see the pilots. It was good to know the pub was safe from the Luftwaffe.

One-and-a-half pints and 50000 calories later, we headed out through more winding little lanes past curious cows and old cottages to neighboring Buckinghamshire, where we climbed a steep hill to Brill, a village that has one of the region’s oldest surviving mills. The mill has been standing here since the 1680s and while it no longer makes flour, it offers a fine backdrop from which to look out at the surrounding countryside.

The hill itself is pitted and gouged with steep clefts. Brick makers in centuries past dug out great chunks of the terrain in search of clay. This provided a great opportunity for a group of local boys. One half of the crowd tried to kick a football over to their friends on the other side. Each attempt ended with the ball plummeting into the pit and one poor kid scrambling down to get it. They weren’t deterred, though. I got the feeling that whoever managed to kick a football over that crevasse would become a village legend, his boyish exploits repeated and exaggerated for generations at the local pub until he took on the legendary stature of a Robin Hood or King Arthur. Or maybe he’d just impress the local girls. Either way, they kept trying.

A day spent away from the cities reveals England at its best. So if you’re in this or any other part of the country, it would be worth your while to rent a car and see the lesser-known rural sights. Just be careful driving on the left.

Hiking England’s oldest road

England is an old land where you can drink in the same pubs as the Crusaders did and watch a play in a Roman theater, so it’s a rare treat to touch or experience anything that can legitimately boast of being the “oldest.”

The Ridgeway Trail in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in southern England just might have the claim of being the country’s oldest road. The 87-mile route runs along a chalk ridge from the fantastic megalithic complex of Avebury northeast to the River Thames. People were using this as a road all the way back in the Neolithic 6,000 years ago and perhaps even earlier. Various tribes left their mark in the form of megalithic ruins, forts, and enigmatic chalk figures. There were many of these “ridgeway” routes in prehistoric Europe, allowing travelers to bypass the thick woods and primeval swamps that covered much of lowland Europe at that time.

While not as scenic or rugged as other National Trails such as the one that runs along Hadrian’s Wall, the Ridgeway still makes for a pleasant ramble. B&Bs and campgrounds dot the route so you’ll never have to worry about where to stay, as long as you reserve ahead of time in the peak season. Another big plus is that you can see the trail’s two greatest prehistoric sights, Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse of Uffington (pictured here) in a long day hike.

The day hike starts in the pretty little village of Bishopstone, a short taxi ride from the railway stop at Swindon. Signs point you up the steep hill overlooking town and onto a broad field that narrows and ascends to the Ridgeway proper. From there head east, and it’s easy sailing from then on. There are no great changes in elevation, just some gentle swells.

Once you’re on the Ridgeway, it’s only five miles to the White Horse, but two miles along there’s a road heading south that takes you to the old stately home of Ashdown House and its grounds. Hidden in the forest is Alfred’s Castle, attributed in local folklore to King Alfred the Great, who defeated the Vikings nearby in 871. In fact it’s a hill fort dating to the about the 6th century BC. Hill forts were settlements or refuges enclosed by ditches and earth palisades. They tended to be on high spots to make them easier to defend. There’s not much to see of the old earthworks here, but the birds tweeting in the branches makes this place a good spot for a picnic. The detour is two miles each way plus another mile or so of wandering through the woods.

%Gallery-84894%Back on the Ridgeway, it’s not long before you reach Wayland’s Smithy. This megalithic tomb was built about 5,500 years ago in the Neolithic, the last phase of the Stone Age. A low, narrow passageway of stone slabs leads to three burial chambers set inside a long earthen mound. Archaeologists believe it was the burial place for an important chief and his family. It’s similar to West Kennet Long Barrow at Avebury. Like West Kennet, Wayland’s Smithy is completely open and you can explore the entire tomb, as well as pick up trash left by less respectful visitors. The place is named after Wayland, an old Germanic blacksmith god a bit like the Roman Vulcan. Local folklore says if you need your horse shod, you can leave it and a silver coin here overnight and the god will do the job for you!

After Wayland’s Smithy the ridge becomes more exposed and you get broad views of the lowlands to the north. Soon you’ll come across Uffington Castle, a hill fort that’s much easier to see than Alfred’s Castle because it stands on a high, treeless promontory. On the hillside nearby is one of England’s most famous monuments–the White Horse of Uffington. This horse, drawn in the Celtic style, was made by cutting off the topsoil to reveal the white chalk underneath. Nobody knows exactly how old it is or its original form since it’s been recut numerous times over the centuries, but most archaeologists agree that it dates to the same time as the hill fort, the 7th or 8th century BC. A recent excavation, however, suggests the horse may be a few centuries older.

The White Horse is fascinating to see up close, but there’s no good way to see it in its entirety. The photo attached to this article is an aerial shot for a reason! Only when you walk down the ridge and towards to village of Uffington to take a bus back to Swindon will you see the horse as it was meant to be seen–from the valley with Uffington Castle next to it. Back in the day it must have been a powerful symbol of the local tribe’s dominance over the region.

The entire walk from Bishopstone up to and along the Ridgeway and down to the village of Uffington is about seven miles, plus another five or so for the Alfred’s Castle detour.

Three points to remember. The path can get gooey in parts if there’s been a recent rain, so be prepared. Also, sources of water are scarce along much of the trail so bring a full day’s supply. Finally, rural bus service tends to be poor in England. Plan ahead with the schedules. I got to the village of White Horse at 4:10 PM, just in time to miss the last bus for the day, so I ended up having to hike another five miles to Faringdon to catch another bus. My legs weren’t happy, but it did give me a chance to see the White Horse from a distance.