Hiking in Oxfordshire: follies and fields near Faringdon

I’m spending the summer in Oxford, and so far the English weather has been pretty disappointing with rain, clouds, and cool temperatures that are already making the leaves change color.

Whenever the weather is good here I’m out in the countryside hiking. The weather hasn’t been cooperating, so I and a friend went anyway. We chose a hike from Faringdon to Buckland. Faringdon is an old Oxfordshire market town with some fine pubs and historic buildings and a completely useless tower that is Faringdon’s main claim to fame.

The so-called Faringdon Folly was built in 1935 and was the last of a craze among England’s bored nobility to erect useless monuments on their property. There are follies all over England, including the “ruins” of fake Gothic churches that were never anything but ruins, giant stone pineapples, and even artificial caves that in their glory days were staffed by professional hermits.

The Faringdon Folly was the work of Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950), a local eccentric who liked having his horse over for tea and dying his flock of doves in bright colors. Berners made no apologies for his strange behavior, once remarking that, “There is a good deal to be said for frivolity. Frivolous people, when all is said and done, do less harm in the world than some of our philanthropisors and reformers. Mistrust a man who never has an occasional flash of silliness.”

A large hill stood on his property and one day Berners casually remarked that there should be a tower on the top. His neighbors took this seriously and complained that a tower would ruin the view. To bait them, Berners decided to make the rumors become reality. When the planning committee asked Berners what the purpose of the tower would be, he replied, “The great point of the Tower is that it will be entirely useless.”

%Gallery-130606%Being the local nobility, Berners soon got his way and built the tower. In the interests of public safety he posted a sign warning that, “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.”

Before heading out to see the folly, we had good coffee and excellent homemade cakes at the Faringdon Coffee House on the main square. Try the coconut and mango cake! Once we were fully caffeinated and sugared up, we walked a few minutes to Folly Hill, a tall but gentle hill covered with Scottish pines. The oldest were planted in the 1780s by the local celebrity Henry James Pye (1745-1813), often considered the worst Poet Luareate England ever had. Because of the thick greenery you don’t get a good look at the folly until you’re almost at its base, at which point you crane your neck up to see a plain square tower with a Gothic top. Berners had an argument with his architect about how it should look and so it ended up as two different styles.

The hill is 300 feet high, and the tower another 104 feet, so the observation deck gives you sweeping views of the countryside. On a clear day you can see 25 miles. Little villages dotted the rolling landscape and patchwork of fields. Far in the distance I spotted the mysterious chalk figure of the White Horse of Uffington.

While the tower may be useless, it draws a lot of visitors. It’s open the first Sunday of the month and on selected other dates. It will open for groups by prior arrangement. It’s also an officially registered lighthouse, with a beacon that shines from December through March, even though there aren’t any boats that need guiding. It’s said to be the only lighthouse that can’t been seen from the sea!

After visiting the folly we headed north across farmers’ fields and through patches of woodland towards the village of Buckland. I heard about this hike through The AA guide 50 Walks in Oxfordshire. This book is filled with great ideas for hikes and inspired my walks to Dorchester Abbey, the Rollright Stones, and a little-known church and holy well near Oxford. I say the book is filled with great ideas, because the directions leave something to be desired. The text is vague and the “maps” are hand-drawn sketches. Most of the time when I use this book I get lost, but since the hikes are never longer than ten miles it’s usually easy to find your way back. Besides, there are worse places to be lost than the English countryside.

We did have one good landmark–the Folly. Every time we got out into the open we could see it, and since Buckland is east and a little north of Faringdon, we could gauge our progress by the relative position of the Folly. Of course this meant the hike ended up being longer than intended. There was some scrambling over barbed wire, pushing through thickets, and the discovery of just how dense a corn field can be, yet it was all good fun.

Buckland is famous for The Lamb, a popular gastropub with locally sourced cuisine. We hoped to get a snack there, or at least a couple of pints to reward ourselves for all that hopping over barbed wire, but sadly when we finally made it, the pub was closed for the afternoon. We made up for it by eating at The Magdalen Arms back in Oxford, one of the best gastropubs I’ve visited. We both ordered rabbit in honor of all the rabbits we saw on the hike.

Done correctly, the loop trail from Faringdon to Buckland and back is ten miles (16.1 km). It’s an easy day hike with some pleasant countryside. It’s easily accessible from Oxford on the number 66 bus, which takes 40 minutes. It’s also doable as a day trip from London, going via Oxford.