Posts Tagged ‘banbury’

Back to doing an early morning flit to start the walk; first train out of Ormskirk at 5.50, feeling strangely fragile after a headlong week of work and some sad passings. Seeking cheerful energy, I played a song I remembered as a fun summer tune, the Piranhas’ version of Tom Hark – but in my enervated dawn state it sounded like some kind of seaside apocalypse with its talk of ‘World War Three’ and ‘slapstick in the pantomime’.

I rallied as we approached Banbury. I had assumed that I would walk out of Oxfordshire into Buckinghamshire, but looking at the map on the train I realised that I would actually be spending most of the day in Northants. This bothered me as I like to have some kind of image-fuel for the journey, a sense however tangential of the mythology of the place I’m walking through – otherwise all I’d be doing is looking at scenery and thinking things like ‘yes, that is indeed a hill.’

‘A bush, I believe’

I put out an appeal on the aether and got a recommendation in the form of a query: ‘John Clare?’. This led me to seek out Books & Ink, a pleasant bookshop that did indeed have some books by Clare, agricultural labourer and poet, b1793 d1864. Armed with reading material I adjourned to The Exchange, a Wetherspoons pub, for a second breakfast and some reading time. In this rather subaquatic early-morning-alcoholic territory, I scanned the Clare pieces. Turns out he made a famous journey home once – escaping from an asylum in Epping Forest and walking for four days back to his home in Northamptonshire. He was also ‘devastated by [the] violation of… the open field system’ resulting from the Act of Enclosure. This process destroyed  common ground, accompanied by felling of trees and the creation of straight-line ditches, and Clare wrote poems mourning the passing of the the open land. I resolved to stay aware of ‘enclosure’ as I might encounter it on today’s ‘Careless Rambles’, see how my attempt to ‘wander at my idle will/In summers luscious prime about the fields’ would intersect with various grids of control by paying attention to the ownership of the spaces I walked through.

Returning to the Castle Quay shopping centre where I had finished walking last month, I arranged myself with sunscreen and other defences against the ‘liquid blaze’ of the sun, and set off along the Oxford Canal. My chosen pastime of spotting ‘enclosure’ is almost redundant as everything seems demarcated, fenced, named, owned and overseen by CCTV.

These areas are like the subconscious or maybe conscience of the town – a place for unwanted and hidden things: clutches of empty cans and bottles punctuating the embankments, residua of drinking exercises too freeform and low-cost to be contained even within the expansive hours of Wetherspoons.

I walked a few miles along the canal, in rising heat, now in fields, the canal lined with monsterium plants. After a  while I reached the M40, where I found a small door to some kind of inspection tunnel, monastic night stair or Jefferies Tube within the motorway.

Thinking back, I am surprised that I wasn’t more excited by this opportunity to creep inside the motorway we have driven countless times, that I have crossed thrice already on this walk, and that (I now know from reading Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads) is the site of an early memory of Lady Penelope buzzing beneath a flyover in a Tiger Moth.

On through the rising heat, until I reached Kings Sutton, a village of almost uncanny attractiveness. A wedding was happening in the church, and I watched the bride arriving in a horsedrawn open carriage as I settled in the pub with a pint of Brakspears. Regional tourism marketeers seem keen to claim this place as part of a ‘Flora Thompson Country’, a kind of dream enclosure.

Aside: I am writing this on June 30th, the release date for a western novel called The Tarnished Star by Jack Martin, real name Gary Dobbs; an early-release copy of the book was in my rucksack while I walked; Gary also works as an actor on the TV Larkrise, his Facebook status suggesting that he could be on the set at that moment; his novel skillfully hard-edged, lean writing summoning the shared fantasy world of the traditional western, a genre animated by economic enclosure strategies played out in the West, frontiers advancing and hard men fighting for freedoms already lost. 

I walked on, through fields and small woods, skirting a playing field with a cricket match in progress, and an airfield launching gliders. I began to feel I was in an imaginary England, or even creating one much like the Larkrise actors.

The sense of unreality remained as I walked into Hinton-in-the-Hedges. As I crossed the churchyard I could hear music and see glimpses of bright costumes. Assuming some kind of fete was going on I wandered over, but realised I was heading towards the backstage area of a play, costumed children giving me questioning looks. Not wanting to blunder on to a stage or though a dressing room, I started to slink away, but two women holding scripts brought me back and said I could watch the end (rather than, as Jennie suggested, seeing me off with a Shakespearian insult such as  ‘What hempen homespun have we swaggering here’ – which have been entirely appropriate, as it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream that they were performing.)

And there was a beer tent. With a pint of Hook Norton Bitter, I sat on a swing and watched the aftermath of the show, whose cast had ages spanning 70 years. It was a pleasant moment, soaking up the atmosphere of people celebrating something that had gone well.

Resisting the temptation to start a new life in friendly Hinton-in-the-Hedges (whose remaining hedges, seen in fly-wing-diagram-pattern on the OS map, suggest that it might have escaped some of the impact of the Act of Enclosure, still having fields spread out in a wheel with the village at it hub’) I completed the last couple of miles to Brackley. I had never thought about Brackley until this trip; I wouldn’t specifically have known that there was such a town, though it sounds plausible enough. Tired, hot and aching I climbed the main street to reach the Crown Inn, alone in this unknown place feeling a bit like John Clare returning to his empty cottage, ‘homeless at home and half gratified to feel that I can be happy any where’.

All the photos

Photos on a map


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A nicely timed work gig meant we were in the Birmingham Hilton Metropole Hotel at the NEC on the night before this walk. As well as the function I was attending (awards for corporate communications, including a magazine called ‘Woundlife’) the hotel was hosting a massive ‘Soul Weekender’ – which meant several floor-shaking all-night discos in the nexus of suites. Even though I had sidestepped any kind of hangover-installation, I felt somewhat jaded as a beautiful day dawned, having moved rooms and slept little.

Scanning the corporate print strategically placed around the room (a pleasant if strangely-angled space) I mused on the hotel’s name; not just the Birmingham Hilton, but the Birmingham Hilton Metropole. The Metropole in Brighton will always be the ‘metropole’ to me. It too is now owned by the Hilton chain – perhaps they have a policy of strip-mining Brighton’s symbolism, distributing any valuable parts around their network, like peasants taking the stonework of a ruined abbey to build farms. Hilton have also trademarked this sentence: ‘Travel should take you places‘.  To my sleep-deprived brain this seemed both incomprehensible and pregnant with meaning, like a Zen koan. Surely any ‘travel’ must ‘take you’ to a place? Perhaps it is in environments like the Hilton chain that travel doesn’t take you anywhere – superficially different places merging – Becks Vier and reward points pumping through their chilly arteries.

Jennie dropped me at Edgehill and I set off, leaving the road for the dappled shade of some woods. I sat on a tree stump for a few minutes, and used my iPhone’s dial-a-disc function to find some soul music – as I didn’t want to walk in a state of antagonism towards ‘soul’ as a basic concept – to do so would seem somehow zombie-like. Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) – the most exuberant song I now; the one-note guitar break never fails to send shivers down my spine – restored me to the world of the ensoulled.

Re-shriven, I walked down a hill to Ratley, a village built from an attractive yellow stone. Is this a Cotswold stone I wonder? Or the ‘ham stone’ that Simon Harvey describes as being ‘the colour of bruised root ginger’?

I entered the church, St Peter Ad Vincula. Walls leaning comfortably at odd angles enclosed a cool, quiet space – all I could hear where birds and a nearby lawnmower. On the altarcloth, three words emblazoned:


The pub looked nice but it wasn’t quite open. I walked up onto the hills, now on one of the Macmillan Ways. Strange to think that this path could take me to the familiar Dorset coast, and that it joins the ‘probable route of the Droitwich to Dorset salt road’. The approach to Warmington on a tiny path through trees beside the church seemed almost secret, far from a major transport route for a vital commodity.

Sheep were sitting out the hot day in the shade, as were udderless bovines of some kind. Townie that I am, I gave the latter a wide berth, despite their placid demeanour – thus losing the trail for a while.

Now I found a pub that was open – the Plough. Another cool space. I feel like I’ve been in a thousand pubs like this – false beams built on to real stone, Islands in the Stream played over speakers linked by wired painted into the now-anachronistic tobacco paint, pig roast poster adorned with clip art. Idle conversation, food, well-kept beer.

Refreshed by a nice pint of Wadworths 6X I moved on. Soon I was crossing the M40 again. On reaching the north side I decided to change my route, leaving Macmillan and following part of the Battlefields Trail that joins three Civil War sites.

Despite losing the signs again, I found my way to Mollington, another absurdly pretty village. Thirsty once more, I entered the pub and was served with a fine pint of Adnams. The landlord was really friendly and we chatted about the walk, but when a group of rambling families appeared, slowly strolling down the hill spread across the road (‘like something from a zombie film!’ the landlady quipped) he doused the lights, plunging his regulars into darkness, to feign shutness. Guess I was lucky to get that Adnams.

Having lost the signs again I simply walked along the road to get to Cropredy. I have been here four or five times for Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival, so it is familiar as a place swarming with festivalgoers – it was odd finding it empty, no smell of outdoor festival food drifting over the fields, no Who Knows Where The Time Goes playing beneath an immemorial sunset. I initially went to a Cropredy in 1990, shortly after a marital split. It was one of the first completely new things I did, so it always feels like a sort of  ‘start of a new era’ place. Picture me back then – in a field, wearing hideously-impractical elastic-sided winklepickers, slightly wobbly from 6X and sunshine, wondering what it’s all about. And picture me now – wearing much more practical footwear.

From Cropredy a few miles of Oxford Canal Walk took me to Banbury. On a sunny Bank Holiday Weekend, it was like walking through a succession of front rooms, as people sat on the tow path enjoying their boats. So far all I have seen of Banbury is a shopping centre – Jennie came to whisk me away to the Premier Inn that would be our berth for the night.

neti – neti

The gods were ‘easy to discern’ in Homer’s time, and maybe they still are.  ‘It is not enough to find the gods; they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods’ says G.K. Chesterton – not such an easy discernment, if as I dimly apprehend the HOLY/HOLY/HOLY is not a thing, person, pattern or notion. Meanwhile, some things look as if they should be signs and portents, who knows,
a black cat crossed my path,
a red fox crossed my path,
I glimpsed some words in a crack between stones, in the stone breastwork on the hill beneath St Mary’s Warmington. Curious, thinking of prayers stuffed into the cracks in the Western Wall, I reached in and pulled something out into the light. It was a cigarette packet, Benson & Hedges Gold, and the words were the health warning. Never liked B&H, too sweet. Never liked JPS either, even when they were the top smoke in their shiny black packet, so that just asking for ‘cigarettes’ would lead to these being offered, at least in the shop where I worked – too bitter. Marlboro had a savage kick but tasted like burning flakes of paint. Marlboro Lights were like the gaseous atmosphere of a disappeared planet, endlessly expanding outward with no gravity to hold it together. Silk Cut impressed me with the slashed purple fabric billboard in front of the Domestos factory that dad drove me past on the way to school and the clever ads that we later studied at college, but the smoke never arrived – they were like a symbolic gesture of smoking, as if ‘smoking’ was a departed reality, acknowledged by a hollow tradition. I guess if it came to it – if some unimaginable set of circumstances meant I had to smoke – I’d have to roll my own.

All the photoson a map, and another map showing the route.

(Remember – Mr Smoking, he no good.)

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