Beacon Hill, Juniper Bank and Aston Wood Walk
Since Roman times, people have faced the test of transporting people and goods between the lowlands of the Oxford Vale, across the steep Chiltern Escarpment, to and from London. This walk explores various ways in which this challenge has been tackled over time, and not always without controversy. Meanwhile, other transport routes that have kept to the lowlands haven’t necessarily succeeded.
This walk between points 4 and 9 coincides with part of the Aston Rowant Discovery Trail (ARDT). Its sign boards and green way marker arrows will help you appreciate the area and follow the route.
If you would like to identify wildlife species, you may wish to use some of the many mobile phone nature apps produced by recognised UK conservation and wildlife groups, such as The BTO, The Woodland Trust, The Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation and The Natural History Museum.
The walk starts at Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve, which is located high on the Chiltern Escarpment, offering panoramic views on the Vale of Oxford. In the summer you can walk through acres of chalk grassland and wildflowers, while eye-catching butterflies flutter through the meadows. Red kites are commonly seen gliding overhead. By contrast, the National Trust woodland areas of Juniper Bank and Aston Wood offer an altogether different landscape, with tall trees with ample shade. In autumn these woodlands are richly coloured, and they are excellent places to see a wide range woodland flowers, butterflies, birds, deer, and a range of unusual fungi.
Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve car park. Grid Reference SU731965
There are two paths into the Nature Reserve from the car park. Take the right-hand path between the wooden notice board and the litter bin. Follow the path to a concrete-floored viewpoint with benches. From the viewpoint, continue along the path to the right of the information board about the red kites. Go through a gate and take the right fork upslope. The path soon levels out, with excellent views across the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve and the Vale of Oxford. During wet weather this path can be a bit slippery due to the drop off of the slope to your left.
(There is an alternative path from the car park downhill to the left, which leads directly to Point 3, which may be a safer option when the ground is wet or slippery.)
Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve
Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve is located on the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills and a large part of it is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest. The reserve is home to plants and butterflies of chalk grassland. The flowers include a number of orchids and the Chiltern gentian. As well as chalk grassland, the reserve contains woodland with beech, yew, and juniper. The Reserve’s diverse habitats support a variety of bird life including large flocks of finches and winter visitors such as fieldfare and redwing. Red kite, wheatear, whitethroat and blackcap can also be seen. Volunteers carry out regular surveys and ring ouzels, firecrests, hobbies and ravens have all been spotted on the reserve. Other birds to look out for include brightly coloured bull finches, yellowhammers and green woodpeckers. Thirty species of butterfly have been recorded on the reserve and key species include chalkhill blue and silver-spotted, dingy and grizzled skippers. The Aston Rowant reserve is managed by Natural England assisted by the Oxford Conservation Volunteers.
Continue along the level path and through a second gate. The path then curves to the right, past a metal seat sculpture, to a third gate. Go through the gate and continue up the grassy path and then straight ahead until the path forks left towards a large wooden sculpture (the red kite sculpture). This has a talking guide built in with six different topics, which can be activated via a manual wind up mechanism. At the sculpture, turn left downhill, following a clear, partly sunken path through scrub vegetation, ignoring two sets of metal gates on your right hand side. Go straight ahead through the next metal gate and follow the clear path across the chalk grassland. After about 50 metres there's a bench on your left hand side, below a large yew tree, from where you have a great view of the Chiltern Escarpment to the south west, Watlington and the Vale of Oxford. After another sunken section of path that curves left, continue downhill towards a wooden gate. This is a good point to see the M40 Motorway cutting or ‘Stokenchurch Gap’ ahead of you.
The Stokenchurch Gap
The Stokenchurch Gap, also known as the Aston Rowant Cutting or ‘The Canyon’ is a steep chalk cutting, constructed through the Chiltern Hills during the early 1970s for the M40 motorway. It is 1,200 metres long and up to 47 metres deep. The cutting has been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest of geological importance as it has revealed layers of rocks that are very significant to geologists; notably it provides the best ‘Coniacian’ section in central England; the rocks dating between 89.8 and 86.3 million years old. The curved route of the cutting was designed to reduce impact on the skyline, and to minimise the impact on the local landscape. It was dug with unusually steep sides, which have been monitored for movement since construction. At the time of construction, the cutting was extremely controversial, as it cuts directly through the ecologically-important Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve. During the construction, archaeologists unearthed a Saxon village and burial ground close to where junction 6 now stands and when the cutting was created, a Roman road was found which crossed over the ridge of the Chilterns at this point. An aerial shot of the cutting, looking northwest, is shown during the opening titles of the BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley.
Don’t go through the gate, but turn sharp right, following a clear path gently downhill, with the Nature Reserve’s boundary fence on your left. Continue on the path, through an area of scrub woodland. Go through a wooden gate, then fork left and downhill to reach two more sets of gates. Go through the wooden gate and then the metal kissing gate to reach the Ridgeway long distance footpath, which locally is part of the Icknield Way. Between the two gates there is an information board about the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve.
The Icknield Way
The Icknield Way is an ancient trackway in southern England that goes from Norfolk to Wiltshire. It follows the chalk escarpment that includes the Berkshire Downs and Chiltern Hills. It is thought by some to be one of the oldest traceable routes in Britain; however, the evidence for its being a prehistoric route has been questioned. The earliest mentions of the Icknield Way are in Anglo-Saxon charters from the year 903 onwards. The charters refer to several locations that span a distance of 40 miles from Wiltshire to Buckinghamshire. Between Lewknor and Ivinghoe there are two parallel courses known as the Lower Icknield Way and the Upper Icknield Way. The Upper Icknield Way, which doubles as The Ridgeway National Trail, has probably been a drovers' route for over a thousand years.
Turn right onto the Ridgeway path and follow it for about 600 metres (12 minutes) until you reach the A40 main road. Take care crossing the road and continue in the same direction along the Ridgeway path on the opposite side. After another 250 metres (5 minutes) the Ridgeway is joined on its left side by a narrow belt of trees and scrub vegetation. This is the abandoned route of the former Watlington and Princes Risborough railway. As you walk, you will see wooden and concrete posts that once supported the fencing and gates alongside the single-track branch line. (This section can be quite muddy when wet, especially after crossing the A40, but it is generally wide enough to avoid the worst parts.)
Watlington and Princes Risborough Railway
For a short distance the Ridgeway follows the route of the Watlington and Princes Risborough Railway, between Lewknor Bridge Halt and Aston Rowant Station. The WPRR was an independent English railway company that connected the Oxfordshire towns of Watlington and Chinnor to the main line railway network of the Great Western Railway (GWR) at Princes Risborough. It opened in 1872. The company was always short of money and was obliged to sell the line to the GWR in 1883; investors sustained a considerable loss. Competition from roads led to a decline in usage and upon nationalisation of the railways in 1948 the line was subject to a review of its future and passenger operation eventually ceased in 1957. A large cement works at Chinnor kept part of the line in use for cement trains until the closure of the factory in 1989. A heritage railway group took over this remaining section of track and they now operate it successfully as the Chinnor and Princes Risborough Railway.
After another 450m (9 minutes) turn right at a signpost next to a small Aston Rowant Discovery Trail notice board onto a crossing bridleway.
The bridleway initially follows a field boundary, but it soon becomes hedged on both sides. Continue along the bridleway uphill into an area of woodland. Follow the white arrows on the trees until you reach a National Trust sign announcing Juniper Bank. Here, turn right off the Bridleway, following the route of the Aston Rowant Discovery Trail.
Juniper Bank and the 'London Weye'
Juniper Bank contains particularly diverse woodland including beech and ash forest, and stands of alder and field maple. One steep bank consists of mixed scrub and chalk grassland and juniper trees. The uphill track comprises a short section of the medieval ‘London Weye’ from Oxford to London: once the main road between the two cities. However the road had its problems. A Parliamentary Committee was told in the early 18th century that the route “was frequented by wagons and other heavy carriages and had become so very ruinous and out of repair that in the winter season it was dangerous to travellers”. In an attempt to remedy this, the road became a turnpike (toll road) in 1719, maintained by the Stokenchurch to Wheatley Turnpike Trust. Despite the improvements, one section was so steep that extra horses had to be put at the bottom of the hill to help struggling stagecoaches get to the top. In 1824 this route was 'found inconvenient' and was diverted to the southwest along the route of the present A40, so as to be more 'commodious to the public'.
As you approach a double metal gate, turn sharp left up a wide, gently sloping track. You are now on the route of the medieval ‘London Weye’ and the abandoned Stokenchurch turnpike road. Continue up the track for 1 km until you reach the modern A40 main road. Turn left, following the narrow path alongside the road for about 150m. When you are opposite a layby, cross the road and go through a gate into the National Trust’s Aston Wood.
Aston Wood forms a curving block on a plateau and the north-west facing escarpment. About two thirds of the wood consists of beech forest, which once provided the materials for local furniture industry, but a number of other trees share the canopy, especially ash and cherry, but also oak, whitebeam, sycamore and hornbeam. Holly, hawthorn and elder form a sparse understorey with rowan and hazel coppice stools at the eastern end. The eastern third of Aston Wood is dominated by ash with oak and beech, the boundary bank being marked by three large stools of small-leaved lime. Look out for red kites, buzzards, fallow deer, Muntjac deer and carpets of bluebells in the spring. The beech woods contain a number of flint and chalk pits, which once provides the materials for local house and road building. Smaller hollows may have been sawpits associated with the furniture industry.
Immediately after the gate take the left hand fork and follow the woodland path, the route of which is marked by white arrows on the trees. In winter, you will be able to see the Oxford Vale through the trees on your right, but this is largely obscured when the trees are in leaf. In springtime these woodlands are covered in a carpet of bluebells.
On reaching the far side of Aston Wood, go straight ahead, ignoring a right-hand footpath (L12). You will soon reach a lane. Turn right and follow the lane back to the car park.
Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve car park. Grid Reference SU731965
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