Watlington Hill - Greenfields and Saxon Roads
This is a 7.0 miles (11.2 kilometres) walk taking you across the National Trust’s Watlington Hill site. It then drops down onto the Oxfordshire Plain where it follows the ancient Icknield Way (now part of the Ridgeway Path). The route then ascends the Chiltern escarpment through the National Trust woodland at Greenfield Copse, which has a spectacular display of bluebells from late April to mid-May. The route continues across several small valleys on the dip slope of the Chilterns from where you may see distant views towards the Thames Valley and beyond. The route returns to Christmas Common and to Watlington Hill via an ancient Saxon lane that was once the spinal route of a Chiltern strip parish.
Most colourful in the bluebell season
The bluebells are at their best from mid April until Mid May.
National Trust car park at Watlington Hill. Grid. Ref. SU709935
From the National Trust car park take the path between the large signboards in the car park into an area of woodland. Cross a track to a private property and then continue straight ahead on the wide path through scrubland to a gate.
Watlington Hill is a part of the Chiltern Escarpment that is owned and managed by the National Trust. It consists of 45 hectares of land and reaches a peak altitude of 235 metres. Watlington Hill is a nationally important wildlife site home to a large assemblage of wild flowers, butterflies, birds, mosses, lichens and fungi - many of them rare or scarce. The short chalk grassland turf was originally created by centuries of sheep grazing, but it is now maintained by a population of rabbits and deer. Ant-hills, some of which are quite ancient, add additional interest, and areas of woodland and scrub complete the scene. One of the main aims of conservation management at the site has been to reduce the level of tree and scrub cover that grew rapidly when the rabbit population was decimated by myxomatosis in the 1950s. The purpose of this work is to maintain the delicate chalk habitat that is vital for the survival of rare species of fauna and invertebrates at the site.
Go through the gate to an area of open, closely cropped grassland. Continue on the grassy path ahead of you. You will soon see views on your right towards Pyrton Hill and Shirburn Hill further to the northeast along the Chiltern Escarpment. Continue straight ahead along the ridge of Watlington Hill. After 400 metres the path heads more steeply downhill and slightly to the right. Keeping to the right, head downhill towards the White Mark.
The Watlington Hill White Mark
In 1764, the local squire Edward Horne gave Watlington a more unusual talking point. He felt that the Norman parish church of St. Leonard, when viewed from his home, would be more impressive if it had a spire. To create the illusion, he designed the 270 foot steeple-shaped Watlington White Mark, which he had cut into the chalk escarpment of Watlington Hill, perfectly placed to complete his view. (Trees now obscure much of the view.) The White mark is one of around fifty hill figures in England.
From the White Mark, continue steeply downslope heading for a gate in the lower right-hand corner of the National Trust’s Watlington Hill site. From the gate head down a short track to meet a road, then continue down the roadside path for a further 20 metres and then turn left onto the Ridgeway long distance footpath, which at this point follows the route of the ancient Icknield Way.
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, this has been disputed, and 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.
After 30 metres at a fork bear right and continue on the Ridgeway for 850 metres until you reach the B480 road. Cross the road. Almost immediately on your left you will see a stile and a gap by a metal gate leading into a field. Here the landowners have established a permitted footbath and bridleway. Follow this path, which runs parallel to a hedge and a lane. (The lane follows the route of the Ridgeway.) To your left are fine views back towards Watlington Hill and the Chiltern Escarpment. Just after a bench near the corner of the field, pass through a gap by a metal gate. Here turn immediately left onto a lane, ignoring the track that leads to a gate.
The lane takes you past Dame Alice Farm on your right and a barn and cottages on your left. Note the cottage on your left, which is built from chalk stone. This is exceptional as chalk, although it is widely available, is rarely strong enough to make a good building stone.
About 130 metres after the cottage turn left onto a footpath W11 running between a copse on the left and a hedge on the right. Follow this path for another 720 metres until you reach the B480 road. Taking great care, turn right along the road for 60 metres on the narrow grass verge until you reach the gateway to the house named ‘Dumble Dore’, which is on the opposite side of the road to a gate and a footpath sign that might be partly hidden by a hedge.
When it’s safe to do so, cross the road and then cross a stile, which is to the right of the gate. Painted on the stile is a white arrow indicating path W10. Follow this path in a straight line along the edge of a field with a hedge on your right. On reaching the corner of the field, pass through a gap to the left of a gate into a woodland area. The path now rises quite steeply and then descends again to reach two sets of gates at a junction of paths and tracks. Go straight ahead, following the arrow marked W9. As you start climbing again, take the left fork, following path W15. You will pass a National Trust ‘No Riding’ sign. Continue uphill through Greenfield Copse. The path will eventually level out and lead you to a gate in a wall.
Greenfield Copse was once part of Watlington Park but it is now owned by the National Trust. The Copse stands behind the long brick estate wall which borders the lane to Christmas Common. Like many beechwoods in the Chilterns, the beech trees in Greenfield Copse have been managed for timber production. Some of the tall, straight trees have contorted canopies that have been damaged by heavy snow in winters past. As the path levels out, to your right you will see the remains of ancient earthworks which have never been investigated by archaeologists. They are possibly part of an Iron Age enclosure for habitation or for livestock. The upper part of Greenfield Copse has a carpet of bluebells each spring, from mid-April to mid-May.
Take care as you go through the gate as it leads directly onto a road. Cross the road into the entrance to Greenfield Farm opposite. Follow the lane ahead of you that skirts to the left around large barn. You will soon pass some cottages on your left and you will see the side and back of Greenfield Farmhouse on your right. Continue down the lane, which eventually becomes a rough track. After you have passed a tall hedge on your right, on a clear day, you will see distant views towards the Thames Valley and beyond. The track continues between low hedges. When the main track bears right, continue straight ahead downhill towards an area of woodland. On entering the woodland, ignore the track to the left that enters a field and continue straight ahead. This track then curves to the left and drops down to a valley bottom where there is a junction of tracks. Here turn left onto track W19, with a deer fence on its right. Continue until you meet another junction.
At the junction turn left onto W21 (also the Chiltern Way - CW). You will soon meet a second junction of paths but continue straight ahead and uphill following the white arrow painted on a tree and a blue marker on a post. The path rises and falls through a variety of woodland landscapes until it drops down to yet another junction of paths and tracks in a small clearing.
From the clearing, head straight ahead following path PS8 (also the Chiltern Way – CW). This rises steeply on the right side of a small valley. At the edge of the woodland, cross a stile into a field. If the path ahead is not very clear, head towards the largest tree ahead of you. The path soon becomes more obvious and leads you to a stile and a gate at the top right corner of a field.
Cross the stile and turn left into an unsurfaced lane. You are now on Hollandridge Lane. Follow the lane between fields and woodlands for just over 1.5 km, ignoring any side paths or tracks. When the lane becomes surfaced, look out for a signpost pointing left to the Oxfordshire Way Bridleway.
Hollandridge Lane is a road dating from Saxon times which formed part of the spine road of the twelve-mile long ancient strip parish of Pyrton, stretching from Lower Standhill near Little Haseley in the Oxfordshire Plain to south of Stonor in the Chilterns. Strip parishes had narrow elongated shapes and most were established during the Anglo-Saxon and early medieval period. The fragmentation of ‘hundreds’ in England during the 8th and 9th centuries, resulted in the emergence of smaller manorial estates and parishes. In the Chiltern Hills of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, settlements were established in the lowland areas of the Vales of Oxford and Aylesbury along the more sheltered base of the Chiltern Escarpment, where springs provided reliable water supplies, but the parish territories extended onto the largely uninhabited hillside, scarp and hilltop areas to exploit scarce resources such as woodland and upland summer pasture also known as transhumance. This resulted in estates and parishes that were narrow elongated strips encompassing a range of land types that offered the widest possible range of resources.
Turn left onto the Oxfordshire Way Bridleway, then immediately right onto footpath PS1/OW, which heads diagonally across Queen Wood. Look out for white arrows on the trees to guide your way. On reaching a crossing path, keep straight ahead on path W33 passing the church yard on your left. You will soon emerge onto a road where you turn right.
If you wish to visit the Fox and Hound Public Houses, the pub is 100m on your left. To continue the walk, continue straight ahead, following Christmas Common Road for another 120m and then turn left into a lane signposted to Watlington. Follow Hill Lane for 420m, ignoring the first footpath sign on your left, until you reach a second footpath sign. Turn left and then immediately right to return to the National Trust carpark at Watlington Hill where you started the walk.
National Trust car park at Watlington Hill. Grid. Ref. SU709935
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