Watlington Hill short walk
Watlington Hill was donated to the National Trust by the Esher family in the 1940s. Most of the National Trust site at Watlington Hill forms part of the Watlington Hill and Pyrton Hills SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). It is known for its high quality chalk grassland, combined with areas of acid soils on the ridge, which support silver birch and gorse. There are numerous species of wildflowers, including the Chiltern gentian, the autumn gentian, the frog orchid and wild candytuft. The second part of the walk passes though and alongside some ancient yew woodlands. This blend of habitats supports many species of butterfly including the chalk hill blue and the rare silver-spotted skipper. Many species of birds can be seen including buzzards and the magnificent red kites. You may also spot rabbits, hares and fallow, roe or Muntjac deer. The walk is way-marked with orange arrows mounted on posts.
Start at the National Trust car park at Watlington Hill. Grid. Ref. SU709935
Take the path between the signboards in the car park into an area of woodland. After about 150m, cross a track to a private property on the left, marked by some wooden and metal bollards, and continue on the path through scrubland to a gate. Look out for the orange way-markers along the route and follow these.
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, with far reaching views along the Chiltern Escarpment in both directions and out across the Oxford Vale.
Watlington Hill is a nationally important wildlife site that is home to a large assemblage of wildflowers, 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 and by regular scrub clearance. 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. This work is carried out by a combination of National Trust staff, conservation contractors and volunteers. The National Trust volunteer group, 'The Friends of Watlington Hill', meets on the hill once a month throughout the year to carry out a variety of practical conservation tasks. Please contact us if you are interested in this volunteering opportunity.
Go through the gate to an area of open, closely cropped grassland. Continue on the grassy path ahead of you. You will soon see fine views on your right towards Pyrton Hill and Shirburn Hill further to the northeast along the Chiltern Escarpment.
After about 10 minutes (500 metres) and just after Watlington town comes into view ahead, look out for a circle of yew trees on your left which in the past has been used as a natural memorial and mausoleum for the Esher family who once owned the land. We ask you to treat this site with suitable reverence.
Return to the main path and continue downhill, turning slightly right, until you reach a solid-looking backless wooden bench on your right close to the top of the White Mark. This is an excellent spot to enjoy views towards Watlington and to the Oxford Vale beyond The Watlington White Mark.
The Watlington White Mark
In 1764, 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 just one of around fifty hill figures in England.
After enjoying the views and having a look at the White Mark, continue the walk by turning left and heading slightly uphill on a faint diagonal path (heading at about 45 degrees from the path you walked down to reach the bench). After 50 metres you pass through a line of thorn trees. Bear right to follow a more distinct path now heading across the slope and slightly downhill. Eventually the path bends to the left and then runs just below an area of dark green yew woodland. A bit further on, it winds its way through another area of yew woodland, emerging at two parallel crossing paths, close to a gate, which is on your right.
Turn left and uphill onto either the sunken path that runs along the edge of the yew woodland, or the more open path that runs parallel to it. 50m from the gate, ignore a small path leading right.
The sunken path, which is probably part of an ancient drovers' track, offers glimpses into the dark yew wood on your left. The more open path offers views back to the Oxford Vale - the choice is yours, and in places it is easy enough to switch paths! If you take the more open path ignore a small path leading right 50m from the gate.
Eventually, the two paths merge to one, close to a grassy mound next to a large silver birch tree. This is a good place to pause to enjoy views back towards the Oxford Vale and towards Lower Deans Wood (also National Trust). Close to here you see a small area of chalk grassland that has been fenced off to protect one particular wildflower from being eaten by rabbits. This is the Horseshoe Vetch which is the only plant that caterpillars of the Adonis and Chalk Hill Blue butterflies feed upon.
The mosaic of short rabbit-grazed turf, scrub and dense yew woodland, make Watlington Hill an especially good site for butterflies, with a large population of silver-spotted skippers flying here from late July to early September. It is unusual to find yew trees growing on calcareous soils. Some of these yew trees are hundreds of years old, with thick gnarled trunks and wide, spreading branches. In places, the trees have been arched by winds blowing from the open fields to the southwest into all sorts of interesting shapes and forms. The mixture of woodland and grassland attracts a wide variety of bird species, including green woodpeckers, which are often seen and heard.
Just after the two paths merge into one, and after the grassy mound on your right, pass through a small patch of overhanging yew trees. After emerging from the short woodland section, you can if you wish, take a more energetic route back by taking a path to your left, upslope across an area of chalk grassland. On reaching the top of the slope, turn right to retrace your steps to the car park.
For a more gentle and wooded route back, continue straight ahead. On reaching a gate, go through. You will eventually go through a second gate and after another 2 minutes (100 metres) you will arrive back at the car park.
Finish at the National Trust car park at Watlington Hill. Grid. Ref. SU709935
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