First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The sweet, rich scent of log fires came wafting from the Rising Sun as we set off from the green at Witheridge Hill. A cold and sunny afternoon lay across the south-eastern corner of Oxfordshire where the Chiltern Hills make their last southward dip towards the River Thames.
It’s all about the woods here, and we were soon in among them – Holly Grove Wood where the sun silvered the oak trunks, Padnell’s Wood where the first bluebell leaves, ridiculously early, were poking their green spearheads up among the beech roots. This is well-kept, well-walked country, the woodland tracks carpeted with leaves blackened and trodden flat, the field paths sticky with mud where flint chips and water-smoothed glacial pebbles rolled under our boots.
We threaded the village greens of Shepherd’s Green and Grey’s Green, delectable villages of mellow brick and flint. Volunteers from the admirable Chiltern Society have built kissing gates and waymarked the paths, and have also compiled a new book, ’50 Great Walks in the Chilterns’. Its instructions led us unerringly to Grey’s Court and the remarkable old house there, where the rather naughty Knollys family held sway and misbehaved in Tudor and Jacobean times.
Adultery, multiple illegitimacies, and rumours of murder swirled around Grey’s Court and its inhabitants. Sir William Knollys’s sister-in-law Frances Howard was clapped into the Tower of London in 1615 for poisoning a friend of her husband’s. But the most outré stories concern the previous occupants of the great house, the Lovell family. One Lovell lady, playing hide-and-seek at her marriage celebration, locked herself by mistake into a trunk and was discovered there years later, a skeleton in a wedding dress.
Heads a-buzz with these macabre tales, we took the homeward path through the woods. Red kites swung and swept over the meadows, the rooks of Tartary Wood cawed the day to a close, Be-aaar! Be-aaar!, and a pearlescent cloud crept slowly west to blur the sunset in scarlet and gold.
Start: Rising Sun PH, Witheridge Hill, Highmoor Cross, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxon RG9 5PF (OS ref SU 697841)
Getting there: Rising Sun is signposted off B481 just south of Highmoor Cross
Walk (8 miles, easy, OS Explorer 171): From Rising Sun, right through car park; path through trees to road. Path beside house opposite (fingerpost/FP). Up field edge (kissing gate/KG, yellow arrow/YA), then track. At left bend (700841), ahead (KG/YA) past shed end and on along field edge. Half left across sports field to cross B481 (703840, KG, FP) onto path through trees. In 200m pass waymark post; in another 100m, right (705842, YA) into field. Take right fork across field to cross Rocky Lane (707840, FP) and on through Padnell’s Wood.
In 200m, left (707838, YA) out of wood (KG). Across pasture, through another wood, on along field edges (KG, YA) for ½ mile. Along left edge of village green at Shepherd’s Green; on (KG) along fenced path. Entering Sam’s Wood (716832), take right fork along wood edge, then left edge of village green at Grey’s Green. Pass pavilion and bear left (720830, ‘Chiltern Way Extension’/CW) into trees, with wall, then laurel hedge on right. Through wood; down across valley (CW) and across road (723832) into Grey’s Court estate.
Follow roadway for 400m past house to entrance kiosk (727834). Half left (YA) along edge of car park; in 100m, through gate; on with iron fence on left. Through Johnnie’s Gate (named); in 40m, left through gate; across footbridge, and left (728837, YA) through trees, across pasture and driveway (729839, CW, KG) into Famous Copse (728841). Bear left (red arrow/RA) and follow RAs and white arrows on trees through wood. In a little over ½ mile, RA route turns left through gate (720839); but keep ahead downhill (blue arrow/BA). At foot of slope, right (BA) on fenced bridleway. In 300m, left (719841, YA) within edge of Tartary Wood.
In ½ mile cross stile to leave wood (711845, YA). Cross field with deep hollow on right, then cross drive into wood (711846, KG, YA). Bear left on path. In 400m, at path crossing (707847), YA points ahead; but turn right here on bridleway. In 350m pass cottage on left; in 100m, at crossroads (704851), keep ahead on tarmac driveway which curves to right through Highmoor Common Wood. In ½ mile cross B481 (702857) into Deadman’s Lane (‘Nuffield 3’, ‘Merrimoles Farm’). In 50m, with gates on right, keep ahead on bridleway along edge of trees (BAs). In ⅔ mile, left (693860) along tarmac lane up Devil’s Hill. In 500m, left at T-junction (690856) on track through Notts Wood (BAs). In ½ mile, out of wood (691850) and on along lane for 600m, descending to road at Newnhamhill Bottom (690843). Left; in 400m, at crossroads, left (693842, ‘Witheridge Hill’) to Rising Sun.
Conditions: Can be very muddy in fields and woods
Lunch: Rising Sun, Witheridge Hill (01491-640856, risingsunwitheridgehill.com) – cosy, welcoming village pub
Accommodation: Cherry Tree Inn, Stoke Row, Oxon RG9 5QA (01491-680430, thecherrytreeinn.co.uk)