First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A jaunt to Christmas Common with the festive season just around the corner, on the coldest and brightest morning of the year. Ice in the puddles, our breath like smoke on the still air, and a high-flying jet soundless ploughing quadruple furrows of pure white across the blue field of the sky.
From the edge of the escarpment we got one of those views that makes you want to come and live right here, right now – the steep wooded slope dropping away to run out into mile after mile of sunlit Oxfordshire plain, a wide world dressed in the pale colours of winter.
A green woodpecker emitted its sharp, quacking alarm call as it saw off two unwanted intruders, a buzzard and a red kite. The buzzard dived sulkily back into the trees, but the kite sideslipped and climbed to resume its graceful balancing on the cold air above the hills.
At the foot of the escarpment we turned along the stony track known variously as Ridgeway, or Icknield Way, or simply and accurately, the Old Road. Old man’s beard and scarlet bryony berries made witches necklaces in its hedges, fieldfares and mistle thrushes flew straight and level out of the scrubby trees, and the low sun laid stripes of green and gold across the ancient ruts and flints.
By Dame Alice Farm (named after Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk and Geoffrey Chaucer’s grand-daughter) and Dumble Dore (possibly not named after the Hogwarts headmaster) we made our way into the Chiltern woods that so thickly blanket these chalky hills. Fallen leaves of poplar and beech made a silver and gold carpet to shuffle through.
A winter silence fell over the afternoon. The chill air in the damp hollows of the woods nipped our fingers and noses. Long-tailed tits swung and squeaked from tree to tree, the only singers in these sunlit woods.
As the day began to darken into dusk we turned along Hollandridge Lane, an ancient packhorse route across the Chilterns, for a last brisk mile to Christmas Common, with thoughts of a Christmas noggin at the Fox and Hounds to spur us on.
Start: NT car park, Christmas Common, Watlington, Oxon OX49 5HS (OS ref SU710936)
Getting there: Car park is on Hill Road, 2 miles east of Watlington.
Walk: (8¼ miles, easy with some short steep climbs, OS Explorer 171): Right along Hill Road (please take care). At junction turn left; in 50m, left (‘Oxfordshire Way’/OW). In 2nd field, don’t turn left through kissing gate (712937); keep ahead downhill to turn left on OW. In ¾ mile, left along Ridgeway (703945). In 1¼ miles left off Ridgeway at Lys Farmhouse (690929) up driveway. Pass Dame Alice Farm; in another 250m, left (692922); ‘W11’ and white arrow/WA on tree) to B480 at Dumble Dore (698926).
Right; in 50m, left (stile) on field path with hedge on right. In 500m through gate (702923, WA, yellow arrow/YA); on through woods. In 500m ahead through 2 gates (705920, blue arrow/BA). In 100m fork left (‘W15, No Riding’). In 400m cross road at Greenfield (711919). Pass barn (BA) and on. Follow BA for 700m to valley bottom. Left here (713911, ‘W19’, WA). In 400m, left at path crossing onto Chiltern Way/CW (717910, BA).
In 150m fork right (bent WA) and follow WA and CW through trees. In 550m cross valley floor (722913); climb far slope (‘PS8’, CW, WA), keeping gully close on left, to leave wood by stile (725915). Forward to Hollandridge Lane (726916); left for 1 mile. At houses on left opposite Prior’s Grove, left (717929, Oxfordshire Way). In 30m fork right just inside wood (OW); follow WAs to road (714930). Right past Fox and Hounds PH; in 300m, left (714934, ‘Watlington’) along Hill Road to car park.
Lunch: Fox and Hounds, Christmas Common (01491-612599, topfoxpub.co.uk)
Accommodation: Fat Fox Inn, 13 Shirburn Street, Watlington OX49 5BU