First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A glorious blue sky and a damn cold wind greeted us as we set off from the King William IV through a crisp and crunchy winter landscape. Here in South Oxfordshire, between the western skirts of the Chiltern Hills and the broad valley of the River Thames, the long pale fields had a subtle dip and roll to them, with flint-built farms in the hollows and woods on the skyline – beautiful country to walk in. A pair of red kites rode overhead, their russet wings crooked at the elbows as they adjusted their stance in the buffeting wind. What a success story the Chiltern kites have been since their reintroduction in the early 1990s; nowadays some 300 pairs thrive and breed along the hill range a few miles north and west of London.
Strong and sweet whiffs of silage came from a clamp where the farmer was busy with his forklift, digging out the sugar-rich food for the cattle wintering in his sheds. Three horses in shaggy winter pelts put their noses over the fence at Woodhouse Farm and watched us go by. Half a mile more, and we were turning along the ancient Ridgeway track in the deep holloway of Grim’s Ditch.
Grim meant ‘mysterious’ in Anglo-Saxon; to the Norsemen who settled here, Grimr was the Devil. It was Iron Age Britons who built Grim’s Ditch in pre-Roman times, a defensive structure against … who or what? We’ll never know. What remains is a great groove in the Oxfordshire earth, ten feet deep or more. Old twisted thorn trees line its banks, blackbirds and wrens rustle the fallen leaves. On this cold morning it gave shelter, firm walking and endless food for the imagination.
At Nuffield we turned aside briefly to pay our respects to car designer and philanthropist William Morris, Lord Nuffield, who lies under a modest grave slab by Holy Trinity Church. I gave him silent thanks for those wonderful round-nosed cars, bulging with character, more like family members than vehicles.
Back in the fields once more the way led over stubble and ploughland to Homer Farm, its farmhouse of red brick and flint, its barn up on staddle stones. Then it was homeward along a classic country lane, potholed and puddled between coppiced hedges and mossy banks, looking forward to wrapping our frozen fingers round a piping hot bowl of soup in the King William IV.
Start & finish: King William IV PH, Hailey, Ipsden, Wallingford, Oxfordshire OX10 6AD (OS ref SU 642858)
Getting there: Train (www.thetrainline.com) to Goring & Streatley (4½ miles). Road: M4 (Jct 12), A340 to Pangbourne; B471 to Woodcote and A4074; minor roads to Ipsden and Hailey
Walk (6½ miles, easy grade, OS Explorer 171): From pub, right down lane; in 100 yards, right (‘Chiltern Way’/CW signs) past Poors Farm and through Wicks Wood (642870 – CW). Left along lane at Woodhouse Farm; right at Forest Row (636872); right along Ridgeway (636876) for 2 miles. At paths T-junction (666871), left to Nuffield church. Return to T-junction; ahead (footpath fingerpost); dogleg round Ridgeway Farmhouse (664865); on to Homer Farm. Keep ahead past farmhouse (663858 – footpath sign on tree) to lane. Right along lane by Bixmoor Wood for 1½ miles to Hailey.
Lunch: King William IV (excellent food, beer from barrel): 01491-681845
More info: Wallingford TIC (01491-826972); www.visitsouthoxfordshire.co.uk