First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
It was a murky old afternoon, with just one window of opportunity between two solid slabs of eastward-drifting rain. We pulled on our raingear and set out north from Steeple Claydon. A black hen, escaped from her pen, ran madly away across the furrows – good solid furrows several feet wide, remnants of medieval strip farming still imprinted on the land. This is low-rolling, cattle grazing country of modest ridges topped by trees, quintessentially Middle England, an unemphatic landscape whose subtleties unfold only slowly.
The stubble lay scattered with wheat grains, millions of them. The Victorian women and children who gleaned these fields after the harvest, scouring each row with beady eyes for the precious seeds, would have gathered almost every grain. As we walked along hedges bowed with little green crab apples and blackberries, I wondered when gleaners were last seen in the Buckinghamshire fields.
Kingsbridge Farm lay ahead, an angle of red tiled roof and a dark square of barn framed between a crab apple and a hawthorn either side of a five-barred gate – a view John Constable would have loved. We followed the green-grey Padbury Brook as it wound along field margins where the leaves of burdock hung in leathery sheaves like roosting bats. Suddenly a grinding roar filled the air. Looking up, we saw a Lancaster bomber trundling majestically across the cloudy sky like a plane in a dream.
A green lane and a wonderful formal avenue, broad and tree-lined, brought us past immaculate gardens to Hillesden church, a building whose dignified beauty inspired the young George Gilbert Scott to become an architect. The pale oak of the ancient church door was bored deep with bullet holes. This quiet hamlet was the scene of a desperate confrontation in March 1644, when 2,000 Roundhead soldiers laid siege to the Royalist stronghold of Hillesden House. It ended with the owner, Sir Alexander Denton, clapped into the Tower of London (where he soon died), his lands confiscated, his family ruined and his house levelled.
Out across the fields we followed a well-found farm track towards the red roofs and slender spire of Steeple Claydon, with rainclouds thickening overhead to hurry our homeward steps.
Start: Fountain Inn, West Street, Steeple Claydon, Bucks MK18 2NT (OS ref SP 698271)
Getting there: Bus – Service 18 (buckscc.gov.uk/transport), Bicester-Buckingham.
Road – Steeple Claydon is signposted from Padbury, off A413 (Winslow-Buckingham).
Walk (6 miles, easy, OS Explorer 192): From Fountain Inn, left along West Street. On right bend by Co-op, ahead along Meadoway; on beside recreation ground (fingerpost), past school and on for ⅓ mile (stiles, yellow arrows/YA) to cross road (702275, ‘Bernwood Jubilee Way’/BJW). Follow BJW across fields. In ¾ mile cross stream (705287); bear right to enter green lane; left across Padbury Brook at King’s Bridge (704288). Right over stile (BJW); follow left bank of Padbury Brook.
In 250m, right across brook (703290, BJW); continue along its bank. In ¼ mile go under power cables; in 100m, left (703295) away from brook. Don’t go right across ditch; keep ahead with hedge on right for 400m to junction of paths near lone tree standing apart from hedge (699296). Angle back left across field, then along green lane. In 700m, leave trees (701290); in another 200m, right across stile (702289, YA). Follow hedge on right; in 100m, right over stile along broad grassy avenue west for 1 mile. At end, pass Hillesden House gardens, then church (686288).
Just beyond church, left (‘Cross Bucks Way’); follow road, then farm track to Church-hill Farm. At first barn bear left (686283, waymark arrow); follow track for ⅓ mile to T-junction; right here (690282). In ⅓ mile, at T-junction with 3 gateways (693279), right along hedge, following YAs to cross Padbury Brook at Claydon Plank by 2 footbridges (694274). Ahead for 100m past pumping house; left through hedge; 2 kissing gates, then path to road (697272). Right to Fountain PH.
Refreshments: Fountain PH, Steeple Claydon (01296-730286) – friendly local; no food, but you can eat own picnic there. Also Phoenix Inn, Queen Catherine Road, Steeple Claydon (01296-738919).
Accommodation: Villiers Hotel, 3 Castle Street, Buckingham MK18 1BS (01280-822444; oxfordshire-hotels.co.uk) – smart, welcoming town centre hotel.