In late 19th-century Oxfordshire, May Day was the “greatest day of the year” for the children, according to Flora Thompson, who lived near the county boundary, in the tiny hamlet of Juniper Hill. In her fictionalised home of Lark Rise, pupils came to school on the last day of April with “bunches, baskets, arms and pinafores full of flowers – every blossom they could find in the fields and hedges” including primroses and cowslips, plus wallflowers, oxlips and red flowering currant from the cottage gardens.
One flower that did not appear was hawthorn blossom, for “in the south Midlands, May’s own flower seldom opens before the middle of that month”.
With climate change, walkers in Oxfordshire can enjoy blossom from March onwards — though the earliest hedgerow blossom is not hawthorn, but blackthorn, which matures into dark purplish blue sloe berries, traditionally collected in autumn to make sloe gin. Recent springs have been unpredictable, and in sunny spots the hawthorn now sometimes bursts out while the blackthorn is still in flower. But don’t forget the ‘blackthorn winter’ – a traditional reminder that blossom can herald a final cold snap before summer.
Growing up on the county boundary, Flora’s hamlet was isolated in a way that’s difficult to understand today. Walkers can now trace the whole route of Oxfordshire’s 234-mile boundary, thanks to Elaine Steane, a keen rambler with an enviable knowledge of landscape, local and natural history, who in 2002 produced a book called The Seven Shires Way. As with all long-distance paths, it’s easier to walk using public transport, since you can begin and end your walk at different points.
One of my favourite sections starts (two days’ walk from Juniper Hill), at Waterperry, whose garden centre’s café is deservedly popular with walkers and cyclists. We decided to construct our own roundabout route, taking in a few historical sites along the snaking route of the county boundary and saving Waterperry’s famous cakes for later in the day, towards the end of our walk.
We caught the 280 Oxford-Aylesbury bus to Tiddington in Oxfordshire. It is now a sizeable village straddling a busy main road, so it is difficult to believe that it was once a hamlet, smaller than Flora’s Juniper Hill – in fact, too small to have its own church. On Sunday, residents had to walk to church in Aldbury, which now has only a handful of houses, having declined by the 20th century while Tiddington expanded, thanks to its roads and railway.
Crossing the main road from the bus stop and walking along Sandy Lane, where Tiddington’s original inhabitants lived, you can follow their footsteps along the Oxfordshire Way to Aldbury, whose church, rebuilt in the 19th century, is now a peaceful spot where walkers sometimes picnic.
This is the junction of the Oxfordshire Way, a 65-mile route from the Cotswolds to the Chilterns, with the Thame Valley Walk, which follows the county boundary to Shabbington, ending near Aylesbury.
We took our first historical diversion, continuing on the Oxfordshire Way to benefit from the footpath’s privileged view of Rycote Park, which to the casual walker looks like a historic house. In fact, the current house was rebuilt in the early 20th century, and the original Tudor mansion burnt down and was abandoned. It’s still a fine sight, as the newer building incorporates a listed 16th-century tower and wall and has its own private medieval chapel, with carved and painted woodwork and a minstrels’ gallery. The chapel, open Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons until September, is maintained by a charitable trust, with major stonework due to start soon, in consultation with English Heritage.
Benches outside the chapel provide another favourite picnic spot, where a huge yew tree is said to have been brought from Palestine for King Stephen’s coronation in 1135, before the present chapel was built. The footpath continues past the lake, landscaped by Capability Brown, and through woodland used for pheasant farming, which seems to encourage other birds, with a spring chorus of goldcrests, green woodpecker and cuckoo. The name Rycote may have derived from Rye cottage, as the grounds are in a natural clay bowl, damp enough for rye to grow.
We took a u-turn at the Stadhampton-Thame road, returning along a path marked ‘causeway’ on our map to rejoin the Thame Valley route, briefly following the former Wycombe-Oxford railway line, part of the 1963 Beeching closures, when Tiddington station was demolished and the track between Thame and Cowley dismantled. Another part of this line forms a popular footpath from Wheatley towards Shotover, but much of the route has been lost to development.
Crossing the main road, we followed the river Thame, and the county boundary, to Shabbington. The water meadows are separated from the river by pollarded willows and black poplars, making a spring display of pussy willow and distinctive poplar catkins. Today’s farmers seem to be contining the centuries-old tradition of removing the branches, preserving the habitats of hundreds of insects, hole-nesting birds and animals, and even wildflowers, which sometimes grow at the top of the pollard.
On the sunny day when we followed the Thame, paths which are often impassably wet or muddy until early summer were bone dry, leaving us anxious for the survival of the reeds where buntings and warblers nest. We disturbed a flock of fieldfares and spotted a couple of lapwing, but none of the usual waders such as snipe. Black poplar, while common here, are rare elsewhere, and they also depend on damp conditions. Some of these fields are managed by low intensity grazing which preserves the raised humps left by medieval ploughing and enhances their wildlife value, particularly for wetland birds.
The path follows the road into Shabbington along a raised concrete causeway across several bridges – another sign of the area’s wet history – into Buckinghamshire. The garden of the Old Fisherman was packed with drinkers but the long queue at the bar persuaded us to press on, joining the Seven Shires Way towards Ickford Bridge through ridge and furrow fields, created when peasants ploughed narrow strips. Other grassy bumps are the remains of house platforms, and Shabbington Church would have been at the centre of the village in medieval times, not on the edge, as it is now.
Ickford Bridge straddles the county boundary, with tablets saying: “1685 Here Ends the County of Oxon” and “Here Begineth the County of Bucks 1685”. We crossed into Oxfordshire, across more dry flood-meadows and then a huge arable field to reach Waterstock village, which still has an air of isolation, having always avoided being on the way to anywhere. The pump house beside the road at Waterstock House was used until mains water arrived in 1951.
The rural atmosphere has obviously been threatened by the era of SatNav, with a notice warning lorry drivers not to try to reach Waterperry along the narrow track, which is a private road, and gives right of way only to walkers, horse riders and cyclists.
On sunny days, visitors from Waterperry wander along this path to Bow Bridge over the River Thame to the 18th-century Waterstock Mill. We saw more black poplar catkins here, beside the tributary stream.
Readers of Limited Edition probably need no introduction to Waterperry, with its famous herbaceous borders and Saxon Church, nor to its tea shop. After tackling bakewell tart, we retraced our steps across Bow Bridge, then followed the lane to the main Thame road and the Waterstock Turn bus stop, just in time to catch the 280 back to Oxford.
Rycote chapel: Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons until September, 2-6pm. £3.50, £2.50 for concessions. Groups should contact email@example.com.
Thame Valley Walk leaflet: http://www.buckscc.gov.uk/assets/content/bcc/docs/row/promoted_routes/Thame_Valley_Walk_Leaflet.pdf
The short, easy 1.4-mile walk from Waterperry to Bow Bridge is described in an Oxfordshire County Council leaflet (search for Waterperry walks):
A circular walk from Shabbington is described at cwr.naturalengland.org.uk
Bus: Arriva 280, Half-hourly on weekdays, Hourly on Sundays. From Oxford Railway Station and Stop L1 in Oxford High Street, near Turl Street. www.arrivabus.co.uk.
To find your nearest bus stop, go to www.transportdirect.info and click ‘find a bus’.
OS Map: Explorer 180.