|The Millennium Way|
By Mark Walford
Route: Middleton Cheney to Upper Boddington
Date: Sunday May 4th 2014
Distance: 12m (19.3km)
Elevation: 341ft (104m) to 584ft (178m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 604ft (184m) and 571ft (174m)
An introduction ....
The Millennium Way (the Midlands version, not to be confused with the other Millennium Ways of Bradford and the Isle of Man) is a 100-mile walk that wends its way through the gently rolling countryside of the south Midlands. The walk, created to celebrate the Millennium by members of the extends from Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire in the east to Pershore, Worcestershire in the west and describes an arc with the village of Meriden at its northern apex. For me this will complete the last of what I call the Midlands Trinity of long distance paths, the others being the and and it will mean I have walked over three hundred miles along the footpaths and bridleways of the Midlands; my own back yard so as to speak. For no scientific reason I elected to walk this route east to west and so my journey began in Northamptonshire, in the village of Middleton Cheney....
Middleton Cheney …..
I started my walk before the impressive church of All Saints in on a sunny Sunday morning in May, listening to the bells ringing out for Sunday Service and admiring the cluster of old cottages gathered around the church grounds. Middleton Cheney, from where I stood, presented itself as a quaint little settlement but it is in fact one of the largest villages in Northamptonshire, with a population of circa. 4,000 souls. The sprawl of the more modern aspects of Middleton Cheney – its shops and housing estates, schools and social clubs - was an unseen presence, screened from view by the pleasant confines of the old church square; mellow stone walls hiding the present from me and pointing me very much towards the past.
Despite its rather sleepy appearance there used to be a lively music festival hosted here in days gone by. The Middleton Music Festival, held in July, served as a platform for unsigned bands to strut their stuff on-stage as well as raising local funds. For a while it was highly successful but for reasons unknown it has faded away and no longer exists. This is a shame as I had harboured thoughts of starting my walk to coincide with this festival so that I could enjoy the likes of bands such as Bear in the Air, The Screamin' Abdabs and Spank The Monkey, but it was not to be.
Villages tend not to produce persons of great note but in this case they do have a local hero here – a Vice-Admiral (posthumously Admiral) who was in command of the British naval forces that took on the Bismarck during the Battle of Denmark Strait. Although a sound naval tactician and capable commander his ship, HMS Hood, took a direct hit during the battle and exploded, breaking in half. One of the few survivors of the sinking confirmed that Holland was last seen still sitting in his admiral's chair, making no attempt to escape from the sinking wreck.
I wandered about the church grounds taking some video which I would later weave together as a pastiche of the place, listening to the morning service in full flow and slightly regretting the fact that I wouldn’t be able to get into the church to photograph the stained glass windows designed by (he of the Arts and Crafts movement).
Eventually it was time to move on and so I wound my way through the old tombstones of the churchyard (where 46 parliamentary soldiers are buried, slain in a local Civil War skirmish) and out through the rambling street of the village. I soon left the roads and picked up a footpath that led me along the rear of properties, ancient and dilapidated greenhouses offering me an interesting if unsightly aspect. Soon I broke out into open fields and left Middleton Cheney behind, following well-trodden paths around fields where the villagers walked their dogs and stood in small groups here and there, passing local gossip in the bright morning sunshine. Moments later I had left them behind as well and I enjoyed a solitude that was rarely interrupted for the rest of the days walking.
As I ambled along I started to experience a familiar itching of the eyes and I began to sniff through a nose that had suddenly become tender. Pollen allergy is something I always forget about during the long interval where I am free of it, so when it returns to pester me it’s always a bit of a surprise. It was now springtime and the fields were ablaze with the vibrant canary yellow of Rapeseed, which for me, signalled the advent of hay fever season. Of course I hadn’t taken any anti-allergens because that would have been too sensible, and so I progressed across large fields of Rape, sniffing and sneezing in a regular rhythm, keeping time with my footsteps. is funny stuff, it has a certain smell that at first seems pleasant but then reveals a slightly yeasty, almost feral undertone and I can’t decide whether I like or not. It did however make for pretty scenery for my video camera.
Eventually I escaped the field and started to make my way upwards across a meadow, following a clear path that climbed perhaps two hundred feet. It was definitely a hill, though nothing like the monsters that my brother was about to tackle on his Postcode West walk, or indeed anything like I had ‘enjoyed’ on or the but it was a hill nonetheless and I arrived at its summit breathing harder than I would have liked, a testament to my usual lack of preparation for such long distance hikes. However I was rewarded by a lovely sweeping view back across the fields I had just traversed, with the spire of All Saints church at Middleton Cheney already a distant and receding landmark.
After the hill I reached a farm whose concrete drive offered either a left or right turn to reach a road. I was poring over my guidebook, trying to decide which was correct when I became aware that I was being watched. I looked up from my book to find that a large black Labrador was staring at me with deep suspicion, no doubt trying to work out the nature of this strange figure that had suddenly appeared on his territory and was standing statue-like in front of him. I must have startled him when I moved because he set about barking and growling and, although his tail was wagging, I decided a softly-softly approach was in order so I kept still and made friendly noises. Seconds later, the farmer appeared from a shed, with another brace of hounds and soon I had three very vocal dogs in front of me. The farmer grinned and assured me that they were all totally friendly and then engaged me in light conversation. He seemed genuinely impressed that I intended to walk all the way to Upper Boddington that day. He offered the temptation of a pub just two fields further on, a pub that opened at ten in the morning and stayed open all day, which was indeed a delightful idea but wouldn’t have helped my progress much. He winked, nudged me in the ribs and walked away.
“That’s where I’m goin’ as soon as I’ve stacked this lot!” he promised me as he disappeared back into the shed along with his pack of hounds.
Cattles and battles ... ….
Alone once more I picked up a bridleway that led me between more fields of Rape which I left half a mile later to follow a hedge past a long and gently steaming pile of manure, realising too late that I had taken a wrong turn thereby treating myself to a second helping of its unique aroma on the return journey. The only benefit I got from this minor detour was to see the unmistakably long ears of a pop out of the hedgerow ahead of me, twitching in curiosity before disappearing back into the brambles. The bridleway led me down to a metal gate bearing a hand-written sign that advised caution as cows and calves were present in the field. I checked out the large uneven meadow on the other side of the gate and sure enough there was a herd of brown cows huddled together some way off to the left, chaperoning a group of tiny wobbly-legged calves. This was okay in itself but the land owner, just to make life awkward, had erected an electric fence around the perimeter of the field, right up to its hedgerows and set at exactly the right height to deliver a shock to the sensitive regions if one tried to straddle it. Trying to crawl under it for anyone above the height of five feet would also have been a bit of a challenge: Basically I was stuck. Throwing vexed looks at the distant farmhouse I used a gap that let me into a field running parallel to the cow meadow, hoping to regain the Millennium Way at the other end. It was a good idea but was thwarted by the fact that the boundary shared by the two fields hosted not just a thick hedgerow but also two sets of barbed wire fencing, one on either side of the hedge. It looked as if the fields were owned by two different farms that didn’t necessarily get along as neighbours. The field I was now in, a couple of acres of long rank grass, led me down to the far corner where instead of a convenient gate back into the cow meadow I found a drainage pond partially hidden by thick undergrowth and plastic drums. Muttering darkly I forced my way through the shrubbery and squelchy evil-smelling ground underfoot only to find that the double barbed wire fence still blocked my way. I was forced to retreat back up along the hedge until I discovered a hidden metal gate, overgrown with bramble and over which I carefully clambered to drop back into the cow meadow and therefore back on route. It had been a pointless and frustrating exercise for which I totally blamed the landowners and I vented my irritation about them to the video camera before setting off again. Luckily the sunshine and the greenery about me and the ever present twittering of birdsong restored my former good humour … for a while at least.
A disused railway track cut across my path somewhere near Lower Thorpe, running in from the direction of Banbury to the east and arrowing westwards to an unknown terminus. This section of it had been converted into racing gallops and I crossed it half anticipating the sight of a thoroughbred thundering by, but of course it didn’t happen. What did happen shortly afterwards was the appearance of a wide and extremely rocky track running along the Millennium Way route.
Lunch and lost …. …
I reached a stone bridge spanning a road junction and stopped to get my bearings as a pair of horses hung their heads over a fence and regarded me with quizzical expressions. It was getting close to lunchtime and my stomach was starting to rumble but I was obliged to carry on until a suitable spot could be found. The ideal spot turned up less than a mile later as I passed some beautiful woodland on my left; young silver birches displaying vibrant green leaves glinting like emeralds in the sunshine, and the springtime symphony of a thousand birds ringing out amidst their slender boughs. I made a makeshift seat out of a couple of logs and rested for a while, adding the sound of my crisps being munched to the avian chorus overhead. During lunch I tried unsuccessfully to send a tweet of my day’s journey, the third attempt I'd made that morning, but this part of Northamptonshire appeared to be a tweet-free zone and I gave up on the techy stuff except for the use of my GPS phone app, which got me out of a state of confusion on several occasions throughout the day.
The little woodland was an utterly enchanting place and it was with great reluctance that I finally shouldered my rucksack and set off once again, only to return five minutes later to retrieve the walking pole I had left behind.
Shortly after the lunch break I picked up a path that led me past a watermill at Home Farm with its huge wooden wheel frothing the waters of the small stream that wound alongside me. I was in a shallow grassy vale which I climbed out of via a wide track leading to a stand of oak trees framed against the sky. As I reached the trees, and a crossroad of paths, a family of walkers suddenly appeared, dad, mum, and two teenagers. The mum was clutching a sheet of paper with a map printed on it. She saw me and made a beeline.
“Excuse me, are you a walker?” she asked, ignoring the obvious clues like the rucksack and the walking pole. I replied in the affirmative.
“Are you doing the Millennium Way?”
I was surprised to find some fellow walkers doing this obscure route but I confirmed that indeed I was. She brandished her map at me and declared that they were lost. Of course I offered to help but there was a problem; her map didn’t really bear any relationship to the route I was following. The Millennium Way can be completed using two different methods, a linear section-by-section progression which was the way I was completing it, or a series of circular walks that link all the way along the main route’s path. The family were on one of the circular routes which only vaguely resembled the path I was taking. I waved them generally in the direction of the woods where I had stopped for lunch and hoped that would sort them out. She wasn't in a hurry to leave and she quizzed me about the route I was taking, how long it would take, where else had I walked, whilst the husband nodded approvingly and the two children managed to look vaguely bored with it all.
At the third attempt from the crossroads I managed to get it right, following first the left-hand trail again before diving through the hedge over a stile I had completely missed the first time, and then across a large grassy meadow full of grazing sheep to exit, almost unexpectedly, onto a road leading into the village of
Chipping Warden ...
I had some history with the village as it was where I used to go to transfer my company cars in years gone by. There used to be a large inspection and handover centre on the perimeter of the village and the drive to and from the place was always a scenic little trip. As I walked along its main street and into the village proper I saw that very little had changed, which strengthened my opinion that the centre of villages like this, the old heart of such places that are protected from development and are too far away from anywhere to be important to big businesses, have become time capsules, capturing the look and feel of a pre-war England with only the addition of the occasional telephone box or satellite dish to mark the passage of time.
I was thirsty and a little leg-weary and as I neared the Griffin Inn I saw that it was open for business. Five minutes later I sat outside in the sunshine, with a pint of cold cider, enjoying the peace and quiet of the village. Five minutes after that a large procession of local men arrived on push-bikes, dusty and weary from their mornings exercise and peace and quiet was dismissed, replaced with a lot of good-natured banter and shouted orders for pints, crisps and, for some of the crowd, soft cushions.
My pint of cider downed, I set off along the village, waving my camcorder at its interesting nooks and crannies, discovering that any villagers not engaged in bicycling were attending the village fête which was in full swing within the grounds of the rectory. The two ladies manning the entrance invited me in, and I was half-tempted, but my schedule was fairly restricted and besides, in these less trusting times, people tend to take a dim view of a man wandering around a public event with a camera. Sadly, I had to decline the offer of tea and cake and a tour of the prize vegetable tent.
There is an iron age fort and the remains of a Roman villa near to the village, which is bordered on two side by the River Cherwell, so it would be quite easy to while away a day in this place, and as for scandal; well there’s this little snippet from Chipping Warden’s history ….
In May 1744 a bill was moved in the House of Lords to dissolve the marriage between Henry Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort and Frances Scudamore. Among witnesses who testified under oath before their Lordships was John Pargiter, a farmer of Chipping Warden, who stated:
"That, in the Beginning of June, 1741, he observed a Man (whom he described), and afterwards found it was Lord Talbot, to meet the Dutchess as she was walking alone in the Fields near that Place; and thereupon mentioned adulterous Familiarities which passed between them."
In other words the farmer caught them at it in a local field. Such damning evidence could neither be publicly aired nor easily denied and so the bill was passed for the Duke and Duchess to be divorced.
I left Chipping Warden behind, with a steady stream of villagers walking past me towards the fête, and found myself on a road which eventually became a narrow alley that squeezed between a high hedge and the boundary wall of some kind of workshop. Two young girls were playing in the forecourt – I assume daughters of the owner – and they spied me as I walked by, seeing me as a welcome diversion from an otherwise humdrum sort of day. I could sense them following me stealthily as I emerged from the narrow alley and into a large grassy meadow. Out of the corner of my eye I saw them stop at the field’s edge, unwilling to break cover and give themselves away. I threaded an uncertain path across the meadow, veering hither and yon and trying to work out where the exit was. The girls started yelling at me from their cover …
“You’re going the wrong way! The WRONG way!”
I snorted derisively. To paraphrase Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles how did THEY know where I was going? So I ignored them and then of course discovered that they were completely correct and I was indeed going the wrong way. With the distant cackling of the girls floating to me on the breeze I edged self-consciously around the perimeter of the meadow until I found the (clearly marked) exit that led me into a wild and tangled spinney; a pretty stand of saplings with the ground all frothy with cow parsley. The spinney gave out onto yet another vast field of Rapeseed, the pathway through it barely a foot wide so that I almost waded through the thick carpet of yellow blossoms, their strange odour filling my nose and causing more sneezing and coughing. Eyes itching, I emerged into a clearing under the boughs of a mighty oak, standing rather incongruously amidst this yellow ocean. I lost my bearings for a while before making out the low roofs of Churchlands Farm on the other side of the field.
I emerged into another meadow, grateful to be free of the cloying Rapeseed but not altogether happy to see that once more I was in the company of cows and calves. To the unsuspecting herd I must have suddenly appeared as if by magic and the majority of them took off in fright, thundering down the lumpy tussocky meadow, down into the very corner where I was meant to exit the field. I decided to take a low profile route to the stile by following the perimeter of the field, passing by a previously unseen bull that merely chewed the cud and eyed me with a species of derision. Eventually I had to break cover and start off across the meadow, heading down towards the exit. The herd, by now convinced that I was actively hunting them, took off again in a steaming lumbering group that at first (and alarmingly) headed straight for me before veering off to corral themselves in an adjoining smaller field where they stood, peering anxiously at me over the low hedge. I had felt pretty exposed at the point the herd galloped in my direction, knowing that the bull was behind me - I could have been caught in a nasty pincer movement - but to be honest these gentle creatures were simply terrified of me and the little calves, knowing no better, ran when their mothers did. Only the bull remained unperturbed by this minor drama, standing aloof at the top of the field, jaws working as he gazed implacably into the middle distance.
The Boddingtons …
It was nice to break out onto a small B-road after this incident, to feel some firm ground underfoot, and I marched along at a brisk pace as the road took me left and downwards towards a bridge over a tiny brook. I was very pleased with the days walking up to that point; I knew when I set out that it would be mostly composed of field walking and indeed a lot of the walk had crossed farmland, but it was a pleasant hike nonetheless and I never felt that it had become a repetitive plod. The views, when they were offered, were rather beautiful in an old-style English kind of way, the woods and hedgerows were busy with the colours and sounds of spring and the villages that punctuated the route were charming enough to demand a certain amount of dallying. I was also impressed with the way-marking for this route, there being more of them and better placed than the Centenary Way. A bit of a shame really that this was about to change for the next hour or so.
I left the road just before the bridge and entered a large field that had been newly planted with some sort of cereal crop. The sun had been shining brightly all day and the field had absorbed the heat and was throwing it back out like an oven on low heat. I made a video that mostly concerned itself with how tired I now felt, how my back ached, and how I was being stung by nettles, live on camera.
Reviewing the footage from the days walk left me with the conviction that I like to have a good gripe at things and I have made a promise to address this in future videos and will attempt to portray a sunnier disposition - less Victor Meldrew and more Alan Titchmarsh. This was put to the test almost immediately as I came to a dead-end in what looked like a disused railway sealed off by yet another metal gate. I may have uttered ‘I don’t believe it!” or I may not, but I had to turn about and walk back along the long field boundary. According to the guide book there should have been a path cutting diagonally across the field and I could just make out a tiny marker post across the expanse of ridged brown earth.
At least I could now clearly see the way ahead and very soon I reached the outlying buildings of the penultimate village of the days walk, which was a tiny place of limestone walls and cottage gardens full of gently nodding blooms. I soon realised however that where there’s a Lower village there’s likely to be an Upper village and to get from one to the other probably meant a climb of sorts. Sure enough the route took me quickly through the tiny streets of Lower Boddington and onto a footpath that angled upwards, gently at first but then on a more serious incline that wound through allotments, garages and finally let me out onto Hill Road that lived up to its name by carrying me still higher, until it levelled out on a straight stretch that at least rewarded my efforts by one final and far reaching view back across the Northamptonshire countryside I had spent all day crossing.
I made one last breathless video, with a certain amount of grumbling but an appreciation of that final view, before the buildings of appeared from around a bend. There was a particularly fine old house that I recalled from my brief stop to drop off my car earlier in the morning, a grand property with a crumbling Georgian aspect and a secluded front garden. The place was up for rent and I was curious to have a closer look at it, perhaps to indulge in a spot of wishful thinking. I could see the property ahead of me on the road I was walking along and was so engrossed in reaching it that I walked straight past my car, adding one final and unnecessary section to the day’s mileage. Walking to the house did at least offer me the chance to aim my camcorder at several of the villages more alluring properties, including its thatched pub, which provided a nice visual end-piece for day one of the Millennium Way.
For a full profile of the route (PDF format) click here
See Route on ......