|The Millennium Way|
A man outstanding in his field …..
Starting a day’s walking by taking an immediate wrong turn never bodes well but the directions told me to walk along Frog Lane at Upper Boddington, so that’s what I did. I had to walk downhill through the little cluster of cottages that ran along the main road to do so and then I discovered that Frog Lane is the sort of road that forms a crescent. It was the other end of the lane that I should have chosen which of course meant an immediate back-track uphill and ten minutes of my life I’ll never get back. As I turned away from the main road a group of Lycra-clad cyclists appeared, arrowing down through the village at impressive speed and, heedless of the danger of other traffic, riding two or three abreast. Their leader, a florid-faced and heavily built chap was having a conversation with the man behind him and he had an unusually loud and sonorous voice. His discourse was barked out like a sergeant major and could be heard long after they had disappeared from view around a bend. I think after five miles or so of that amplified droning I might have felt the need to kick him into a hedgerow, and I was thankful that I wasn’t a member of that party. I left the village behind via a kissing gate which led to a narrow footpath, shrouded by tangled hedgerows. I had underestimated the effects of the heavy rain we had enjoyed since my last outing and was soon slithering and sliding along in ankle deep mud (this was a gaiter day if ever there was one but of course I had left mine at home). Once the path had led out into more open ground I paused briefly to take my first video of the day; mindful of my commitment to deliver a more upbeat presentation I talked about the mud and possibility of rain without the usual scowling and bitching but it was an effort Dear Reader, it was an effort.
Looking back towards Upper Boddington
“Are you alright?” she asked me, with a trace of concern on her face. I replied that I was indeed alright and she moved on leaving me to reflect that, like the farmyard dog on the previous walk, the unexpected sight of a man standing alone and immobile in a field seems to provoke a degree of wariness. The wariness may have increased moments later as I tailed her across the first large field, passed her on the second and seemed to draw the Beagles along with me as I forged ahead on the third. I felt a little relieved when we parted ways at a stile.
I made my way around a large field of young plants, tender-green and lush after the recent rain. Despite my years of walking along the rural byways of Britain I still remain ignorant of the things that farmers grow in their fields. Rapeseed is easy enough to identify because its yellow and makes me sneeze but anything else is just a generic crop. Wheat? Barley? Rice? It’s all as one to me – it’s just ‘stuff’. After leaving this large field of Stuff I marched across another field of tall, slender Stuff (which I’m guessing was barley) and reached a gate where, since I was now completely alone, I decided to capture a ‘walking towards the camera’ shot for the video of the day’s journey. I carefully attached the camera to the metal gate, lining it up with the track across the field and was just about to set off up the field for twenty yards, intending to wheel around and walk purposefully back to the gate, pretending that the camera wasn’t there at all, when the creak of an unseen gate beyond a hedgerow broke the silence: Somebody was heading my way. If I got a wary reaction when people happened upon me standing immobile in a field then how about when they discovered me filming myself marching across one? I quickly snatched the camera off the gate just as a jogger bounced around the corner of the hedge. He was a tanned man of middle years, lean tall and sinewy and dressed in a small pair of blue shorts, running shoes, and a sheen of sweat. He carried a limp t-shirt in one hand. “Warmer than I thought” he confided in me as he swept through the gate and loped off across the field. I had to wait patiently for him to disappear from view before carefully setting up the camera again, but my concentration was gone and the resulting footage has me striding manfully towards the camera completely obscured by a clump of cow parsley which takes centre stage and steals the scene.
Landmarks and diversions ...
I had noticed, away to the east, a tall tower of some sort, sited on the summit of a distant hill. It was an unusual object and it drew my attention every time it appeared to me through a break in the trees or beyond an open field. At first I guessed it was some sort of communication tower but it was unlike the usual slender radio masts you see scattered across the country. This was a far more substantial structure and appeared to be made from concrete rather than steel. I estimated it to be around 400ft tall and perhaps 20 or thirty feet in diameter at its crown. Only later, when I could Google from the comfort of my own armchair, did I learn that I had seen the The tower (previously called The Express Lift Tower and known locally as the 'Northampton Lighthouse') is a lift testing tower built by the Express Lift Company and is sited off the Weedon Road in Northampton. It was commissioned in 1978 and was officially opened by the Queen Elizabeth in 1982. I was right about it being a substantial structure as its vital statistics are 418 feet tall, 50ft in diameter at the base and 30ft diameter at the top. It has the distinction of being the only lift testing tower in Britain and only one of two in Europe. Although a relatively new building its already been granted Grade II listed building status - making it the youngest listed building in the UK. It fell out of use in 1997 for a while and was closed but was re-invented as a testing facility in 1999 and now it also provides a great platform for those lunatics who like to dangle themselves off the edge of high things and abseil down them. I managed to impress myself by estimating the height of thing: Seeing it from a distance of several miles I had estimated around 400ft and it was in fact 418ft tall. Not a bad guess! What with the imposing tower to the east and the gently rolling landscape unfolding to the west I enjoyed a passage of time where I ambled along with plenty to distract me, enjoying the scenery and letting my thoughts trip along randomly. If only I had channelled these musings a little more sensibly I would have noticed that the village of Priors Hardwick was off-route long before I descended from high pastures to stand amidst its dwellings with a set of directions that no longer made any sense. It took a bit of head scratching and map reading to see where I had gone wrong; identifying the point where I had parted company with the Millennium Way as it turned eastwards, towards the tower, rather than running down into the village. However it was easy enough to regain the route and I had simply replaced a mile or so of fields with a mile or so of quiet country lanes. I set off through Priors Hardwick towards a crossroads that would take me back on track and admired a succession of fine properties, each one surpassing its neighbour until they ended at the Old Rectory, a building of mansion like proportions set back behind a sweeping drive and iron gates. It had been worth taking this minor detour into Priors Hardwick just to enjoy its impressive real estate and the aura of prosperity and wealth that the village exuded.
Presently I reached the crossroads, turning left for perhaps half a mile until I picked up the way-marker for the Millennium Way at a stile crossing a large meadow. I had started off across this grassy expanse when a familiar booming voice caused me to turn about to see that the cyclists I had met in Upper Boddington were now hurtling along the lane I had just walked along. The leader was still treating his fellow cyclists to a monologue delivered at volume eleven with the occasional ‘right I see’ or ‘oh yes?’ thrown back from his fellow travellers. As they sped by, disappearing out of sight again, I was put in mind of a flock of migrating geese, honking senselessly but moving with great purpose.
I talked to the camera whilst crossing the next big field, commenting on the humidity of the day despite there being a fresh breeze and noting the fact that I had not met any cows during the morning. It was inevitable therefore that at the very next gate I was greeted by a large herd of the beasts, many of them shepherding youngsters. It was a very big field, the largest I had to cross all day, and the herd were two thirds of the way across it, distant but already alerted to my presence. Cautiously I climbed the gate and worked out the best way to cross the field without spooking the cows. Unfortunately this soon became academic as within twenty paces they took off in fright and, predictably, huddled in the very corner of the field where my exit stile lay. I slowly walked towards them hoping they would decide to break for another corner but they stayed put and began to toss their heads and paw the ground in meaningful gestures. I saw no option but to retreat as I didn’t want to end up placing myself at unnecessary risk or indeed upsetting the cows, who after all had more right to be there than I did. I was within 30 yards of them by now and I had a lot of field behind me to backtrack along so I raised my arms and walked backwards slowly, only turning away when I was at a safe distance to outrun them if required. Back at the entrance gate I considered my options. The map appeared to show a track running down an adjacent field that led to a farm drive and then a road where a left turn would see me re-join the route beyond the cow pasture. I opted for this route and soon discovered that there wasn’t a track of any sort along the field I took, just waist high grass with roots that snatched craftily at my ankles, and when I reached the farm I discovered that there was no stile leading to a drive, just a low stone wall and a metal gate that let onto the farmhouse garden and yard. Feeling a little exposed and aware that I was trespassing I had little choice but to climb the gate, drop into the yard, and make my way across the farm and out onto its drive, thankfully without anyone noticing me. If I had hoped to find the road around the next bend I was to be disappointed as instead I found myself crossing the property of a shooting school, which wasn’t marked on the map at all but at least explained the repeated loud bangs emanating from a field beyond. I walked past some low huts searching for the exit but I had been spotted and a helpful young chap in tweeds, a shotgun broken across a forearm, kindly pointed the way to the public footpath gained through a gap in the hedge. Feeling slightly harried I thanked him and disappeared through the hedge and back into the large field with the red cows I had worked so hard at avoiding. At least I had entered the field from a different point and the cows had meandered away from the exit stile and were now standing on the skyline watching me with bovine suspicion. I hurried across the bottom edge of the field, and the next two such pastures, with one eye on the cows, negotiating a section of hilly broken ground that gave me a sharp stitch in the side. I was forced to stop mid-field until the pain went away, a sitting duck for students of the shooting school with a poor aim or worse still, overzealous cows.
Bridleways and Barges ...
With quiet relief I finally escaped the endless dung-strewn pastures and made my way into the hamlet of Priors Marston, a tiny collection of cottages and a crossroads with a granite war memorial, honouring the men of the village who had left to fight a war overseas and had never returned. There was a bench near to the war memorial and I rested for a while, savouring the peace of Priors Marston and commenting on camera about the birdsong that seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the place. My stomach began to growl but it was still too early for lunch so I shouldered my rucksack, stretched stiffened leg muscles and exited the village through a gap between more modern houses and a cul-de-sac of lock-up garages. From the rear of one of the properties some sort of altercation was going on, spoiling the impression of tranquillity that the place had previously given me. Raised voices carried to me, at first indistinct, but becoming clearer as I passed by the back gardens to cross a horse paddock.
“I’m not scum!” a man’s voice proclaimed defiantly, leaving me to wonder what the argument had been about as I left Priors Marston behind me.
Just a short hop across some fields saw me emerge onto a bridleway running through an avenue of stately birch and cow parsley. To my mind, bridleways are the equivalent of motorways when taking a rural walk: They are direct, uncluttered, and take you from point A to point B with none of the frustrations found on lesser footpaths such as broken stiles, illegal barriers and unpredictable levels of navigability. It was, therefore, with pleasant anticipation that I set off along the broad track - but the optimism wasn’t to last very long. The trouble with bridleways is that horses use them, horses with big iron-shod hooves that clomp along, churning the ground over and allowing the rain to soak in. The soft ground beneath me turned at first porridgy and then full-on muddy and I made little headway, being forced to edge along the margins of the track using my walking pole as both support and depth-tester. I made a short video of this section, the scale of the mud, and the effect it was having on my boots and clothing and perhaps over-egged my assurances that I wasn’t ‘having a moan’.
Halfway along this boggy excuse for a path I was rewarded with a scene of unexpected tranquillity. Just beyond the line of birches there lay a still pond, lined with rushes. It had an air of remoteness about it, as if I were the first person to have set eyes on it in months, perhaps years. To emphasise the serenity of the scene a pair of swans posed gracefully on the far bank, contented in their silent green world.
By the time I got to the end of the bridleway my cream trousers were muddied almost to knee height and I looked as if I had been wading through slurry just for fun. Before me a series of grassy meadows tumbled gently downhill and the low dome of Napton Hill rose in the middle distance, the houses of its village scattered untidily across its flanks.
The meadows ended at a metal gate that let me onto a straight piece of road running between fields full of black horned cattle reminiscent of the Spanish Fighting Bull bred for the corrida de toros. I was no matador so I was happy that a substantial hedge separated us.
The road allowed me a closer look at the village of The village has been around for quite a while – its name is derived from the Old English cnaepp, meaning hilltop,
A boggy bridleway after Priors Marston
Other than Napton Hill there was little else of interest along the road apart from a tiny barn conversion, not much larger than a static caravan, where a woman of mature years pottered about in her garden, flanked on all sides by the green expanse of the cow pastures. The tiny building bore the numbers 1891 on one side, built into the brickwork, dating the building if not its tenant. There was also a ramshackle farm towards the end of the road, an untidy place of collapsed roofs and outbuildings overstuffed with carelessly stacked junk. Its forecourt was more like a scrapyard, hosting a larger than usual collection of rusting farm machinery which looked as if it hadn’t moved in years. Once again I was struck with the casual disregard farmers seem to have for their equipment; there must have been a small fortune invested in the rusting hulks sitting in that yard - surely it had some sort of scrap value?
The road ended at the hamlet of Chapel Green, a place I was in and out of in less time than it took to say it, and from there it was a traverse across a hummocky sheep pasture to gain the first canal of the walk. I could make out the line of the canal ahead of me as a number of canal barges were moored up and I could hear the occupants nattering to each other. The canal tow-path ran parallel to the meadow but at a greater height so that the barges appeared to sit on the crest of the field which made the whole scene a little surreal, an effect enhanced by the twisted remains of an electricity pylon I walked past, which put me in mind of a downed Martian tripod from Well's War Of The Worlds.
By the time I had gained the canal tow-path it was most definitely lunch time and I sat by an old brick bridge to take my break, following my brothers example of baring my feet to allow some fresh air to revive them, not pleasant for passers-by but thoroughly recommended for the footsore hiker. I was surprised at how wet my socks had become, a result of the mud and dew I had walked through all morning. My boots were usually reliable but I now suspected that after several hundred miles they were beginning to let in water: It would soon be time to replace them. Luckily I had spare dry socks with me which along with the fresh air rejuvenated my tired feet for the second half of the walk.
On the Oxford ...
The second half of the walk hadn’t progressed very far before I came across the a solid Georgian building set back from the canal behind an expanse of lawn. Despite my earlier misgivings about wandering into a pub covered in dried mud the lure of a pint of cider became too strong to ignore. As it happened it wasn’t my muddy trousers that drew the attention of the folk in the small bar because as I walked in I cracked my head on the door’s low lintel and swore in pain and surprise - that certainly got me noticed. With the top of my head gently throbbing I took my cold drink outside to sit near to the canal and enjoy the barges that drifted by. I was moved to tweet about the strident lady on a barge moored close to the pub, who popped up from its depths occasionally to yell loudly at a small child which, to my mind, didn’t appear to be doing anything wrong at all. As I commented in the tweet – there’s always one. I had observed earlier that I didn’t have a clue which canal I was actually on, and only when I got home could I do my research.
The Oxford Canal
I regained the tow-path and continued on my way, passing canal barges whose names gave some clues as to their origins and purpose:
Country Wines (a floating wine merchants)
So Wye Not?
And painted in crude whitewash on one shabby hull, the rather wistful ‘One Day’
I took a video of the barges, with the So Wye Not? puttering towards me - its passengers were a senior couple and a young lad that I took to be their grandson. They looked a little self-conscious as I pointed the camera at them but they smiled awkwardly at me and so I waved back. The awkwardness continued as I set off along the tow-path to discover that my walking speed was now keeping pace with their cruising speed. For quite a long stretch of the canal I strode along just a yard away from them, privy to their conversation and trying to look as if I wasn’t listening. I even stopped for a minute to let them get ahead of me but at the very next bend they were forced to slow down and I sidled up alongside them to invade their personal space again. I thought about striking up a conversation but they didn’t give the impression that they were up for a chat and it was probably a quiet relief to all concerned that I finally left the canal at yet another pub.
A canal by any other name ...
The Napton Bridge Inn was closed, probably no bad thing as I may have been tempted inside for a second pint of cider, and so I crossed a busy road to set off alongside hedgerows, on a straight route through sheep pastures and then fields of Stuff towards a distant farm. The sun, a reticent presence up to that point, suddenly broke cover and the air became stifling and humid. By the time I had reached the outbuildings of the farm I had stripped off my T-shirt and had left my lightweight fleece unzipped to let air circulate, a method I had devised on Day 1 of the walk which I decided could be safely deployed out of sight of the general public. I looked back along the series of fields I had just crossed and due to the flatness of the terrain I could make out the tiny white dot of the Napton Bridge Inn in the distance, marking the point where I had parted company with the Oxford Canal.
Soon I found myself in a village as seemingly deserted as the others I had visited on the day, with its solid old church and single pub staring at each other across the small village green. It wasn’t a very large village and I paid it the briefest of visits.
Just beyond Stockton the Millennium Way channelled me down a tiny track that ran alongside woodland and the rear boundaries of a couple of large properties. Once again I was making my way over some rather muddy ground, with every other footstep sliding away from me. I came across a man with a lawnmower under the eaves of a small spinney. He was mowing the ground underneath the young trees although as far as I could make out it was devoid of grass, or in fact any kind of vegetation. I was too busy trying not to fall on my backside to ponder on this over-much. Finally I broke free of the trees and the muddy track and, with a fresh coating of muck applied to my trousers I found myself on the tow-path of a canal again. Though I wasn’t aware at the time, this was a different canal entirely. It was the – the usurper of the Oxford Canal's crown and its ultimate nemesis. The canal links London to Birmingham and is 137 miles in length, flinging out spurs to Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton along the way. It's profile has been chopped and changed over the centuries and its current form only came into being in 1929 after an amalgamation of lesser canals. Despite the huge competition from the railways (a battle that all canals eventually lost) the Grand Union managed to turn a profit right through the 1930's before slipping into a decline after the war. Like many other canals across the country it has enjoyed a rebirth and boom in popularity thanks largely to the sheer hard work and determination shown by volunteers and canal enthusiasts. I dropped onto the tow-path opposite the Blue Lias Inn, a strange name for a pub, and a cue for another Google session when I got home. Wikipedia informs me that Blue Lias is a particular type of rock formation. is used for both building and for aggregate production and England has a deposit that starts in Dorset and runs diagonally north eastwards all the way to the Yorkshire coast. A deep seam of the stuff runs through the Midlands and a lot of the nation's cement is made locally as a result. It has provided a source of wealth for the area that has outlasted both agriculture and canal transportation and continues to bolster the economy to this very day.
It was a very short trip along the canal this time, but long enough to walk past a trendy canal-side inn where people in clean clothes sat outside with cold beers and cast critical eyes over my soiled condition as I ambled by.
Finally I turned away from the canal and crossed one last grassy meadow before reaching the main street of and the end of my days walk. By today’s standards Long Itchington was a large settlement - over 2,000 inhabitants - but even here there was a deserted feel to the streets. The village is named after the River Itchen which flows to the south and west of the village and it is a village of mainly contemporary housing although it does have its more ancient relics, including the half-timbered "Tudor House" on the main road, a handsome property that I walked past as I came into the village. As for any claims to fame, well there are a few – Queen Elizabeth I is said to have stayed a couple of times and an 11th century Bishop of Worcester, is said to have been born here. I emerged onto the high street next to the church and was presented with a straight left or right choice to find my car. I’d actually passed along this very street earlier in the morning, trying to find a suitable place to park for the day. I recognised the buildings presented to me but couldn’t relate them to where, exactly, I’d ended up parking which was a bit irritating because I was by now tired and looking forward to a nice sit down. I elected to turn left and it was a good ten minutes before I conceded that I had made the wrong choice. Wearily I turned about and walked back to the church. My car, of course, was barely ten yards to the right of it.
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