Chiltern Way Day 5 - Stonor to Sonning Common
I've been a bit off colour this week, and so wasn't sure that walking on Thursday would be a possibility, but to my joy I woke feeling a bit better, and the forecast was lovely. Everything was inviting me to get out again. Because I've been walking west for a few days, the organisation involved in me getting to the start of the walk is getting more long winded. Today I drove to Sonning Common, taking a sad gulp when on the motorway I briefly saw the cloud formations as mountains. Then David took me back to the start and left me to get on with it whilst he made the 45 minute journey back to Seer Green. It won't be long before the loop of the Chiltern Way turns and I start to head east again, I'm nearly at the furthest point away from home.
Setting off into the fields, I immediately felt the relief of walking again, taking proper deep breaths. The mobile signal disappeared and the butterflies were flitting round my legs as I pulled up the first hill, giving me a view back over Stonor Park. It has been entertaining to hear from my Dad following my blog entries, letting me know about my distant relatives that have lived in the places that I've been visiting. He has done the most extraordinary genealogical work, and has traced a direct familial line back to William the Conqueror. It seems I'm from very classy stock. However, as far as I'm aware, I have no connection to Stonor Park. We can't hold that against it though.
The footpath is used by cyclists too, and there have been various examples today of methods of trying to reduce their speed, with extra gates, bollards and other obstacles. I was delighted with the more amateur speed bump that had been made out of rocks. I'm not sure that it would make much of a deterrent to a determined mountain biker, but I stepped over it with the respect it deserved.
This first section appeared to run alongside the Oxfordshire Way, and it took in lovely shaded footpaths and well walked tracks across fields. As on previous days, I was really impressed with the quality of the walk, and grateful to the many volunteers who will have put the time in to set it up and then to maintain it. One steep section had been made much easier with wooden steps, and then other parts had been newly mown. It is clearly a footpath that is appreciated and well used.
Near Nettlebed, the signage for the path changed to Chiltern Way Extension. There are various options with this trail, with additional sections being added to the original to extend it. I am taking the extension that runs further south before heading west to Goring, from which I will start to go north west towards home again. I could have cut out a large section, but what would have been the fun in that?!
The path ran past grand looking drives and mighty houses. This is a wealthy part of the world.
There were more cows in the fields in this section. I am cautious around them still, though less likely to do an extra 3 mile diversion to avoid them than I was a couple of years ago when walking the Coast to Coast. I was given more of a start by the various pheasant that would fly up out of the long grass, squawking, right in front of me. Annoyingly I only ever got pictures of the grass, never the pheasant.
The woods were particularly lovely today. There was some evidence of forest maintenance, but generally they appeared unruffled, with their mottled sunlight and the gentle birdsong filtering down from the tops.
Descending downhill towards the village of Bix, I could see the ruin of a building ahead of me. Getting closer, I could see that it was an old church. Looking it up later, I discovered that the ruin of St James' church is all that remains of the vanished village of Bix Brand. The villagers moved to the nearby village in the nineteenth century, leaving the church in disrepair, now only used by horror movie directors as an evocative filming location. No sign of that sort of activity here today.
After climbing up one of the various small hills on today's walk, I reached a farm, where I was greeted by two agricultural workers on their lunch break. On the other side of the farm buildings was a tractor attached to the most sophisticated bit of kit. Without any farming experience, except lifelong dedicated attention to 'The Archers', I couldn't tell you what its function was, but I bet it was expensive.
Because of the lack of signal, I couldn't listen to an audio book today, and mostly couldn't talk on the phone. Although the quiet was also lovely, I began to want a bit of diversion as I approached lunchtime. I remembered that I had never listened to the last episode of my favourite podcast of all time - 'Fortunately'. I was so attached to it, and so sad that Jane Garvey and Fi Glover had stopped making it, that I couldn't quite bring myself to close the chapter. Whilst I had one left on my phone, I could tell myself that it hadn't finished. But today I felt it was time. It was lovely hearing their voices again, and particularly good to hear that their guest was someone I went to school with. I enjoyed the episode, but felt I was fine to move on from it now.
After the expensive tractor, the farmland became much more complicated, with series of fields, stiles and electric fences outside Bix. There were cows in many of the fields, and although there were tracks running alongside them, they were closed off with the electric fences, so I had to venture in to smaller enclosures than I'd normally choose to with cows. Especially as one of them had a tiny calf, looking newborn with wet hair. I moved swiftly, with my head turned sideways to keep an eye on them, and crossed the stiles with more vigour than usual.
I stopped in the excellently named Famous Copse for my lunch. It was utterly peaceful in the dappled shade. I could hear the crows, the whir of pigeon's wings and I saw one woman out running. Other than that, it was just me, on a bench, with a cheese sandwich and my thermos.
My happy place.
The Chiltern Way goes right past the front door of Greys Court. I hadn't packed my National Trust card in my rucksack, so thought that sadly I'd have to pass on the chance to have a look. But as luck would have it, it was Heritage Week. I'm not sure what that means in global terms, but in my individual case it meant that I could go round the house for nothing. Passed from one family to another since first recorded in the Doomsday Book in 1086, the last owners were the Brunners, who gave the house to the National Trust in 1969. Lady Brunner died in 2003, and at that point the house was returned to the decor of the late 1960s, when it was donated. There was a brilliant contrast between the big old television in the rather stately drawing room, and the 1960s tiles in the kitchen with medieval beams. I checked in with my parents to see if I was related to any of the owners. Sadly not on this occasion, but to my relief my mum could ease my disappointment by telling me that she was friends with one of the family.
Continuing past Greys Court, the path climbed through a sheep field before entering another copse. I had to duck under a large fallen birch that was precariously supported by a much smaller tree. At the point that I was underneath it, I considered what an impact it would make, in many ways, if that was the time it chose to collapse. With a choir tour happening the next day, it would have been an annoying reason to cancel, being crushed by a large tree when I could have walked round it. When I encountered a huge fallen oak bough later, I was more circumspect and walked round. There were a lot of collapses like this today, one older one, divest of its foliage, looking like a giant insect slowly crawling away from the living tree.
The Way is very circuitous in this section, presumably having to skirt places for which landowners wouldn't grant access. So a long Romanesque section through a tunnel of trees was very satisfying. Less satisfying is that my new boots, although exactly the same as my old ones, are still not as comfortable. I am conscious of my right foot all the time, and as I write this after the event I can feel bruising on my instep. I'm tempted to go back to comfort, albeit minus waterproofing.
With my podcast finished, I thought I would listen to some music. When walking to Scotland music was so important to me, but I've not listened to any music except for work since I got back. My playlist returned me to the special songs of the summer. And it brought me almost immediately to tears. I was viscerally taken back to the rain, the sun, the moors, the space, the sweat, the fear and the joy. I miss it all so much, and I think that I have been denying that to myself. The music allowed me to get in touch with those feelings for a bit. It's helpful, I think, to acknowledge that they're there.
Towards the end of the walk I went through a large area of parkland, that I thought might have belonged to a grand house. Then as I walked further the trees were joined by large satellite dishes.
Finally the stately home that I had anticipated could be seen round the corner. Later I discovered that this area, Crowsley Park, is owned by the BBC and used as a signals-receiving station. On previous hikes, I've always bought the book of the walk, and read up about it beforehand. I have a bookshelf now filled with the guides of many of our National trails. With the Chiltern Way I just decided to set off, with no guidebook or much previous research. I was interested in whether walking 'blind' into an area made it a different experience to when I'm prepared. There is possibly more curiosity involved in the former approach, in that I'm trying to work out for myself what I'm seeing, instead of arriving with a script. And it also involves more research afterwards, which I enjoy.
Fortunately, my car was still waiting on the remote country lane where I'd parked it, and I drove the hour's journey back home. The next day involved going to Yorkshire to take one of my choirs on tour for the weekend, (indeed it is from there that I'm finishing writing this!) with all the excitement and stress that that entails, but this interlude of walking had really nourished me. I can't wait for the next one.
Distance covered - 11.7 miles
Total ascent - 1103 feet
Calories burned - 1647
Video of the day