56: Bald Hill, Oxfordshire (historic)

The view off the lower reaches of Bald Hill, to the north-west.

Date: 17th July 2022. Two years to the day since I bagged CTs 14 and 15 (St Helens and Wigan) on Billinge Hill, so 41 more in those two years is not bad going.

Weather conditions: A warm and pleasant summer’s day. Yes, I did need to take it easy, particularly with a full pack (i.e. laptop, several days’ underwear); wear sunscreen; and keep up the liquid intake, but it was not the fiery apocalypse of heat about which the UK media are currently desperate to terrify us. See the commentary.

County Top bagged: Bald Hill, which is the historic County Top of Oxfordshire (though not the modern one, for reasons explained in the next paragraph). The highest point is unmarked on the ground, but the OS record a spot height of 843 feet/257m at SU728957. There is a trig a few hundred yards to the south-west of this point but that is lower, at 255m.

Bald Hill, from the Ridgeway.

Oxfordshire is one of three counties — the other two being Durham and West Lothian — where the historic Top remains within the borders but lost its status after a higher point was introduced, via new territory added to the county. In Oxfordshire’s case this happened in 1974 with its incorporation of the district of the Vale of the White Horse, until then in Berkshire. Its summit of Whitehorse Hill is 4m higher than Bald Hill so is now the modern Top.

This is my fourth Chilterns Top, after Pavis Wood, Haddington Hill and Dunstable Downs; there is one more still to bag if one is generous and includes the Top of Luton (Butterfield Green Road) in this group. By altitude, Bald Hill ranks 70th of the 91 historic Tops, and 113th of the full list.

[ << The Berwyn, Montgomeryshire/Denbighshire/Wrexham (53-55) | (57) Stock Hill, City of York >> ]

Sign for the Ridgeway, along which the last couple of miles of the walk takes place.

Start and end point of walk: Started in the village of Stokenchurch, which is just off junction 5 of the M40, reached via a number 40 service from High Wycombe bus station. Finished in Watlington, from where I caught a number 11 bus to Oxford.

At a leisurely pace, befitting the warm conditions and the amount of luggage I was carrying, the walk took me 3¼ hours.

Pub at end: There is no reason at all to walk past The Spire and Spoke on the road into Watlington. It is a hospitable place with good beer, a very nice garden, and, if the visual evidence is anything to go by, excellent home-made pizzas. It’s about five minutes’ walk from the bus stop for Oxford.

The ‘White Mark’. You too can have a church spire for just a minor outlay.

The pub’s name comes in part from the ‘Watlington White Mark’ which is clearly visible from the beer garden (as pictured here). Apparently this was created in 1764 by local squire Edward Horne, who felt aggrieved that the view of the nearby church of St Leonard from his mansion lacked a certain majesty. Rather than shelling out enough to build what the church lacked, namely a spire for the building (which all could have enjoyed), he instead came up with the idea of cutting this mark into the hillside in the background, to give the church the appearance of a spire, but only when seen from his place. These days he’d probably be a Tory minister.

Distance walked: 7.25 miles/11.6km approx.

Total ascent: 770 feet/235m approx. At around 740 feet/225m above sea level, Stokenchurch is almost as elevated as the summit, but in its first half the walk frequently loses height that must be made up again.

Difficulty: ★★. This is all straightforward walking on good paths. It was bone dry on the day I did it, but while it would inevitably get muddier at times, this looks as if it would only be occasional. There are a couple of steep bits, but nothing worse than that.

Covered reservoir on top of the nearby hill of The Knapp.

Ease of access: ★★★. Even on a Sunday this was fairly easy to do by public transport though I did have to hang around a while in Watlington at the end, waiting for a bus. Neither terminus is on a railway line: the nearest station to the starting point is Saunderton, and while that can be reached on direct trains from London Marylebone, walking from there would add at least five miles and quite a bit of climbing to the walk. Easier just to do what I did and change from train to bus in High Wycombe.

Scenic qualities: ★★★. The views off the escarpment weren’t as extensive as I hoped, though a change of route around the summit might have helped (see below). But the mixture of woodland and open country, and a general ‘golden fields in the summertime’ vibe, make me feel favourably inclined, so it can have three stars.

Farming and flowers. A colourful walk today.

The area: Oxford is one of Britain’s most famous cities, thanks largely to its university, the second-oldest in the world. Having visited both, though, I have to declare for its rival, Cambridge, in the urban beauty stakes: Oxford does have some damn fine buildings but as a city it also houses vast swathes of industry which don’t necessarily sit well with the academic sectors.

As for the broader shire, we could use the capital — Shire — as there is much about the countryside which Oxford Don J. R. R. Tolkein appropriated for the pastoral Hobbit idyll in his novels. Thatched cottages are frequent sights. But what the man would make of Oxfordshire’s gradual disappearance under 21st century ‘prestige’ and ‘executive’ housing developments, I know not.

Map: There is ample signposting on this walk but nevertheless, navigation is not intuitive and with landmarks lacking, I found myself frequently consulting both the paper map and GPS. Packing OS Explorer 171: Chiltern Hills West is therefore a good move. On this summary map the walk proceeds from right-to-left (east to west).

Route: This was a good walk, suitable for all weathers, but it’s a shame it doesn’t really have a proper summit nor the views that it might. The map makes it clear that there are possible variations to my route, including some that might offer at least a few more chances for a decent panorama off the escarpment, after the Top. My route at least has the advantage of minimising road walking, and most of the paths are good and clear.

The King’s Hotel: not looking its best.

Get off the bus in Stokenchurch outside the King’s Hotel, which isn’t going to be hosting weekend wedding receptions any time soon — the top floor was destroyed in a fire that broke out in October 2021. Head down Coopers Court Road, towards the M40 (just follow the traffic noise), and pass through the underpass, then bear right, then left, following the ‘Chiltern Way’ sign.

This path is clear as it undulates through a patch of woodland (where I saw the gentleman mentioned in the commentary), then comes to a junction where you should leave the Chiltern Way behind, by bearing right. Initially I managed to miss the path that I sought, the one that heads just to the south of Lower Studridge Farm and comes out onto the Ibstone Road, but I recovered my route OK although the path I took to do so was rather overgrown.

Lower Vicars Farm, with the back end of Bald Hill behind.

Anyway, once on the Ibstone Road, turn right for a short way then left down a signposted bridleway. This drops quite steeply down into a valley, where there are a number of posh-looking residences, and the humble hiker is directed quite firmly up another signposted footpath that rises again through the trees.

After about another ⅔ mile, at a crossroads, turn left down a path that drops again (told you this was an undulating walk) and then leads you through a field above Lower Vicars’ Farm (pictured above). Keep to the left of this desirable real estate and, once you climb out onto the road, bear left then immediately right, through a highly inconspicuous but crucial gate. The path beyond takes you up the steepest, but also final, climb of the day, across hayfields and into the woods of the Wormsley Estate beyond. This estate, owned by the Getty family, was instrumental in supporting the reintroduction of the red kite into this part of the Chilterns, and I saw several of these impressive birds on my walk — see the picture at the bottom of this page.

The non-bald summit of Bald Hill.

‘Bald’ Hill is in fact totally misnamed, as the summit area is cloaked in a dense thicket of mature trees. To reach the highest point one must bear right off the main track, not at the first junction encountered in the woods, but the second. This path crosses an obvious firebreak, and according to the map, the spot height of 843 feet/257m is a few yards further on. I guess that there is a sense at which a very gentle summit has been reached here; the path begins to slope slightly downhill again past a certain point.

This track comes out at a bench, which I wish I’d used for lunch, as the picnic area promised by the OS map further on failed to materialise. It was for this reason that I took the path through the car park of Cowleaze Woods, that runs parallel to the road, but with hindsight, crossing over the tarmac here and heading immediately into the Aston Rowan nature reserve looks as if it would have given me a better view off the escarpment to the north-west. Never mind.

The Ridgeway.

Instead, once I came out onto the road again, I crossed over and descended via a clear track that comes out into open fields beside the ‘Old Cricket Ground Plantation’ (it’s probably been a while since stumps were drawn here) and then arrives at the clear chalk track of the Ridgeway.

This long-distance path was used by me two and a half years ago, on Haddington Hill, and is one of the oldest highways in Europe, having been regularly used for at least 5,000 years. Turn left on attaining it, and then further routefinding advice is unnecessary until one comes out at the tarmac of Hill Road, south-east of Watlington. Turn right on reaching this road and, though the final stretch of pavement outstays its welcome by a few minutes, the compensation of the Spire and Spoke pub will soon be attained.

The Naked Rambler of Stokenchurch (rear view).

Naked Rambler Commentary: The most distinctive sight seen on this walk came less than a quarter of an hour into it, when just after leaving Stokenchurch, I passed a sixty-ish year-old guy walking along the track bollock naked, at least if we allow for his pack and boots. This was certainly a new one on me. But respect to him, I must say. He looked rather grumpy, actually — though going on the standard of his equipment (y’know) he had no cause to be.

At least there was no danger today of his or anyone else’s junk shrinking in the chill. This was certainly one of my warmer walks, though I would say still not as hot as my saunter over Langdon Hills two years ago. You wouldn’t believe this through reading the UK media, however. The next two days, 18th/19th July, are forecast to see very high temperatures, something of the order of the upper 30sºC, which is very unusual for Britain. I’m quite prepared to take this as it comes. I’ve experienced temperatures like that before, in Alabama for a start, where I visited in July ten years ago and nearly expired trying to walk from railway station to motel in mid-afternoon.

The tunnel under the M40.

However, in Alabama, and other places that expect to have the occasional 100ºF day in the average summer, they have the infrastructure for it. Like air conditioning, say. As we don’t really need this in rainy old England — not real air-con anyway, the sort of American system that can give one frostbite simply by going inside — the general prediction is that the next couple of days are going to be pretty uncomfortable. I get this; after all, this is the point of weather forecasts, isn’t it?

But the general tenor of the news reports at the moment is sheer hysteria. Nothing excuses the ‘Fiery apocalypse of doom’ narrative being incessantly pushed through the media, nor the craven throwing up of hands by all public transport companies across the nation, who have already demanded We Must Not Travel, even if, like me, we booked in our tickets a while ago, because, y’know, we might actually have some work to do, like in Oxford this coming week. Seeing a sign on a garden gate today, announcing that an ‘open garden’ had been cancelled because of today’s ‘amber’ weather warning, was just risible. What are you saying, ‘you can’t come and visit my place today because it’s quite a nice day’? You must be kidding.

Red kite, out making life hard for the mice.

Moving on. There were certainly distinctive outbreaks of wildlife today. Naked men, and red kites — the first time I saw one of these fine birds (the one pictured here), I thought, blimey, what a photographic coup; then there were four or five more, at least, before I even reached the summit. Fine work on behalf of the local landowners for getting them re-established, and a sign that wildlife management doesn’t always need to look like it did on Mount Battock. Yes, I enjoyed my latest visit to the Chilterns; when I get my next CT, who knows right now, but rest assured it will be right up on here when it happens. Fiery weather apocalypse or not.


5 thoughts on “56: Bald Hill, Oxfordshire (historic)

  1. Nice post. I went to Oxford University but have never done any walking in the area – somewhat ridiculously.

    I guess heat apocalypse makes a change from viral apocalypse…

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