Reprising a short walk enjoyed after the denial of outdoor access was lifted following the foot and mouth disease (FMD) crisis some 20 years ago.
The Macmillan Way is a fully waymarked coast-to-coast path that runs for some 290 miles from Boston to Abbotsbury (it’s evolved!). As time always pressed, we could grab only a couple of days on the trail to gain a flavour of this walk across limestone England. Unusually, it wasn’t developed just for recreation as The Macmillan Way is an independent organisation supporting Macmillan Cancer Relief.
Since the opening of the walk, the Way has raised 100s of £1000s for Macmillan Cancer Support through sponsorship and profit on the sale of guidebooks. The problem of transport associated with linear walks was solved as ‘Friend’s Taxis’ could swing into operation at the drop of a mobile phone call.
The Way Planner provided details of the campsite at Mill Farm near Long Compton which offered the basic facilities we prefer and was neatly positioned between Epwell and Stow-on-the-Wold. Pulling onto the site, it was obvious that we needn’t have booked a pitch in advance. The site was empty and the rain clouds rolled in across the line of distant low hills.
The restrictions on access imposed through FMD had wreaked their damage on this little piece of the rural economy and we had our choice of pitches. No sooner had the tent taken shape, the gentle pitter patter of raindrops wove their magic as we sat inside nursing cups of tea. Our lift arrived early and, as we drove away, a forlorn, very wet-looking donkey brayed mournfully in derision.
ON OUR WAY
Hah! As we drove into the little village of Epwell, the rain stopped and the sun struggled to find its way through the low grey cloud. It was a pattern that became very familiar over the next two days. Epwell lies not only on the Macmillan Way but also the d’Arcy Dalton Way and doesn’t have a pub, so it was with just a little persuasion that we bid our lift farewell and set off along the way. Within minutes, we had crossed the remnants of a Roman road that ran from Alcester to to south of Banbury and headed along a field towards a radio mast. I love wild open spaces but also enjoy the juxtaposition of ancient and modern that we find in almost every corner of England.
Turning onto the green road known as Ditchedge Lane, it was obvious that FMD had left its mark in a different way. The lack of foot and hoof along here allowed hedge and grass to run riot and, at times, we wove our way gingerly through the hanging gardens of fierce brambles. This old lane forms the boundary between Oxfordshire and Warwickshire and is believed to date back to Anglo-Saxon times. Although we held a brief search for it, no ditch was evident. I didn’t want to get pedantic about names and features, so walked on instead of organising a proper search for the elusive ditch. There was a touch of paranoia here, of course, as I have been known to lose other features on the landscape when ‘navigating’, such as hills, lakes, railways, small towns and suchlike.
As we crossed a minor road, the sun finally broke free of all restraints and shone brightly in a patch of clear blue sky. We rejoined Ditchedge Lane with its new open aspects in bright sunshine and promptly opted for tea and sarnies. Sat at the field’s edge, we watched three deer move slowly across the far slope, occasionally looking around for potential dangers or, perhaps, just to check that their friends hadn’t run away and left them alone.
THROUGH THE RAIN
The rush of adrenaline meant a cracking pace was set for the next twenty minutes with the prospect of a view of far-distant Broadway Tower as the reward. As if by magic, as I scoured the skyline, great banks of rain rolled across the valley. We had scarcely retrieved and donned waterproofs when the monsoon hit once more. The ground turned into a combination of quagmire with hidden slides and we staggered onwards, blessing the inventor of lightweight trekking poles and wishing we’d brought two pairs with us.
It was heads down as we bustled forward and I was grateful for my reliable waterproof map case which held the guide book safely and allowed me to tortuously dry my glasses and read the text easily; I find a couple of silica gel bags in the case help with stopping condensation inside. Whilst the route was straightforward through Traitor’s Ford, Ascott and Whichford, there was no temptation to linger and we got sympathetic glances from locals as we walked on through the rain.
By the time we reached Whichford Wood, the torrential rain had turned to drizzle and spirits soared again. ‘Let’s just head straight to the pub and get a couple of coffees and a meal’ was the motion laid before the committee and passed unanimously by all members present. With that incentive, the pace quickened and we shot through Long Compton as though inspired.
As we reached the Red Lion, it occurred to us that as it was only 6pm, food might not be served and an hour was a long time to spin out the consumption of a couple of coffees. Quick to improvise, I proffered an alternative plan – ‘Why don’t we get a couple of beers, crisps and peanuts to keep us going until they start serving food?’ Motion passed.
An hour or so later, we left to walk the couple of miles back to Mill Farm and the hot chili and rice with a bottle of wine that had been Plan A a few hours earlier and revived now. We ate our meal, drank our wine, nibbled on cheese and biscuits and finally lay in bed to the drumming of rain on the flysheet.
ROCK AND ROLL
We woke late – to the drumming of rain on the flysheet. Looks of disbelief accompanied the groans before a flurry of activity to get the preparation of tea and the traditional bacon buns underway. As the tea cooled, our determination not to give up and scurry home grew firmer. With lunch packed and waterproofs zipped up tight, we set off back to Long Compton and whatever adventures lay ahead. Perseverance pays dividends as within half an hour, the sun broke through and shone, mostly, all day.
Up out of the valley we strode in bright sunshine without a care in the world. On the spur of the moment, we decided to take the diversion off the main Way to visit the Rollright Stones. With no idea what to expect, adding a couple of miles to the day was a bonus now rather than a penance. It turned out to be an absolute gem of a diversion. Not so much because of the stones themselves but rather because of the quintessentially eccentric nature of the ‘guardians’ of the stones. The Rollright Stones are prehistoric megalithic monuments built from large natural boulders – the King’s Men Stone Circle, the King Stone and the Whispering Knights.
Nobody really knows what all these stones are actually all about but quaintly bizarre theories abound centred on their mystical qualities. For my part, I reckon they formed the basis of ancient ale drinking games, accounting for the origin of the phrase ‘stoned out of his skull’. Hey ho! It takes all sorts and I may well have been a druid in a former life.
CHALLENGED BY FMD
However, we were back on the Way – the Macmillan Way not the way of the new age or any such other frippery. Crossing the busy A44 with care, we hit a problem. The Stones had their revenge on us as the route was closed because of FMD. Now, technically, it might well have been open but two factors intervened.
First, a section that lay ahead by Chastleton House is not a right of way but Way walkers may use it. Second, whatever the legal situation, from the signs and arrangements made for all deliveries, the farm quite obviously lived in dread of FMD and we could not, in all conscience, continue. We diverted without problem.
Owned by the National Trust, Chastleton House is a fine Stuart Manor House. Despite a tour about to start, the nearest we got was peering over a gate before rejoining the Way proper up a lovely avenue of huge trees. A pause for lunch in the shelter of trees and bushes and it was onwards with the scent of cake in Stow strong in our nostrils. We soon hit Adlestrop village with its pretty flower-filled cottage gardens and Old Rectory, visited often, apparently, by Jane Austen. Then we hit a problem.
The ‘kissing gate’ style access to the route was padlocked shut but a hand-scrawled sign on the five-barred gate that partnered it said ‘During the current crisis, access to the field beyond is no longer allowed except for members of the cricket club’, or words to that effect. Interpreting this, as ‘Strangers keep orf moi land but locals are OK’, we ignored it, clambered over and walked on. On the far side of the field, the stile had a council notice advising that the footpath was open. It was good to know that instincts were sound and that it doesn’t always pay to follow local advice.
ON TO STOW
On into Lower Oddington and some very strange stares from locals. We wondered if there had been a spate of burglaries or alien abductions in the area but nobody even said ‘Hello’ back to us, so we never found out. Another little diversion took us to St. Nicholas’s Church. The inside of the church was OK and the gargoyles outside more interesting. Anyway, it was all downhill from thereon or, rather, more uphill as Stow-on-the-Wold was visible from afar, perched on a hill.
Focal point of the northern Cotswolds it was busy, heaving with car and coach parties and doing a brisk trade in arguments over parking spaces. We settled down to tea and slabs of iced cream sponge cake to watch the free shows of frustration, waiting contentedly for our lift back to base.
In the morning, the sun shone brightly from a clear blue sky as we packed away the tent to go home. Sod’s Law, of course.