Monday, 17 January 2022

Natural charms of this Chiltern escarpment are priceless

Natural charms of this Chiltern escarpment are priceless

SHIRBURN HILL is located about a mile north of Christmas Common and a mile south of the M40.

It is another glorious Site of Special Scientific Interest and can be accessed on foot from the road that runs north towards Chinnor.

This particular hillside is now “open access” but this was not the case until about 20 years ago.

Shirburn Hill is only a fraction of an estate that runs to some 2,000 acres. At its heart lies a 13th century moated castle, a largely forgotten gem with a once terrific library and many other items of national and historical importance.

An audit of the castle’s books revealed the Macclesfield Psalter, which was bought for the nation at a cost of £1.7 million. This is an illustrated book of psalms dating back to the early 1300s with more than 250 pages.

Richard Parker, the 9th Earl of Macclesfield, was fiercely opposed to his hillside being opened up to the public. He thought that we’d dig up plants and ruin it. But a popular uprising all those years ago now allows us all to enjoy a small but wonderful portion of this part of the Chiltern escarpment.

There has been a public footpath running through the property for ages but today we can stray off the delineated path to explore and savour the views.

Dave Kenny and I have driven here and leave his car beside the road near Cowleaze Wood and the beautiful Aston Rowant Nature Reserve. (We’ll explore both of these another time as we hope to find the flowers of Chiltern gentian, one of our rare local beauties).

A word of caution from Dave — there is a car park here but there have been instances of theft and damage to cars, so beware.

Crossing the road, we head over a stile into a high field. Whitebeams in a small woodland to our right are advertising themselves as a welcome breeze reveals the milky underside of their leaves. Cows are munching away at the grass way off to our left.

We climb over another stile and pass through a cool glade that leads downwards through a patch of trees and there it is... the hill.

We are some 230m above sea level and gazing across a vale that describes Pyrton, Chalgrove and Stadhampton.

The last remaining structures of Didcot power station will soon pollute the view no longer and I’m happy that today we have a clear sky.

We walk down the hill along the ancient footpath and marvel at all we pass. If you stop and listen all you will hear is the incessant chirruping of grasshoppers, no sound of the motorway to the north or aeroplanes above. It’s like taking a step back in time.

Anthills stand cheek-by-jowl each covered in a shroud of wild thyme. Was this hillside ever ploughed? It does not look like it.

The range of flora is stupendous: harebell, dwarf thistle, fairy flax, wild marjoram, field scabious, eyebright, rock rose, perforate St John’s wort, wild basil, mouse-ear hawkweed, bird’s-foot trefoil, salad burnet, silverweed and much more, even a humble daisy.

Butterflies abound, marbled white, gatekeeper and common blue. The red and black diurnal cinnabar moth is feasting on nectar and its offspring, yellow and black caterpillars, are on a mission to devour as much common ragwort as possible.

We both spot a handsome tree on part of the steep incline. It is a very old, big and impressive buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). Way back in time infusions were made from its berries and used as a laxative. This is a lovely specimen but I’ll leave the berries alone!

Moving down to the valley floor, we notice the absence of red kites and buzzards and wonder why. Are the birds perhaps quartering Watlington Hill where there will be people and food?

A small finch, a linnet probably, flits from one bush to another. It is the only bird that we have seen. The views from the bottom are as fine as one could wish for and as good as those above.

We stop to rest awhile where the footpath takes a turn beside Shirburn Wood and onwards to Pyrton Hill.

Dave takes off to make a close inspection of some trees. I lean against a post by an old wayfaring tree and a raggedy spindle bush.

Inside the ancient hazel coppice behind me a greater-spotted woodpecker hammers away in search of some grubs. An old tree creaks somewhere within.

Dave returns and we make our way back up the now intimidating hill towards a well-deserved beer and lunch at the Fox and Hounds, an old favourite.

We sit outside the pub and plan our next expedition. A solitary red kite rides the breeze high above so nonchalantly that I wonder if these birds daydream on the wing.

The psalter may have cost us £1.7 million but Shirburn Hill is priceless.

Vincent Ruane

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