Caught by the River

High Hanborough Heat

15th August 2015


Words and pictures: Paul Dietrich

By his own admission, my mate Bushnell is something of a completist. One of his projects is to complete all 53 of rambles in volume one of Time Out’s book of Country Walks Near London.

Another is to read the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die in chronological order. He’s got as far as Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility (1811), which is not bad going by anyone’s standards.

Why people create lists has been considered by greater brains than mine. Theories differ but they all seem to be based on remembering and the need to make sense of the incomprehensible. Which makes sense. I’ve not asked Bushnell why he likes lists. I’d say it’s because he’s Bushnell and that’s what he does.

One of the three walks he’s yet to cross off is Hanborough to Charlbury in Oxfordshire and that’s where we are this hottest day of the year so far, July 1, 2015.

On the train to Hanborough, we read in the Metro it is going to be so hot people are advised against venturing outdoors between the hours of eleven and three. It is just after ten and our walk is a 13-miler, difficulty rating six out of ten.

Being no strangers to these kind of outings, we’ve come with supplies. Sandwiches from the local deli for food, four litres of water for thirst and a four-pack of cider for everything else. We chose cider, because, as everyone knows, it suffers least from being drunk warm.

As it’s his choice of walk, Bushnell is in the navigator’s chair, which will leave me free to amble.

The walk doesn’t start too promisingly. For some distance the route takes us up a winding country lane we have to keep hopping off into the grass verge to avoid oncoming traffic. But there are hundreds of wildflowers to admire, one of which I think is an orchid. I take a photo and email it to my mum, asking if she can help identify it. Sometime later, she will reply. Yes, it’s a pyramidal orchid.

The cloud cover holds off the heat until we leave the lane and enter the grounds of the Blenheim Palace Estate. A churlish sign just inside the gate warns that if people don’t respect the rules of the place it will be closed to the public. It’s the lordly equivalent of Snooty threatening to take his ball home if he has to play in goal. That it’s within someone’s gift to close such a vast place off to the public is incredible.

Through the grounds and its immense copper beech and oak, we pass above the great lake and spot what could be a baby water shrew in the long grass by the side of the path. It’s no longer than my index finger and acts as if half-blind or drunk. A buzzard wheels above. The shrew staggers out of sight and into safety. Although maybe it was never in danger, it being so hot the buzzard couldn’t be bothered to pounce.

Palace aside, the main feature of the estate is a great column around the height of The Monument in London. It was commissioned by the Duke of Marlborough to mark his victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 and around its base are inscribed thousands of words detailing his heroic exploits. It’s supposed to be visible from The Duke’s bedroom window, presumably so that if he woke in a bad mood he could draw his curtain and be reassured of his greatness, therefore approaching the day in a better frame of mind – the monumental equivalent of writing ‘Smile, you’re amazing’ on a post-it note and sticking it above your bathroom mirror.

We stroll past freshly shorn sheep and lambs taking shelter under trees. They mark our approach with a chorus of high-pitched bleating like a dozen Mick Jaggers, ‘Aaaaeeeeyeahhhh, aaaeeeeyeahhh.’ (Note: Having consulted with Bushnell, this is the closest we can get to the spelling. Think of a Mick Jagger impersonator saying ‘here’. As in, ’Ere, Keef, can you get me a price on these tinned peaches? Google Stella Street, Mick Jagger, to get the sound.) Anyway, we clap our hands and reply to the sheep — man and beast exchanging rock star impressions in a field.

We leave the sheep to their peace and before long are on the Oxfordshire Way, which runs remorselessly alongside fields without shade for hundreds of metres. Our pace slows to a rhythmic plod as the heat comes in waves and the sun beats down and back up from the chalky path.

The wildflowers are gently swaying in the hedgerows but god knows how, there’s no breeze I can feel. Sweat is stinging my eyes and blood pools under the skin of my fingers making them harder to clench.

The heat drugs the senses, making the fields melt and shift. Acres of corn glimmer green under gold chiffon, the curve of a small valley takes on the shape of a naked woman’s hips and a red kite glides too close to the sun.

Birdsong sounds like water running over rock, crows are scorch marks against the blue sky, wildflowers haze in and out of focus and I can hear the flutter of butterflies as they steam in their dozens from the hedgerows.

I’ve long since shed my shirt, given all it was doing was acting as a sponge for the sweat pouring from my back and chest, which puts me in mind of the story of how the wind bragged to the sun that he was the more powerful of the two.

Seeking to prove it, he spots a man below and says he can force the coat from his shoulders. He blows and blows but the man simply buttons his coat tighter. When it’s his turn, the sun comes out and the man, getting hot, removes his coat. This goes to show that shouting never persuaded anyone to take their clothes off.

As we get closer to a river, where we’ve decided we shall stop for a dip, a sandwich and a cider or two, a raptor glides by, another bird time has robbed me of my ability to identify. It’s not a buzzard or kite and doesn’t stop to hover so I rule out a kestrel.

I’m reminded of someone – I can’t remember who — writing how peregrines appear as the shape of a crucifix and it definitely has the shape of a cross so maybe it’s one of those. But it could equally be a harrier or hawk.

Christ. How much other stuff have I forgotten? It doesn’t bear thinking about so I drop it and catch up with Bushnell.

‘I think I’ve found the river,’ he says excitedly, just ahead of me and going through a field gate. ‘Jesus,’ he says, he says, pulling up short. ‘It’s like Woodstock down there.’

Reaching him and looking down, I see a small hollow bordered by trees and a shallow, narrow river passing underneath a wooden bridge. Sitting there are two couples.

‘Woodstock?’ I say. ‘I suppose it is a little crowded. But come on, it’ll be fine.’

Picking a sheltered spot, we each pop open a can of cider, the sound of which is as beautiful as you might imagine. It tastes so good Bushnell does that thing when you take a first glug and raise the can as if in salutation. ‘Good shout with the cider,’ he says. ‘That is fucking wonderful.’

We drink the four pack, eat the sandwiches and I go for a paddle in water that only comes up as far as my knees, crouching down and sploshing water over my shoulders and head like I’m in a pauper’s bath while Bushnell cracks on with his Austen.

As we’re getting ready to leave, a boy from one of the couples is quietly digging a fire pit. The girl he is with fishes rocks from the river and tosses them on to the bank. The boy fetches the rocks and places them around the fire pit. The girl rejoins him. Their tent is as yet unpacked on the ground. A night to remember in the making.

Paul Dietrich on Caught by the River