Bronze Qualifying Expedition

Michael Peart and John Mann
1976

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Date: 18-19 August 1976
Participants: Michael Peart and John Mann

EQUIPMENT LIST
Tent
Groundsheet
2 sleeping bags
Gas stove
Water carrier
Container of frozen orange squash
Saucepan
Billy can
2 sets knife, fork, spoon, teaspoon
2 mugs
2 plates
2 bowls
2 boxes matches
Anorak
Map
List of checkpoints/times
Torch
Radio
Camera
Notebook and pen

MENU
Lunch: Dried chicken pasta
Supper: Chicken noodle soup, dried scrambled eggs.
Breakfast: Alpen, 2 bars chocolate
Extras: 20 individual packets coffee, Marvel powdered milk, glucose tablets, dried beef and vegetable stew.

Planning
The object of the expedition was "To explore the old railway line and see the Hook Norton Tunnel and viaducts". With this in mind, the first day's walking followed the railway trackbed from Rollright to just short of Milcombe. However, owing to a realisation that following the railway did not call for much in the way of navigation skills, the second day saw the route leave the railway and head north. Finally, because it was felt that this was now taking us a long way from home the route swung back through 180 degrees to terminate at Sibford!

Three route maps were produced. In those days before computers when even photocopiers were not available to us, these had to be labouriosly traced. Close examination of the maps shows that one was made by Michael and another by me, but it is very hard to tell the difference.

There were just two of us on this expedition. Present day D of E rules state a minimum of four but to my mind that is overkill for an expedition in rural Oxfordshire.

Route

Checkpoint Grid ref. Time Distance (miles)
Wednesday 18th August 1976
A34 Road Bridge 316301 08:00 0
Occupation bridge 332305 08:30 1
North end of Hook Norton Tunnel 359320 09:30 3
Hook Norton Station bridge 363336 10:00 4
Camp Site Withycombe Barn 378347 11:00 6
Thursday 19th August 1976
Camp Site Withycombe Barn 378347 08:30 6
Milcombe Road Bridge 406346 09:30 7
Start of track Lower Tadmarton 404374 10:00 9
End of track to Fulling Mill farm 412384 10:30 10
Bridleway crossing road 398406 11:30 12
End of road to Balscote Mill 389406 12:00 13
End of track Swalcliffe 382382 13:00 15

 

Expedition - Day 1

Our expedition began at the point where the A34 Chippy to Shipston road crosses the old Banbury-Cheltenham Railway. Accessing the trackbed here was not easy but once we had reached it an unobstructed route stretched away in front of us. Today, the bridge at this point has disappeared under a mound of earth, but I am assured by those who know these things that the entire structure remains underneath. The first day's walk was to be mainly along the old line. Back in the seventies, old railway lines were excellent for walking. It being only about ten years since the tracks were taken up, there had not been time for vegetation to grow. Also the chances were that British Rail still owned the route so the possibility of being accosted by angry shotgun-wielding farmers was reduced. Now, in the 21st century, the old railways are have largely been sold off to the local landowners or are choked with impassable thorn bushes.

 

After photographing a concrete milepost we set off along the line towards Great Rollright. As on the practice expedition, Michael had brought along containers of frozen orange squash for refreshment. After a short break at checkpoint 2 we reached Rollright Halt. The site of Rollright Siding was now in use as a scrapyard so a deviation away from the line was needed. As we neared Hook Norton we entered the deep cutting leading to Hook Norton Tunnel. Torches had to come out for this. The tunnel is on a curve so for a short while we were out of sight of both ends.

Seen from inside the tunnel, Michael takes a swig from the orange squash container.

 

The tunnel entrance with our rucksacks outside. This spot is much more dank and overgrown these days.

Photos: John Mann

The expedition was made well into the period of the "Great Drought" of 1976 so it was a surprise to us when we emerged from the North portal of the tunnel to come across some green vegetation and running water. This was checkpoint 3 and we took a ten minute break. The next few miles were interesting as we passed the pillars of the two Hook Norton Viaducts. At each, we had to descend to ground level as the railway decking had been removed. The descent was steep. The orange squash containers were the first to go down, and then I made the descent followed finally by Michael.

Michael makes the difficult descent from the high embankment at the viaduct.

Photos: John Mann

Past the second viaduct was the site of Hook Norton Station but this was well known to be Strictly Private so we made no attempt to enter the site. Instead we detoured round it, following the course of a standard gauge line which once dipped down under the viaduct to collect iron ore from a tipping dock on the narrow gauge system. Despite the fact that this line was taken up in 1901 - 75 years previously - its course was easily followed and amazingly the position of each sleeper was still visible.

Once we reached the road (checkpoint 4) and a rather difficult climb back up onto the railway embankment we discovered further private signs on the section of railway passing the old Brymbo ironworks so this section also had to be bypassed by walking along the Milcombe Road. We rejoined the railway at an occupation bridge. Eventually we left the railway and headed uphill to Wigginton Heath Farm, our campsite. On our arrival there was no sign of Mr Cherry, the farmer, and we had to wait in the farmyard for what seemed ages before we met anyone.

We were told to camp in the large field below the farm. The dehydrated ground was very hard and we had to use stones to get the tent pegs in. We cooked up our lunch of chicken pasta mix. There was little to do for the rest of the afternoon so we sat in the tent. I spent the time listening to BRMB radio where someone from the Birmingham Water Board was advising listeners to put bricks in their toilet cisterns.

The evening meal was chicken noodle soup and a horrendous substance called "Whitworths Scrambled Egg Mix" which I imagine was similar to wartime dried egg. I was very keen on backpacking techniques at this time so all food had to be dehydrated!

Expedition - Day 2.

After a good night's sleep we got up to a surprisingly cold morning. After breakfasting on Alpen (with reconstituted milk) and chocolate we struck camp and made our way back to the railway line. There was only a short distance to go to Milcombe Bridge but the route plan had allowed an hour for this section so we stopped for a break here. This was to cause us timekeeping problems. It seems that the time for this checkpoint had been written down incorrectly since it allowed a full hour to walk the one mile from checkpoints 1 to 2 but only 30 minutes to do the 2 miles from 2 to 3.

We now left the railway line and immediately faced a problem as there was no sign of the bridleway on the ground and we had not brought a compass. In front of us was a large field but we had no idea where we should be aiming. In the end, realising that allowing for a few wiggles the bridleway ran due north, we used the technique for finding south using a wristwatch and the sun. It would seem that this technique did not prove effective as the hike report refers to us going "over the hill to Tadmarton" whereas the bridleway skirts the hills and manages to stay fairly level. The likelihood is that we were a little too far east and went over Fern Hill. In those days, of course, we used 1:50000 maps. Today navigation is easy using 1:25000 maps which show field boundaries.

Not only were we unsure of our route but we had neglected to fill our water bottles before setting off. After the cold start the heat of August 1976 was making itself felt and we were relieved to come across an apple tree in the corner of a field. Crab apples are common but this was an eating apple tree. August may seem early for edible fruit but perhaps the drought conditions had made the tree fruit early. Whatever the reason the apples were welcome.

From the top of Fern Hill, although we were off the public bridleway, we could see Madmarston Hill Fort and Swalcliffe Church which gave us confidence we were heading the right way. At Tadmarton fields were being ploughed and after passing Fulling Mill Farm we walked up the farm track, a permissive path today but probably not in 1976. We had a rest at a haystack beside the road. Then a footpath over a hill into North Newington.

A short on-road stretch was next before we turned off left onto the bridleway past Claydonhill Covert. This is a well-defined track which would have taken us all the way to the road at Wroxton Mill. Strangely, we seem to have left the track and wandered across a field. Approaching Wroxton Mill, we found that "there were some houses in the way" (the possibility that WE were wrong does not seem to have been considered!) and it was necessary to negotiate a bog and a fence to get out onto the road. It would seem we were a little south of our correct course but why we had left the track I don't know.

Maps and footpath signs were not so good in those days. The next section is described in the hike report as "We walked beside a stream to Balscote Mill". This implies we were not following the bridleway which is a field's width away from the stream. At Balscote we were certainly not following the public path. The bridleway turns through ninety degree here and heads north, with no rights of way to Shutford at all. Faced with this problem at the planning stage we simply opted for some blatant trespassing and decided to head across pathless fields and up the drive of Balscote Mill. However we were not apprehended for trespassing and gained the public road along which we walked to Shutford.

We were both quite thirsty by now but had no chance of getting anything to drink. The hike report doesn't mention it, but we were also falling behind time having been delayed by our navigational difficulties and the problems at Wroxton Mill. Nevertheless we were on the final section now heading up past Madmarston Hill Fort. Passing a stream we splashed water on ourselves to cool us down. Walking through ploughed fields it was notable that due to the effects of the drought there was nothing green to be seen anywhere. We finally made it to Swalcliffe and had managed to recoup some time so that we were back on schedule for the finish.