Gliding effortlessly, their wings outstretched and steering with their forked tails, red kites are a magnificent and now common sight in the Chiltern Hills. Persecuted from everywhere but the remotest parts of Wales by mid-Victorian times, their reintroduction has been a remarkable success story.
Meanwhile buzzards, once rare in the Chilterns, have also prospered, so it is virtually impossible to visit or walk in the area without seeing raptors wheeling in the sky.
Kites were reintroduced using Spanish birds in 1989 in a remarkably successful project run by the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council. The introduced birds first bred here in 1991. Now there are at least 300 breeding pairs and many chicks have been exported to repopulate other suitable areas of England and Scotland.
Before starting the walk, visit Watlington to assemble your picnic. About three miles from the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve via the B4009, it is a historic market town with streets of fine timber-framed and Georgian houses focusing on a 17th-century town hall. Near this, in High Street, is The Granary Delicatessen, which has a well deserved reputation for cheese (it stocks more than 150 varieties) and produces excellent sandwiches, rolls and ciabattas.
The walk starts in Cowleaze Woods, which has a large car park where ice-cream vans often park. There’s also a more sheltered picnic site if bad weather puts Beacon Hill out of the picture. Formerly noted for its now removed Sculpture Trail, Cowleaze Woods offer an attractive mixed wood with beeches, oaks, coppiced hazels and conifers, the latter being slowly felled to return the woods to a tree mix more appropriate for the Chilterns.
Most of this walk is within the Aston Rowant reserve, which runs for about 2km along the Chiltern scarp but is bisected by the M40 as it cuts majestically through and descends into the Oxfordshire vales. The landscape is mainly chalk grassland with areas of scrub and wood, and this is grazed by Beulah sheep, while feral goats
and Dartmoor ponies have also been introduced.
In summer, you may be lucky enough to see a silver-spotted skipper butterfly, and should see other butterflies such as chalkhill blues and marbled whites, as well as numerous orchids.
Picnicking on Beacon Hill, you will see many kites riding the thermals seeking carrion and small mammals including rabbits, mice and voles, and birds. The route then drops into a valley in the Wormsley Estate, owned by the Getty family. The late Sir Paul Getty was much involved in the reintroduction of the red kite and many were released on his estate.
HOW TO GET THERE
Access the Cowleaze Wood car park via the road to Christmas Common that leaves the A40 between J5 and J6 of the M40. There is a car park for Aston Rowant, accessed from the
same road before you reach Cowleaze Wood.
The Leathern Bottle
Lewknor OX49 5TW
A minor diversion from the route but well worth it. Friendly service, a beautiful location and excellent, locally sourced food.
The Granary Delicatessen
High Street, Watlington
Stocks more than 150 varieties of cheese.
The Lambert Arms
Aston Rowant, Watlington
Recently extended, it has a fine reputation for rooms and food.
CHINNOR and PRINCES RISBOROUGH RAILWAY
Station Approach, Station Road,
Chinnor OX39 4ER
Further east along the foot of the Chilterns is Chinnor, the terminus of this preserved railway.