Country Diary: Shotover

We cross South Park when it is already getting dark. It’s been raining for the past two days, but tonight the view is clear and stars are beginning to pockmark the sky, presided by a lamp of a moon.

The grass is still wet, soggy, puddled; if you stand quietly enough, you can hear the water trickling downhill in a series of miniature channels over which our boots slip and sludge clumsily.

At the top of the park we sit beneath a Sycamore overlooking the city. Only a few spires remain illuminated now, shedding light on weathered rock, alone; exposed.

Soon we’re off again, walking along dimly illuminated streets, passing the dilapidated Thistle and Crown. We cross the ring-road and soon the real climb begins. The road loses its pavement and the banks become steeper and lined with tall trees. Eventually the walker is exposed to a long, open ridge.

Few students make the trek out to Shotover, and those who do make it all the way out of town usually do so by means other than their own feet. And
yet, there’s something more fulfilling about leaving one’s doorstep, crossing the blurred boundary out of town and into a silent environment, before
returning by one’s own feet.

Shotover is one of Oxford’s truly liminal spaces – open, forested, liberating,
naked – yet still clearly undetached from the biref glimpses of Botley’s gridded housing. Shotover is part of a private estate, and the subject of a peculiar Daily Mail article from 2010 entitled, “Queen’s friend calls in police after his
estate is overrun with people having outdoor sex”.

On a warm sunny day, the sloping field to the South is fi lled with young children playing ball, and families barbecuing or sitting on rugs. On one such unique day, when sun, breeze and even weekend accomplished a stunning afternoon, I was offered chicken wings and a drink by a friendly Albanian couple before I set off to discover the endless minute valleys, grassy clearings and woods.

These small woods are surprising in their variety; one moment one is surrounded by tall oaks, the next by ash, birch, hazel or willow. All these trees, and the rich wildlife which surrounds them, is meticulously noted, recorded and published in leaflets by Shotover Wildlife, a small organisation run by local volunteers.

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But right now it’s not sunny: it’s nearing midnight, and we’re not so concerned with the names of the trees or the wealth of the wildlife around us. Sitting in a comfortable oak, we look down into the valley to Botley, the lights a sea of gloworms.

Places are not the same by night. They are transformed. Shapes and forms take on different sizes, colours and shades. Perspective becomes
blurred, sounds sharper. When I first began going on nightwalks, making short outings to Addison’s walk, I was often scared, on edge, even in the safe surroundings of college walls. But soon I came to endorse the dark; I enjoyed noting the differences, appreciating my newly darkened, muted surroundings as a different place entirely.

I soon became fascinated by the shape of branches against the dimmed sky; sinewy black ink rivulets upon a pastel shade.

We walk down from Shotover and cross the bypass; the lights on the street glare and confuse our eyes, and I wish I had slept there.