Cotswold Ways Walk: Chipping Norton to the Rollright Stones
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Put a spring in your step with this walk from delightful Chipping Norton to the megalithic marvels of the Rollright Stones
Appearances can be deceiving. On the surface, Chipping Norton, aka ‘Chippy’ to locals, may appear like the quintessence of Cotswold gentility, a market town in the north of the region whose very name means ‘market north town’, as though it didn’t want to make a fuss. It would be easy to think the liveliest it gets is on Market Days (Wednesday) or during one of its medieval Mop Fairs. Yet behind the pretty, respectable façade there are lurid tales of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Well, sort of...
Keith Moon, the late drummer from The Who, did own the Crown and Cushion on the High Street; and the old school used to be the home of a famous recording studio where the likes of Marianne Faithfull, Jerry Rafferty, and Radiohead cut classic tracks. Fairport Convention’s Simon Nicol is associated with the town too – adding to its impressive music credentials. If that’s not rock’n’roll enough for you, then only 2.5 miles away, as the crow flies, are the mysterious Rollright Stones – 3 distinctive scheduled ancient monuments (I’m not talking about the residents now) comprising a 4000 year old stone circle (The King’s Men), a 5000 year old burial chamber (The Whispering Knights) and a standing stone (The King’s Stone). Mottled and twisted into strange shapes by the ravages of time and the British weather, the stones stand eerily on a windy ridge straddling the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire Border. In 1859 it was recorded that folk from Wales took chippings from the stones to ‘keep the Devil off’. A man was offered a pound for a fragment at Faringdon Fair. The beleagured King Stone was fenced off between the two World Wars as conscripted troops would chip a slice of stone away to carry with them. Legend has it that this gave them protection in battle. Is this where that saying originated, ‘a chip off the old block’?
There is something about the Rollrights that make certainty seem to vanish into the Cotswold mist. It is apparently impossible to count the King’s Men accurately. Try it. A baker once thought to he had nailed it – by baking a bun to place on each stone, but the Good Folk snuck up behind him as he laid them out and scoffed the lot. If those storytellers are to be believed the Rollrights weren’t the result of resourceful Neolithic people with a grain surplus and a desire to honour the Gods and ancestors, but a witch who turned an invading King and his men into stones. The story goes the proud King reached the ridge of the Cotswolds when he bumped into the crone, who prophesised that, if he could take seven steps and behold Long Compton, he would become King of the land. Alas, after six he turned into a standing stone, his men were turned into the stone circle, and some conspiring knights, lurking in the corner of the field, became the Whispering Knights. The crone herself was turned into a tree for her efforts.
As siting legends go, the Rollright Stones are Number One in the ‘Top of the Rocks’. So, that’s the rock’n’roll...As for the drugs – a local vicar, the Reverend Edward Stone, discovered the active ingredient of Aspirin (from willow bark) while living in the town from 1745-1768. A blue plaque commemorates this important discovery. And as for the sex … well, presumably even that still happens in Chippy – possibly on a Wednesday or once a year during Mop Fairs. The presence of the so-called ‘Chipping Norton Set’ in the area (comprising the former prime minister, David Cameron, and sundry celebrities) has no doubt livened things up a bit, with their society weddings and soirees. Regardless of the wild rumours of the media, the town is a pleasant place to visit with a tempting range of shops, café’s and hostelries – and the Stone Age just up the road.
1. Leave New St car park, turning left. On the corner of New Street notice the blue plaque, commemorating the famous Chipping Norton Recording Studios, where many great hit singles and classic albums were recorded.
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2. Cross road and continue along New St (A44) a short distance. Keep an eye out for an old-fashioned sign: ‘To Church and Almshouses.’ Go through archway along Distons Lane, lined by pretty houses.
3. Head towards the handsome church (St Marys).
4. Take footpath on right side of church, passing the Church Hall.
5. There is an option here, before you leave the churchyard, to explore the beautiful wool church and grounds (from which it is possible to see the old earthworks of the castle) before making your way to the top corner, heading north.
6. Go through the three metal bollards and, ignoring Church Lane on your right, follow footpath sign to Over Norton, along lane towards wood.
7. At wood, take footpath along edge of wood, heading generally NNE.
8. The path eventually runs by the side of the B4026. Head towards Over Norton.
9. From Over Norton, head North-West. Head up Choice Hill Road. As the name suggests, there is a bit of a climb – and it’s your choice!
10. Choice Hill Road is joined by another lane on your right, but turn left and keep heading NW.
11. Just after you cross the Rollright Brook, take the footpath on the right, heading across the fields in a northerly direction.
12. Eventually the path joins a lane. Shortly, you reach a footpath running left (heading SW). Follow this, then the right-hand path, to arrive at The Whispering Knights ancient burial chamber. Spend a while savouring this remarkable monument and the peaceful view.
13. Follow footpath around edge of field to main stone circle – The King’s Men. See if you can count them as you walk around it! Stand in the centre and soak up the vibes of the leylines, which apparently converge here. Can you feel the earth move?
14. Cross the road carefully to the King’s Stone, fenced off from souvenir hunters.
15. Note the site of Bronze Age barrows on the ridge (marked by rough circles of stones). Enjoy views over the Cotswolds, the village of Salford below.
16. After crossing the road to the King’s Stone, retrace your steps via the Whispering Knights.
17. Make your way, via Over Norton, back to Chippy...
18. Find somewhere cosy to have a lunch or high tea!
Distance: 6.78ml/10.92km walk.
Duration: 2.5 hrs.
Level: Moderate (muddy paths, hill).
Parking: New Street long stay car park (free).
Toilets: New Street car park and by town hall.
Refreshments: Chipping Norton has several fine pubs, cafés and restaurants serving food. Jaffé and Neale, the bookshop café is a particularly pleasant to while away an hour or two!
Transport Links: Regular bus services from Banbury and Oxford.
Map: OS Explorer map: 191: Banbury, Bicester & Chipping Norton
Dr Kevan Manwaring is a writer and creative writing lecturer who lives in Stroud. He is the author of several books exploring his love of folklore, legends and the landscape: The Windsmith Elegy series of novels; Oxfordshire Folk Tales; Ballad Tales; The Bardic Handbook; Silver Branch, and others. He is a keen walker and blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic. @bardicacademic