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Bewitched Otmoor - the Forgotten Land

Explore a desolate landscape, perhaps more reminiscent of the East Anglian fens than Oxfordshire.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Country road, tracks and paths

Landscape Remote wetland and farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 180 Oxford

Start/finish SP 563157

Dog friendliness Under control in vicinity of firing range. On lead on alternative linking paths across Otmoor

Parking Spaces near church at Charlton-on-Otmoor

Public toilets None on route

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1 Keep the church on the right and walk through the village of Charlton-on-Otmoor. Pass Blacksmiths Lane and College Court and continue on the road. Follow the lane between hedgerows and fields. Soon you reach the sign for Oddington. When the road bends right, branch off to the left by a telephone box, following the sign for Horton-cum-Studley.

2 Take the track out of the village, crossing a concrete bridge after a short walk. At the next junction, just beyond it, avoid the galvanised gates on the right, and follow the parallel bridleway, cutting between ditches and hedges. Pass a stile on the left, leading to a linking path which provides an alternative route to the wetlands of Otmoor. The tower of Charlton-on-Otmoor church can be seen at intervals along the track. Continue to the signs for Otmoor's military firing range. Keep ahead until you reach a gate on the left and several gates on the right.

3 Turn left at this point and follow the old Roman road north. The track is broad and can be wet in winter. When it curves right, branch off to the left and begin the last leg of the walk.

4 Follow the path through the trees and soon it broadens to a track cutting between fields and hedgerows. There are good views across a broad expanse of Otmoor to the south. Cross a wooden footbridge and continue on the track. Turn right by some corrugated barns and make for Charlton-on-Otmoor. The church tower is clearly visible now. Cross the New River Ray and climb the slope to the junction. Turn left by the Crown and return to the church in the centre of the village.

A stone's throw to the north of Oxford lies Otmoor, a canvas of fields and hedgerows that seems to have been bypassed by the rest of the county. A curious ghostly stillness pervades this wilderness, inspiring various writers over the years to describe it romantically as 'the forgotten land', 'bewitched Otmoor' and 'sleeping Otmoor cast under a spell of ancient magic.'

With its flat fields, ditches and dykes, it is, in places, reminiscent of East Anglia. On a cold winter's day, and even occasionally in high summer, you can sense Otmoor's sinister, sometimes unsettling, atmosphere. At times it is dark and mysterious, at times it exudes an air of calm and tranquillity. Cross Otmoor as a light mist drifts over the meadows and you'll find the image will linger long in the memory.

If time allows, journey to the village of Beckley, perched 400ft (122m) over the southern edge of Otmoor, and you'll see why Lewis Carroll was supposedly inspired by the view of this primitive 4,000-acre (1,620ha) landscape to write about the giant chessboard in Alice Through the Looking Glass. John Buchan, who lived at nearby Elsfield, described Otmoor in great detail in his novel The Blanket of the Dark.

Centuries ago, Otmoor was waterlogged during much of the year. However, by the late 1820s the moor had been drained and enclosed for agricultural use, as a result of the efforts of landowners. But this was met with fierce opposition from the local commoners, leading to serious rioting in the area. The rioters, who for so long had been allowed to graze livestock on the common land of Otmoor, moved in and destroyed new fences, hedges, gates and bridges. But it was a pointless exercise.

Police and troops were drafted in to help tackle the problem and eventually the rioters acknowledged defeat and withdrew. Nearly 50 local villagers were arrested and taken to Oxford, which happened to be staging its annual St Giles' Fair. The crowds sided with the rioters, shouting 'Otmoor for ever'.

In the 1980s the moor was at the centre of a bitter row once again, when it was under threat from a proposal to build a new motorway extension. After much opposition, the threat was lifted in order to accommodate a rare butterfly whose breeding ground is Otmoor. In fact the whole area is a paradise for birdwatchers and botanists, and there are many species of birds and plants here. Besides the various resident bird species, many more pass through on a fly-line from the Severn to the Wash.

What to look for

There is a military firing range on Otmoor. Look for written information about the range at the side of the path and follow the advice carefully. The Emperor moth, marsh fritillary butterflies and Black Hairstreak are among a number of rare insects found on Otmoor. Take a walk across the moor and you may find the landscape partially puckered with holes from the Second World War bombing practice - a far cry from the serenity of today.

While you're there

St Mary's Church at Charlton-on-Otmoor is a fine medieval building with a tall tower which is a useful landmark when walking on Otmoor. The building is Grade I listed and mentioned in the book England's 1000 Best Churches by Simon Jenkins.

Where to eat and drink

The Crown in Charlton-on-Otmoor serves meals and traditional bar food. The only pub on the walk, the Crown benefits from a popular beer garden. Many of the pubs in the nearby villages serve food, including the Nut Tree Inn at Murcott, the Abingdon Arms at Beckley and the Red Lion at Islip.

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