The Swinbrook Owl
Ridden by Jon Hicks on 2013-05-02
One of my favourite times of year is May. It brings with it the first of the light evening rides that signal the start of months of extra riding opportunites. All those months of shitty weather, riding with lights and sweating indoors on Turbo Trainers in an attempt to 'not lose it' are on hold. You can wear less layers, and the best bike can be used again.
Where I live I can either go south, where its pan-flat, or go north and head towards some climbs. Doing the latter, I leave Witney on the New Yatt Road which gives me time to warm up a bit. It usually takes me while to 'get going' for some reason. New Yatt isn't much to look at, but I love the old garage you pass on the right, before arriving at the first 'nice village' of the route, Ramsden. This is where the gentle inclines start, and once past Finstock its a refreshing quick descent on the Charlbury Road down towards the railway line, passing the Cornbury Park Estate on the left.
Through Charlbury is an imaginatively named segment 'up and down', a big dip where you can build up enough speed to not only get most of the way up the ascent on the other side, but also trigger the 'Slow Down' sign.
Leaving Charlbury past the 'Trumpton' style train station, its the first proper climb, the B4437, the only category 4 on the route. When I first started cycling I would dread this part, and it would invariably give me stitch. Then as the wise words go, it doesn't get easier, you just get faster.
It doesn't get easier, you just get faster
It's worth any effort though - turning left at Cranehill Copse takes you through the beautiful Wychwood Forest. The road surface is dire, but on an evening like this, with golden light and long shadows from the trees, it really doesn't matter. This is what I dream of all Winter.
I can't ride this stretch without thinking of 'Tim Print Corner', the tight 90° turn just before Leafield (the skid marks were on the road for weeks afterwards). A story for another story, and probably one Tim should tell.
Leafield has the full trio of pretty village traits: Pubs, Church and lush village green. The Pearl is quite old school but does good Chinese food. After a nice descent over speed bumps, you take a right turn through Fordwells, and up the hill, with the Pig farm on the left, towards Swinbrook. This road takes you through another forest with pot-holey roads, but its usually quiet - you rarely have to make way for a car. On this particular evening though I was sharing the road with something else. I couldn't quite make out the shape that was just at the side of my vision next to me, After a few seconds I realised it was a Barn Owl. It was the closest I've ever been to one in the wild, it's soft feathers making absolutely no noise.
I couldn't quite make out the shape next to me, but after a few seconds I realised it was a Barn Owl.
It flew next to me for a minute or so, and then went off in search of a mouse. It was really magical, good for the soul!
The lovely village of Swinbrook comes next and a left after The Swan (great food, but service a bit quick!), followed by Asthall Leigh. Look out for Asthall Manor on the left - the Mitford Sisters used to live here and its now the location of a fantastic Sculpture exhibition. I love that a Jacobean house has modern sculpture on its gates, although I've heard them referred to as 'turds'.
The 'Asthall Short and Sharp' segment does what it says on the tin. After the Postman Pat style bridge it ranges between 10-20%, but out of the saddle its over quickly. I always find the last few metres empties my lungs though.
When you get to Minster Lovell, turning left at The Old Swan (another one! Also v. posh) and heading up through the row of picturesque cottages you get to see a grade A English village. This road, leading to Hailey, floods regularly in Winter, so it's a relief to have warm dry feet.
Hailey ('Twinned with Ambridge' says the unoffical sign by residents) is the sign that I'm almost home. The light is now fading, but there's the final segment 'New Yatt Blast', which is a -1% gradient, and if the wind is behind you, is a great fast way to finish a ride, and use up the last of my energy. The traffic calming as you enter Witney feels like a finish line.