‘Don’t sit down too long my duck, you might be doing nothing,’ reads the inscription memorialising Barbara Joan Austin (4 July 1929–21 September 2004). I have no idea who Barbara was, but I often sit on her lonely bench in the middle of Otmoor.
Otmoor is an ancient watery landscape just a few miles north-east of Oxford. I am always surprised how few people know of it, although many will have travelled there in the pages of fiction. Lewis Carroll’s chess-board landscape in Through the Looking–Glass is said to have been inspired by it and it features in the work of John Buchan, R.D. Blackmore and Susan Hill. A strong and uncanny genius loci presides, like many places layered with contentious history.
The Romans put a road right through it, perhaps inspiring the government’s plans to shaft it with the M40 in the 1980s. ‘Alice’s field’ was subsequently purchased by campaigners who in turn sold it off in thousands of plots to frustrate the process of compulsory purchase. Their defiance echoes earlier 19th-century riots, occasioned by enclosing common grazing land.
Today the moor is owned by the RSPB. At least, in large part. A red flag flying above the MoD firing range indicates when it might be sensible to avoid certain footpaths. Et in Arcadia ego. The birds don’t seem to mind. At this time of year starlings throw their shapes and golden plover and lapwings scintillate in the winter sun. I never see the really rare birds (or more likely do not recognise them), and I have never heard the bitterns.
But I have seen the silent beauty of short-eared owls and the galvanising bolt of kingfishers. I’ve not spotted any otters in the network of drainage channels but once I saw dozens of hares backed into the margin of a field by floods. There are several birds of prey. Kestrels, as one might expect, but hobbies and marsh harriers too. Otmoor is encircled by seven villages whose church towers can confuse as much as aid navigation as perspectives shift. One is Beckley, where Evelyn Waugh drank to his third-class degree in the Abingdon Arms. It is now an excellent community pub — that rallying spirit again.
Another is Oddington, in whose graveyard lie the remains of Margaret Staples Browne, a Maori princess previously known as Papakura. A pietà inside the church commemorates Maori servicemen who fell in the first world war.
Nearby, on the Oxfordshire Way is the remote and austerely beautiful Beckley Park, an ancient estate that was once used for hunting and is now improbably associated with a foundation devoted to psychedelic research. Aldous Huxley set his first book, a satirical novel called Crome Yellow, there.
I sometimes drag my daughter from her screen to Otmoor. If I let her ride her bike she doesn’t protest too much, and the other day she wheeled on quietly ahead spotting kingfishers that have evaded me for months. My father is a twitcher and when visiting from the States he tries to teach me the difference between waders, shovellers and whatnot. But usually, I am just there on my own, doing nothing much.
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