The Old Road And The New

Drive out of London on the M40 and after 20 miles of sweeping through the Chiltern Hills, just past the Stokenchurch junction, there is a moment of drama. A great gash in the hills creates a view huge view out onto the flatlands of the Oxfordshire plain. Before you know it you’ve plunged down through the cut (often referred to as the Stokenchurch Gap) and you’re out of the Chilterns, expelled into rolling farmland. 

The Stokenchurch gap and the flatlands beyond. In the centre of the image, 1/3 of the way up the hill, is the ancient track cut into the slope

I’ve always loved that moment of revelation and transformation, but not just for the view. It is clear as you shoot down the hill – even travelling at speed – that you are slicing through an ancient landscape. Off to the right is a curving ramp, a ledge etched into the side of the hill – an ancient track. It is here that the motorway crosses the Icknield Way – the most ancient path in Britain, as it runs along the bottom of the Chiltern escarpment. 

Where the M40 cuts the Icknield Way

After many years of fleeting glimpses of this multilayered landscape, I finally decided to take a closer look. So with a full moon rising, close to midsummer’s day, I went out to the edge of the Chilterns. On the map I noticed an intriguing footpath to the south of the Stokenchurch Gap; it ended right on the motorway cutting, whilst immediately on the other side a lane appeared to pick up the same route. I guessed that this path followed the course of an old road, before the motorway made its gash in the hills. So I began by following the footpath up from the south, towards the motorway. Off to the left, the scarp slope dipped down to the plain, and the motorway vanished in the distance as the sun set.

The view from the footpath north of Cowleaze Wood and just south of the Stokenchurch Gap, the M40 snaking into the distance

My hunch was right. Instead of a footpath underfoot, there was tarmac. Heavily overgrown, with once coppiced hazel running riot, elderflower wandering above my head, beech bushes crowding in, and nettles taller than me, but the remains of a road nonetheless. 

The old road on the way to the M40 cutting and the Stokenchurch Gap
Another photo of the old road, showing the remains of the tarmac surface

Pushing on through the tunnel of green, the roar of traffic getting more noticeable, I came to a gate. Beyond, the trees were gone, the tarmac ran out, and meadow grasses curved downwards, out of sight, towards the rushing traffic. I clambered over the gate and walked to the edge of the cutting. As the light faded, the traffic formed an almost unbroken dual ribbon of light, weaving deeper into England. Off to the right the ramp of that ancient path that I’d spotted from the motorway was clearly visible, curling up the ridge leading to Beacon Hill.

The meadow on the edge of the motorway cutting was dense with grasses and wildflowers, and a couple of deer bounded off into the distance. Despite the ever present roar of the traffic, it is a haven of a kind.

The wild meadow above the motorway cutting

I wandered down the bank to the left of the motorway and found another gate. This one opened out onto another ramp, coming up from the west. Another ancient path, surely; also sliced off by the motorway. 
It was dark by the time I left, but the moon was up and I decided to visit the other side of the cutting, where the road began again. Here there was a car park next to the end of the lane, and after leaving my car I pushed through the trees and went out onto the motorway cutting again. Moonshadows lay across the land, soft and diffuse, in brilliant contrast to the diamond rods of light lancing out of the hills and into the distance. 

The M40 from just north of the Stokenchurch Gap
Close up of the night traffic. Didcot power station is visible in the distance (now demolished)

The new road stirs contradictory emotions in me. There was a long and passionate campaign against the M40 cutting at Stokenchurch, with arguments that the motorway should be in a tunnel to protect the landscape. Eventually the fight was lost and the bulldozers moved in. A brutal incision it may be, but the cut through the chalk escarpment is also in its way, quite thrilling. I have travelled it often enough to appreciate what it represents; escape, adventure, homecoming. In contrast, the gentle imprints of the old roads, pushed down into the ground like fingerprints in putty, have a magnetic, melancholy quality. I was determined to find out more about the lane that no longer exists – the road that died when the motorway came in the early 1970’s.

The Stokenchurch Gap today: note the path heading NNE from just above Cowleaze Wood to the edge of the motorway cutting, and the minor road that picks up on north side of the motorway. The present day road has been rerouted to the east and crosses the motorway further on a bridge close to Hailey Wood. 

A 19th century map tells the story. There’s the old road, marching across the top of the scarp slope above Cowleaze Wood, from south west to north east, disappearing into Aston Wood. Even better, there’s a path clearly shown marching up from the west, from Hill Farm, and joining the old road exactly where the car park is today on the north side of the cutting. That path was the one I saw at the bottom of the cutting on the south side. 

The old road travelling from SW to NE: the present road slices through where Grant’s Plantation is written. Not also the path heading up from Hill Farm that connects with the old road, pretty well in the middle of the map.

In my imagination I can see the old road arching over the motorway, a ghostly memory suspended out of time, floating above the present. I like the idea that the past, present and future are all contained within the same place. The people who walked the ancient path had no knowledge that one day a road would travel beneath their feet. Similarly today we can only dimly imagine the ghosts of the people who once travelled the old road, suspended in air above the road.

The Chiltern Gap from the Oxfordshire plains. The motorway runs through the obvious cleft in the ridge line, and the old road ran right along the top of the ridge. Draw a line from one side of the cutting to the other, and you have reconstructed the old road.

I’ve since been back many times to that secluded little spot. There is something special in the way the past and the present collide, the juxtaposition of the old road and the new, whilst so much else of the ancient landscape remains.

Down on the edge of Beacon Hill I finally walked on the ancient path – the ramp – that I’d glimpsed so often from the motorway. It felt like it had been gently extruded from the hillside, where the adjacent motorway had been stamped into the landscape from above. I marvelled at the quiet longevity of that ancient way, and longed to connect with the people who built it and travelled it in the days when we all traveled at walking pace.

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