One of the most rewarding for all-year round interest lies at Aston Rowant. This pleasant reserve, managed by Natural England, straddles the M40, about seven miles northeast of Watlington. It isn’t just humans who keep Aston Rowant in good order: around 300 speckle-faced Beulah sheep, a small herd of feral goats and sometimes cattle from neighbouring farms are enlisted to ensure that the chalk grassland and juniper scrub stays under control.
Plenty of birds such as finches, wheatears, whitethroats, blackcaps and green woodpeckers enjoy the reserve; in winter, the visitors are more likely to be fieldfare and redwing. Chalkhill blue and silver-spotted, dingy and grizzled skipper butterflies are a feature of the summer, along with orchids (pyramidal, greater butterfly, frog, bee and fragrant varieties). Various fungi appear in the autumn.
The most distinctive feature of Aston Rowant is the Talking Trail, a mile-long circular route which passes six sculptures by various artists. Each sculpture has a ‘listening post’ which you wind up by hand. Each listening post has six channels from which to choose, including commentary from the artists and short stories, poems and songs read or sung by local schoolchildren and community groups about the reserve and its inhabitants. The sculptures make visual reference to bats, hares and the hazel dormouse. The Flying Machine sculpture by Nick Garnett, brilliantly positioned on the hillside to suggest imminent flight, pays tribute to the Chilterns’ beloved red kites.
There are two car parks, at Beacon Hill and at Cowleaze Wood car park. For keen walkers, the reserve is within about half a mile of the Ridgeway.
While you’re here: try two other local reserves run by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust; Chinnor Hill (OX39 4BJ or 4BB, one mile east of Chinnor) and Oakley Hill (OX39 4RR, one mile south of the town), whose early autumn highlights include the bright purple beauty of the Chiltern gentian.
Neil Matthews is the co-author, with his wife Helen, of Slow Travel: The Chilterns and the Thames Valley, a new guidebook available to buy online (bradtguides.com) or in local bookshops.