Rambling along the Windrush River

We spent most of Thursday rambling around some of my favorite spots on the Windrush River. It’s a gentle stream which meanders through Burford, Widford, Swinbrook and Minster Lovell – our destinations today – then continues southeast to join the Thames near Oxford.  The four of us piled into the car for the short drive to the gorgeous little Church of St. Mary’s at Swinbook, about 2 miles east of Burford, where we began our explorations.

 Our dear friend Alan Eyles introduced us to this little gem on our very first trip to England nearly 40 years ago. It’s a small church with grandiose pretensions – or at least some of the ghosts haunting the place have grandiose pretensions. The church was begun in the 11th or 12th century, and (like a lot of these ancient churches) is a mix of architectural styles. The body of the church is Romanesque (read: bulky) with some early Gothic features (the pointed stone arches) and lovely Perpendicular windows of various sizes. 

View down the nave to the back of the church.
The timbered ceiling is very fine.
Medieval stained glass, reassembled in jumbled fashion after the windows were blasted apart in the 2nd World War.

The most peculiar aspect of this church is the 6 Fettiplace funerary monuments. The Fettiplace family were powerful and immensely rich in the 17th century, holding estates in 15 counties. They also must have thought a lot of themselves – or at least the men did. Here you see six generations of Fettiplaces who lived and died between the mid-16th to late 17th centuries. The Fettiplace men are stacked one atop the other steerage style, on both sides of the altar.  Notice how the clothing styles change with the times. Today the family is gone, but not forgotten – although they may not appreciate the amused comments of visitors.

The 16th-early 17th century Fettiplaces, decked out in Tudor splendor. 
The later 17th century Fettiplaces, in Cavalier garb. Don’t you love their jaunty attitudes?

Outside, the churchyard includes the graves of a later local gentry family, the infamous Mitford sisters and their parents.  Both loved and detested in their time (early – late 20th century), the sisters’ eccentric upbringing and rapier wits were inspiration for Julian Fellowes in creating Downton Abbey. Diana and Unity were ardent fascists (Unity was rumored to be a mistress of Hitler), while Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire and turned their ancestral home, Chatsworth House, into one of Britain’s most successful stately home enterprises. (If you haven’t visited, put it on your bucket list. I guarantee that you will recognize the house and grounds from movies and TV period dramas – a major income stream for the estate.)  

Nancy was a novelist who satirized the fascist Black Shirts and other aspects of English upper class society. Jessica was a dedicated communist who wrote investigative exposes, most notably The American Way of Death, which lambasted America’s funerary industry in the 1960s, prompting Congressional hearings on US funerary practices. (Tadophile that I am, I read this book during high school, then took myself on a field trip to a funeral home.) Pamela preferred to stay in the country and out of the political limelight and spent much of her life as the companion to a rich Italian horsewoman. Four of the six sisters are buried here: Nancy, Unity, Diana and Pamela. Jessica spent her later life in the US, and her ashes were, unsurprisingly, scattered at sea.

Graves of Nancy, Unity and Diana Mitford. Pamela is buried near the church tower.
The Swinbrook defibrillator – or maybe just another TARDIS disguise?

About ½ mile west of Swinbrook is the site of a Saxon and medieval village called Widford.

The path to Widford begins in the Swinbrook churchyard and winds through lush (and sometimes soggy) meadows beside the Windrush.

The parish of Widford appears in the Domesay book (1086), but all that remains today is the manor house, some bumps in the meadow, and the exquisite little church of St. Oswalds, which dates to the 13th century. It is one of my favorite places, a spot where ancient peace seems to seep from the stones.

After visiting St. Oswald’s we retraced our steps past the Swinbrook church and defibrillator and set off in search of Minster Lovell Hall. Beware: managed by English Heritage, this romantic ruin has some of the worst signposting I’ve come across in the British Isles. We circled it several times before finally finding the entry.

The Hall was built in the 1430s by the Lancastrian Lovell family. Some 50 years later, after his father’s death Francis Lovell was raised as a Yorkist and became a close ally of Richard III. Francis disappeared after Richard’s defeat in the last battle of the War of the Roses, and may have escaped to Scotland. However, 200 years later a skeleton was found in a secret room inside the manor which some believe may have been Francis’ remains, after he accidentally locked himself in and starved to death. The house was demolished in the mid 18th century and the buildings have declined into graceful ruins. Nicola Cormick’s novel, The Last Daughter, has a dual time storyline set at the Hall and involving Francis – it’s an atmospheric and fun read if you enjoy modern gothic.

One enters the Minster Lovell Hall grounds by parking in a lane accessing expensive modern manors, then passing through St. Kenelm’s churchyard. (There used to be a trail entry from the village of Minster Lovell, located across the river, but this access is no longer open.)

After absorbing the peaceful delights of Minster Lovell Hall, we drove back to Swinbrook for lunch at the Swan Inn. The interior of this venerable pub has been lovingly updated since our first visit almost 40 years ago, while the exterior remains one of the most picturesque in the Cotswolds.

The Swan Inn is owned by the estate of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, a.k.a. Deborah Mitford. The pub and a cottage across the way are all that remain of the estate inherited by the family in the early 20th century, where the girls spent much of their childhood. Pictures and mentors of the Mitford clan abound. It must have been an idyllic place for childhood.

After a quick to St. John the Baptist church in Burford, Sue and Philip left us to return to their home in Norfolk. Later in the afternoon, our friends Alison and Kim arrived and we had a lovely dinner at Burford’s Lamb Inn.

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6 thoughts on “Rambling along the Windrush River”

  1. Brilliant, we were with you for the whole of this part of your trip. Had a great time. Brings back good memories.


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