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A Fine State of Affairs

A varied walk that takes in a leisurely river and a grandiose mansion.

Distance 6.4 miles (10.4km)

Minimum time 3hrs 15min

Ascent/gradient 557ft (170m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field paths, farm tracks and river bank, potentially muddy

Landscape Low rolling hills above gentle Nene Valley

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 207 Newport Pagnell & Northampton South

Start/finish SP 860594

Dog friendliness Mostly arable fields, so generally good

Parking Roadside in Castle Ashby, or car park for visitors to gardens and farm shops

Public toilets Rural Shopping Yard, Castle Ashby

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1 Walk out of Castle Ashby along the road heading south westwards, with the house (and visitors' car park) over to your left. Where the pavement ends turn right for the hamlet of Chadstone. Drop down the lane past the cottages and expensive-looking converted barns and all the way out to the farm of Chadstone Lodge.

2 Turn left for the bridleway alongside the hedge and, at the end, go on through the trees to continue the route alongside the next field and down to a road. Cross over for a footpath down to Whiston Spinney, then via a footbridge in a lovely shady dell to reach a junction of tracks on the far side. Here go straight on, signposted 'Footpath via Jerusalem Steps', and cross a field to the trees on the far side.

3 Follow the path up the steps and out along a field edge with the woodland (The Firs) on your right. Beyond a gate go down a sharp flight of steps to the right and across a field in order to turn left on the far side and drop down to the road below.

4 The route continues up through the field opposite. Head half left, then follow the bridleway waymarks to the right, through a long narrow field with the houses of Cogenhoe on your left. At the far side join a lane and descend to Cogenhoe Mill.

5 Just before the old mill buildings and sluice, with the caravan park beyond, turn right for a path alongside the River Nene (signposted 'Nene Way'). Follow this pleasant waterside walk for 1 mile (1.6km) as far as Whiston Lock, then turn right for a straight farm track across the fields to the main road, heading towards Whiston church sitting astride the hilltop like a lighthouse.

6 Go across the junction and walk the lane into Whiston, branching left at the small triangular green. Take the gated passageway beside the outbuildings of Manor Farm up to the church. There are good views across the Nene Valley to Earls Barton and Wellingborough, and the eastern edge of Northampton.

7 Walk past the church to the far side of the churchyard, go over a metal rung in the wall and turn right on to an obvious field-edge path. This continues along a grassy strip between further fields and emerges on to the bend of a lane. Go straight on/left and walk this all the way back to Castle Ashby.

Castle Ashby is the ancestral home of the 7th Marquess of Northampton, and a fine pile he has too. Building work began in 1574 under the direction of the 1st Lord Compton, later Earl of Northampton, who originally had the house built in the shape of an 'E' before the architect Inigo Jones filled in the openings. Altogether the estate covers 10,000 acres (4,050ha) and is surrounded by landscaped parkland designed by Lancelot ('Capability') Brown. But aside from the neat lake and vast manicured lawns, the eye-catching feature has to be the stunning, mile-long avenue, first planted in 1695 after a visit by William III.

Castle Ashby House is closed to the public, but the 200-acre (81ha) gardens are open daily - to get to them, you walk across the avenue in front of the house. They include an arboretum and conservatory, and a more formal Victorian terrace and romantic Italianate designs. The latter reflected the 19th-century revival of interest in classical Italian gardens, which were based on the use of steps and balustrades, and on a structured transition that began with a geometrical layout through to more serpentine and irregular shapes. Parterres (formal floral beds) were created, using the family's crest as a motif.

Today there are many different varieties of trees and shrubs, including a giant horse chestnut described as one of the largest spreading trees in Britain, plus landscaped lawns and lakes complete with ornamental bridges and the so-called Triumphal Arch. And if you want to take some of it home with you there's an area of plant sales, including shrubs, herbaceous perennials and alpines all nurtured on the premises. Next to the gardens you can visit the 14th-century Church of St Mary Magdalene, which has various monuments to the Compton family.

The estate also manages the craft yard in the centre of the village (it's also referred to as the rather more down-to-earth 'Rural Shopping Yard'). Open Tuesday to Sunday, here you will find ceramics and pottery, antiques and world crafts, bespoke furniture and a quality delicatessen, plus inviting tea rooms.

The perimeter of the vast Castle Ashby estate is dotted, as you would imagine, with various lodges and gatehouses. But there's one that's rather different to the rest. Knucklebone Lodge (which sadly is private and cannot be visited) is so-called because of its knucklebone-patterned floor. But the thing is they are real animals' knucklebones, apparently belonging to what amounted to several thousand sheep, and which were painstakingly arranged into a complete floor covering. Recycling it may be, but it really makes you want to reach for the carpet catalogue, doesn't it?

While you're there

A few miles to the south west of Castle Ashby is Salcey Forest, which was once part of a large medieval hunting chase. Today it's managed by the Forestry Commission and the waymarked paths include the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Trail for walkers of all abilities, and the Great Spotted Woodpecker Trail which visits the veteran Church Path Oak and Salcey Lawn.

What to look for

St Mary's Church above Whiston is a prominent local landmark, its striking tower resplendent in alternating bands of yellow and grey limestone. Unaltered since it was completed in 1534, it can only be reached on foot, and repays an unhurried and contemplative visit.

Where to eat and drink

The Buttery is housed in the craft yard and serves hot and cold snacks and meals from mid-morning to mid-afternoon (last orders usually around 4:30pm). There are also a few outside seats in the yard, and it's a good place to start and finish the day's walk. Near by is the Falcon Inn, a rather upmarket establishment that serves light meals in the Cellar Bar.

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