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Hermitage - a Writer's Wartime Refuge

Explore dense woodland and pass the former home of a famous British novelist on this spectacular walk near Newbury.

Distance 6 miles (9.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs 45min

Ascent/gradient 320ft (98m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field and woodland paths and tracks, some road, 4 stiles

Landscape Extensive woodland with areas of open farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 158 Newbury & Hungerford

Start/finish SU 505730

Dog friendliness Under control in woods and on lead near livestock

Parking Limited parking in Hermitage

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the village hall in Hermitage turn right, then right again into Doctors Lane. Cross a stile by a private road sign and head across the field to the next stile. Pass beneath power lines and make for a stile in the boundary of the woodland ahead of you. Follow the footpath through the trees as far as a cottage. Turn left when you reach the track and veer right after about 60yds (55m) at the public footpath sign. Drop down through the woodland to a lane and keep to the right. Walk along the lane to the hamlet of Oare and turn right by a small pond.

2 Head towards the buildings of Little Hungerford, cross a stile and turn right at the road. Bear left into Chapel Lane and follow the road round the right-hand bend. Pass Pond Lane and D H Lawrence's former home on the corner as you head for the next road junction. Chapel Farm Cottage is clearly identified - its front entrance is in Pond Lane and its rear garden backs on to Chapel Lane. Turn left and walk along to a public footpath sign on the right. Follow the track deep into Box Wood and eventually reach a junction.

3 Bear right here and follow the track through the trees to the next road. Cross over by a bungalow and continue on the next section of track. Turn right at the next road and walk along to the turning for Boar's Hole Farm on the left. Follow the track to the farm and continue south to a left-hand bend. Go through the gate on the right and make for a gate and house in the field corner. Keep to the right of the house and turn right at a track bend, passing through a galvanised metal gate.

4 Follow the woodland track and keep right at the fork. Cross a stream and pass a left turning. Take the next left path by a stream and pass over a staggered junction. Turn right by the pond, then first left, cutting through the trees. Swing right at the next junction and follow the track as it runs up by a seat. Keep left at the junction and make for the road by a cottage. Opposite are the earthworks of Grimsbury Castle. Turn right and walk along to the road junction. Bear left and return to Hermitage.

It is a little-known fact that one of Britain's most famous and outspoken 20th-century writers lived quietly in a Berkshire village at the end of the First World War. What is even more surprising is that he and his wife deliberately chose a low profile. But why? What drove them to seek refuge in the depths of the English countryside?

During the early years of the First World War David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930) and his German bride Frieda lived near St Ives in Cornwall, but were not accepted by the local community. In remote rural areas, women such as Lawrence's wife were often looked upon with suspicion and hatred. The war had been long and bloody and Frieda, living among people who had lost friends and loved ones, was an unwelcome reminder of Germany's part in it. In one among several letters signalling his concern, Lawrence wrote: 'Sudden blow! We are served with notice to leave the area of Cornwall by Monday next... by the military. It is a complete mystery to me - complete.'

Forced to leave Cornwall, the couple moved to Hermitage near Newbury in December 1917, renting a small cottage from a friend. It was a quiet and peaceful place but even here Lawrence and his wife were not left alone. While living at Chapel Farm Cottage, they received regular calls from the police. To make matters worse, Lawrence was a pacifist and openly opposed the war. Ill health gave him a genuine reason not to fight, but his outspoken views and choice of bride were hardly going to endear him to the villagers of Hermitage.

However, Lawrence liked life in Berkshire. He would walk many miles in a day, often leaving home very early in the morning and not returning until late in the afternoon. He was able to combine his knowledge of the countryside with his skill as a writer, using prose and imagery to convey his love of creation. A keen artist and gardener, Lawrence would also write at great speed and it was while living at Chapel Farm Cottage that he undertook some revision of earlier work, including Women in Love (1921).

During the two years he lived at the cottage, Lawrence worked on various short stories, several novels and some poetry. Of all his writing, the story most closely associated with Hermitage is The Fox, first published in 1923 in Three Novellas. The story is set at Bailey Farm, which Lawrence based on Grimsbury Farm, just outside the village. The setting for the farm, the surrounding countryside and the nearby railway are all faithfully recreated in The Fox, while the nearby market town is undoubtedly Newbury. Lawrence left Hermitage for Italy in November 1919.

Where to eat and drink

Hermitage has two pubs - the Fox and the White Horse. Both are typical village locals offering a good range of beers and a selection of snacks and more substantial dishes.

While you're there

Stop and look at St Bartholomew's Church at Oare, built on the site of a priory chapel. The priory was destroyed by Henry VIII, but its history is reflected in local place names such as Chapel Lane and Chapel Farm Cottage - where D H Lawrence and his wife lived. John Betjeman described the church as 'a Victorian gem set in the Berkshire countryside'. The history of Oare, from ad 968, is described inside.

What to look for

Grimsbury Castle is a hill fort with its origins in the years preceding the Roman conquest. It's enclosed by a ramp, ditch and counterscarp bank. The north and west entrances have additional defences. Excavation work has revealed that it was occupied between the 3rd and 1st centuries bc. Across the road is an 18th-century battlemented tower.

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