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Mysteries at Minster Lovell

A gentle stroll through meadows and woods beside the Windrush.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 180ft (55m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Meadows, tracks, pavement and lane, woodland, 17 stiles

Landscape Shallow, fertile valley of River Windrush

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 180 Oxford

Start/finish SP 321114

Dog friendliness Lead essential on road through Crawley and Minster Lovell

Parking Car park (free) at eastern end of Minster Lovell, above church and hall

Public toilets None on route

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1 Walk up the lane, signposted 'Crawley'. At the end of the village cross a stile, right, and take the footpath diagonally left across the field, also signposted 'Crawley'. Look right for a view of the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall and the circular dovecote. Cross a stile and continue straight on along the path, with a stone wall to your left. The mill chimney ahead on the horizon belongs to Crawley Mill.

2 Cross a stile and go ahead up a slight incline. Cross another stile, go through a gate and continue on the path, walking up a green tunnel of a lane. Pass above Crawley Mill. At the road turn right and follow this down into Crawley. At the bottom look left to admire the diminutive village green with its stone cross. The Lamb Inn is on the left.

3 Turn right and follow the pavement past Manor Farm, with its huge pond. Cross the humpback bridge over the Windrush - look right for a good view of the old mill house. At the other side of the bridge cross the road and turn left through a gate, signed 'Witney'. Follow the bridleway beside the stream, marked by a line of willows.

4 At the junction of paths by a gate look ahead and left to see New Mill. Turn right through the gate and walk up the field edge. Pass a gate and cross the road. Climb the stile, go straight on to a second stile, and follow the path down through the woods.

5 At the bottom cross a stile and follow the path along the fence. The wildflower meadows of Maggots Grove lie to your right. Continue over three more stiles and bear left beside the trees. Cross a stile by a meander of the river.

6 Cross a further stile and enter the woods. At a gate bear right, following the arrows, and cross two footbridges. After a short distance cross a bridge over the river. Go through a squeeze gate towards Minster Lovell Hall. Climb the stile and go through a gate to explore the ruins.

7 Leave by the top entrance and walk through the churchyard. Cross a slab stile, continue along a grassy path with the village up to your right. Cross a footbridge and stile and veer to the right. Cross one stile and then another into Wash Meadow recreation ground. Keep right and go through a gate on to the high street, with the Old Swan Inn to your left. Turn right and walk up through the village to the car park at the start of the walk.

Crawley's industrial heart is announced by its tall mill chimney, which dominates the shallow, verdant valley to the north of Witney. By comparison, just a mile or two to the west, old Minster Lovell is the very essence of an idealised Cotswold village. Its little houses of grey-brown stone straggle up a narrow village street, adorned with impossibly pretty cottage gardens. At the top is a golden stone church, looking down over a silvery meander of the River Windrush. At the bottom is a charming old pub, the Swan, with the former mill opposite tastefully restored and now part of a discreet conference centre.

Two villages appeared on the site in the Domesday survey - Minster Lovell and Little Minster, separated by the river. There's now a newer Minster Lovell to the south west, an experimental housing and allotment development dating back to the 1840s. However, it's the picturesque older settlement which engages visitors.

No perfect Cotswold village would be complete without its manor house, of course. And Minster Lovell's is a beauty, although in ruins. The site, in a curve of the river below the church, was picked out by Lord William Lovell, 7th Baron of Tichmarsh, in the 1440s. William's son John extended the new manor house, and signboards among the broken walls show how splendid it must have been, complete with a massive gatehouse.

William's grandson, Francis, was politically the most successful member of the family, but came to a nasty end. Raised as a Yorkist, he served as Lord Chamberlain to Richard III and fought with him at Bosworth Field in 1485. The King died in the battle and Francis took refuge in Flanders. Two years later he returned to take part in the Lambert Simnel rebellion, which backed an Oxford baker's boy for the throne.

On the losing side in a battle at Stoke in 1487, Lovell fled home and was never heard of again. However it is said that in 1708, while a new chimney was being built at Minster Lovell Hall, a locked vault was discovered. In it was the skeleton of the missing Viscount Lovell, sitting with his papers at a table. Suddenly exposed to the air, the corpse dissolved into a cloud of dust in an instant. It was assumed that he had hidden here with the help of a servant, who subsequently fell ill and died, leaving unknown the secret of his master's whereabouts. John Buchan made memorable and chilling use of the legend in his novel 'The Blanket of the Dark' (1931).

A pioneer of modernised agricultural techniques, Thomas Coke was the last resident at the Hall. He left in 1747 for his new Norfolk home, Holkham Hall. The old house was dismantled and the ruins are now cared for by English Heritage.

While you're there

Witney is synonymous with the weaving of fine woollen blankets, which were the garment of choice of the North American Indians. The old firm of Early's, founded in the 16th century, is still going strong, and you can learn more at the Witney Museum. The lively Cogges Manor Farm Museum, a short walk from the town centre, depicts life on a rural farm in Victorian times.

What to look for

Walk through the outline of the ruined Minster Lovell Hall, passing between the spindly tower and the shell of the great hall, to admire the fish ponds. They lie in a tranquil spot below the Church of St Kenelm, shaded by willows and speckled with water lilies. The trout farmed here would have been an important source of food for the Hall, as would the pigeons that lived in the old dovecote.

Where to eat and drink

The Old Swan Inn lies at the western end of the old village of Minster Lovell, right on the junction with the main road, with the Mill conference centre just opposite. It's a delightful setting, great for teas outside in summer, or a refreshing beer. The Lamb Inn at Crawley also has a restaurant.

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