Cotswold Ways Walk: A sisterly saunter by the Windrush
- Credit: Kevan Manwaring
Walk in the footsteps of the talented and controversial socialites, the Mitford Sisters, around stunning Asthall and sublime Swinbrook. The perfect pub walk for a summer’s day
“Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur” as Ben Macintyre pithily described “those utterly maddening Mitford girls” (The Times, October 12, 2007). Between the six of them, these remarkable siblings seem to epitomize the major fault-lines of the 20th century, and their lives, as much as their literary works, have been the source of popular commentary, academic scrutiny and dramatic interpretation (e.g. Love in a Cold Climate adapted for television in 1980 and 2001).
The Mitfords, daughters of the 2nd Baron Redesdale (David Freeman-Mitford), were great socialites, and Asthall, the handsome Jacobean Cotswold manor house which their father inherited in 1916, hosted frequent hunting and shooting weekend parties after the family ensconced themselves there from 1919. Regular guests included Clementine Churchill, Frederick Lindemann and Walter Sickert.
Self-contained in their aristocratic bubble, the Mitford sisters had a private language called “Boudledidge” (pronounced “bowdledidge”), and each had a different nickname for the others (e.g. Bobo; Decca; Debbo). Their father was called ‘Farve’ and their mother, Sydney Freeman-Mitford, Baroness Redesdale, ‘Muv’.
The youngest of the Mitford sisters Deborah, later Duchess of Devonshire, was born at Asthall in 1920 (she went onto manage Chatsworth House). Her sister Diana had an appendectomy on the spare-bedroom table. Nancy Mitford’s fictional ‘Alconleigh’ in her most enduringly popular novel, The Pursuit of Love (1945) is based largely on Asthall, and family life there is described in Jessica Mitford’s autobiographical Hons and Rebels (1960). Redesdale had never planned to make Asthall Manor a permanent home (although improvements did take place during their time there), and in 1926 the family moved into nearby Swinbrook House which Redesdale had had built on the site of a derelict farm. The Mitfords subsequently leased 26 Rutland Gate in London’s Knightsbridge district following the sale of Asthall. And yet the legacy of the Mitfords presence in the Windrush valley lingers – one can almost hear the popping of champagne, the erudite chatter, and the chandelier tinkling of laughter.
1. Park at The Maytime Inn if you’re planning to return for a drink or a meal or both (and who wouldn’t?). Walk out of the carpark and turn right towards the church of St Nicholas.
2. Enter the picturesque churchyard to get a splendid view of Asthall Manor, the childhood home of the Mitford Sisters. Note their private entrance to the churchyard. Admire the gabled Jacobean Cotswold manor house in Asthall, Oxfordshire, built circa 1620 and altered and enlarged in 1916.
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3. Leave the churchyard via the gate you entered from, and turn right up the lane. Follow it around, turning right at the corner.
4. Heading north-west, follow the lane along, enjoying the contours of the Windrush Valley, until you come to a crossroads by a cricket ground.
5. Turn right at the crossroads until you cross the lovely Windrush by the Swan Inn. Here, enjoy the sparkling waters of both if you wish... or push on.
6. Follow the lane around to the left and keep going until you get to the church of St Mary the Virgin.
7. Enter the churchyard. Just behind the tower – on the side with the ladder going up into the belfry – you’ll find the graves of Nancy, Unity and Pamela Mitford (plus a couple of the Mosley in-laws...).
8. Exit the churchyard via the little snicket between the cottages, turning right and following the stone-walled footpath out to the meadow.
9. Cross the meadow, enjoying the view out across the lake. Climb the stile into the next, heading towards the corner of the stone wall opposite via the old church of St Oswald’s.
10. Here is a site of an abandoned medieval village, a victim of the Black Death, although on a sunny day it’s hard to imagine a pleasanter spot.
11. Staying in the meadow, cross the unusual stile and walk uphill through Dean Meadow.
12. When you reach the top, catch your breath before crossing the stile and turning right along the road.
13. Follow this until you come to a path on your left. Follow this NE through some lovely fields full of grazing sheep (keep your dog on a lead), taking the left fork up the slope.
14. Eventually you come out on a lane. Turning right here, follow this along, pass the Hit and Miss Cottages (named after the frequent shooting parties the Mitford Sisters held, I wonder?). Ignoring the signs back to Swinbrook, carry on east straight passed the woods.
15. Until you come to a bridlepath on your right, which runs between the fields back towards Asthall.
16. Follow this southwards, thinking of the refreshment that awaits you ...
17. Crossing the lane, drop down the charmingly-named Ninety Cut Hill and cross the Windrush, and bob’s your uncle – you’re back in Asthall. The Maytime Inn is not, fortunately, a mirage. Refreshment awaits. Raise a glass to those maddening Mitford Sisters.
Need to know:
Distance: 7.11km / 4.42ml walk
Level: Easy. Suitable footwear essential.
Time: 2 hours.
Public transport: Buses from Oxford or Cheltenham.
Parking: The Maytime Inn, or nearby.