Outdoor: Alone with the wind in the willows

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The Independent Online
From medieval churches to an intriguing relic of Victorian social engineering, the Windrush valley in the Cotswolds has it all. Catherine Stebbings takes the walk.

Start at Widford, "the ford by the willows", a cluster of houses set in a meander of the Windrush. Turn left at Widford Mill Farm down a muddy lane towards Manor Farm. Then turn right into the water meadow, following signs to Swinbrook and St Oswald's church. A wavy line of willow trees follows the river along the valley. Ahead, the simple 13th-century church is all that remains of the medieval village. It is worth stopping to look inside. Tiny box pews and a stocky 13th-century font stand on the well-worn flagged floor. Some lively medieval murals show the contemporary fashion for natty tunics and tights.

Turning left out of the church, continue towards Swinbrook. A narrow path between two dry-stone walls will bring you into the village. Once again it is the church that tells its history. Turn left as you come to the road and enter the churchyard. Just beyond the church door are the gravestones of Unity and Nancy Mitford, who lived for many years in the valley. Much of The Pursuit of Love was set here. Nancy did not care for crosses but liked moles, so that is what she has on her headstone.

Leaving the churchyard, turn right to the Swan Inn, cross the stile opposite and follow the footpath alongside the river. On reaching a little bridge, cross the road and continue on the footpath. This stretch of water is delightful. Willows shimmer in the wind; ducks, geese and herons can be seen on the river. You will pass a farm on your left and here you leave the river, following the path up the hill to a lane. Turn right towards Worsham Mill. At the bottom of the hill, before the bridge, take a left along a bridle path. The river is now often hidden by a high hedge and the countryside opens into expanses of newly ploughed fields teeming with pheasants. There is a gentle climb before you join the road from Asthall Leigh to Minster Lovell. Turn right along this busy road and follow it into Minster Lovell, passing the pretty Mill, now a conference centre, on your left.

The old Swan Inn, swathed in wisteria, makes an excellent lunch stop before you explore the village. Just across the road is Wash Meadow, which floods in the winter but becomes one of England's most picturesque cricket grounds in summer. Carry on up The Street, lined with thatched cottages and immaculate gardens. Turn right to the church and Minster Lovell Old Hall. Walk around the church of St Kenelm, named after the Cotswold Saint, and you find yourself in the romantic ruins of this 15th-century hall. The porch, hall and parts of the court are all that remain but there are many intriguing details such as gargoyles, chimneys and stairwells. In 1704 workmen found the skeleton of a man and his dog in a secret chamber here. The skeleton was supposedly Francis, the last Lovell and henchman of Richard III. Pass through the kissing-gate into the meadow and follow the path left to see the 15th-century dovecote.

Retrace your steps back into the village, then turn left over the bridge and left again. Walk for 20 yards along the road. Follow the footpath sign into the spinney on your right. Scramble up a muddy hill, Continue across a rabbit-riddled field, over a stile and across the road. Leaving the idyllic valley behind, this brings you into a vast field with a number of fossils underfoot. Cross the field, rejoining the path along the hedge at the other side. The path is well signed across sheep-grazed apple orchards. These form part of the Charterville Allotments.

This scatter of bungalows and smallholdings was created by the Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor and his National Land Company in 1847. The company aimed to rehouse families from urban slums in self-sufficient smallholdings. Anyone could subscribe for shares in a lottery; winners got a starter pack of a house, pounds 30, a couple of acres, a pig and, as landowners, the right to vote. But the company went bust, and many plots were sold to local tradespeople.

When you reach a small road, the path jinks left past a typical Charterville bungalow, with rows of chrysanthemums and cabbages in the garden. Go over the stile by the Witney golf course, turn right along the hedge and rejoin the marked footpath. This is the least appealing part of the walk. Carry on for about a mile along a leaf-strewn path, with the A40 running close by. Just when you have forgotten the peace of the Windrush Valley the path ends; take a right down an abandoned lane, cross the main road and follow the lane to Worsham Mill. As the lane falls away, dilapidated stone walls peep from an overgrown hedgerow, and the noise of the road fades. Turn left, along a bridle path signposted to Asthall.

A mile later you will come to Asthall Farm, where you cross the old Roman road of Akeman Street. Continue through Asthall to the church and splendid Manor that flanks it. In the church there are colourful 19th-century murals, an intriguing early stone altar and an effigy of Lady John Cornwall dressed in wimple, veil and flowing robes.

Leaving the church turn right and right again at the T-junction. This will take you along a quiet road back to Widford.

Length: about 10 miles with some gentle climbs and descents.

Ordnance Survey maps: Landranger 163 and 164, Pathfinder SP 21/31. Leaflets showing these and other walks in the area are produced by OCC and available at local libraries, book shops and most pubs for 25p.