Clive Fewins explores the muddy source of William Morris's inspiration.
We were not expecting to be confronted with skies of East Anglian proportions in a corner of Oxfordshire. However, this was the rather remote corner of the county near Lechlade, where it meets Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. The roads are sparse here, reflecting the fen-like nature of the countryside, and the fields are large and flat.
The area was even more inaccessible in William Morris's day. The great arts and crafts pioneer had seen what he called "the old house by the Thames" in a dream, and eventually made Kelmscott Manor his country home for the last 25 years of his life.
We set out on our walk to try to imbibe some of the qualities of this quiet stretch of countryside, which Morris referred to as his "earthly paradise". Kelmscott village is a collection of a few cottages and farmhouses. Most of them enclose a large central area of paddocks, closes and what are now back gardens, all surrounded by a straggling circular lane. And at the far corner of the village is Kelmscott Manor, a few yards up a metalled track leading to the River Thames. There are no shops. But there is a pub that provides ample sustenance, as we were to discover at the end of our walk.
We parked near The Plough and set off along a marked track. We passed two cottages on our left, then the track met a field, at which point we turned sharp left along a field path, again clearly marked, that led directly to the Thames.
Be prepared for a surprise here. The first small footbridge is over a drainage channel that one might at first mistake for the stripling Thames. At the far end of the next field a far grander sight awaits you - a new and rather splendid footbridge that spans the river. It is of ample height, so that the cabin cruisers that frequent this part of the river in summer can pass beneath it.
We did not cross the bridge. Instead we took the towpath - you cannot miss it, as the Thames Path follows the north bank of the river at this point - to the west.
It is said that Morris was inspired by the willows, the reed beds and the sedges along this section of the Thames. The dun colours of so many of his finest designs were derived from this countryside as he punted along the river on summer afternoons, rod and line to hand. In his long riverbank walks he would gather grasses, leaves, twigs and other natural materials from the hedgerows and take them back to the manor, where he would turn them into dyes.
My reveries about this were shortly interrupted by a father and son combination, en route to the Thames Barrier, determined to complete the 160 miles by the end of the week. A mile or so later we came to the neatly tended Buscot Lock, where we were able to cross the river and amble up the lane to the group of houses that comprise Buscot Village.
In fact they are - or were - nothing but a satellite of the great house and park just on the other side of the nearby A417 Farringdon-Lechlade road. Now, however, the National Trust-owned hamlet sports a post office and a separate shop. To our delight, we found that the shop also serves hot coffee.
Refreshed, we walked up the A417 for a quarter of a mile before taking a sharp left turn (again, there is a sign indicating a footpath) down towards Buscot Wharf. Almost immediately we left this track, taking a path across the centre of a newly-harvested field towards the distant hamlet of Eaton Hastings.
In the church here, one of Morris's lifelong friends and collaborators, Edward Burne-Jones, created two small windows for Morris's company during restoration work in 1872-74. Eaton Hastings today is more a collection of scattered cottages than a village. A multitude of odd bumps in the nearby fields indicates a previously much bigger settlement.
From Eaton Hastings we retraced our steps along the south bank of the river, eventually turning right to cross the new footbridge leading over the Thames to Kelmscott. Before crossing the river we stood on the site of a riverside pub, burnt down in the Seventies and never rebuilt. Perhaps this was because the site was too remote to do good business in the late 20th century.
On the other bank it was an easy half-mile walk to Kelmscott Manor. Our first view of the old house was from the riverbank, rising up among the poplars, its Jacobean gables standing sedately above the high wall that encloses the grounds. A pair of sparrowhawks were swooping over fields to the rear. Our route back to The Plough, and our car, lay along the left fork at the end of the lane. First, though, we strolled past the pub, viewing the row of cottages which were built in 1902, in memory of Morris, six years after he died. A carving of their bearded source of inspiration adorns the front.
At the end of the road stands the small Norman church of St George. In 1889 Morris, who had founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings in 1877, kept a watchful eye over a restoration of the building. Morris, his wife Jane and two daughters, May and Jenny, are buried beneath a simple, ridge-shaped gravestone supported on low blocks created by his lifelong friend, architect and designer of the Morris cottages, Philip Webb.
From Kelmscott take track to the north of The Plough Inn. Turn left, following the footpath sign when the track joins a field. Cross a wooden footbridge over the stream. Continue towards the Thames. Do not cross the main footbridge. Instead take the path along the north bank for one mile towards Buscot Lock. Cross river at the lock and take the track up to Buscot.
Turn left at the junction with A 417 and follow the road for a quarter- mile. When a track leads off left back towards the river, take the field path leading north-east towards Eaton Hastings. Pass over a footbridge across a tributary of the Thames. A yellow arrow to the left marks the path. Follow this path up a small rise.
Take the stile through a hedge and follow the path towards church. From here return via the same track, but this time follow the path on the south bank of the Thames until you reach the big, new footbridge across to Kelmscott. Then follow the north bank for half a mile until you reach Kelmscott and the Plough Inn.
Length of walk: about six miles.
Maps. Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 163. Pathfinder sheet 1135 (SU 29/39)Reuse content