Crawley’s industrial heart is announced by its tall mill chimney, which dominates the shallow, verdant valley to the north of Witney. By comparison, a mile or two to the west, old Minster Lovell is the essence of an idealised Cotswold village. Its little houses of grey-brown stone straggle up a narrow 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 lovely old pub and hotel, the Old Swan & Minster Mill, with the former mill opposite now restored and part of the hotel. Two villages appeared on the site in the Domesday Book – 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.
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.
A gruesome tale
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 in 1708, while a new chimney was being built at Minster Lovell Hall, it is said that a locked vault was discovered. In it was the skeleton of the missing Viscount Lovell, sitting with his papers at a table. 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 chilling use of the legend in his novel The Blanket of the Dark (1931). A pioneer of agricultural techniques, Thomas Coke was the Hall’s last resident. He left in 1747 for Holkham Hall, Norfolk, and the ruins are now cared for by English Heritage.
Walk up the lane, signposted ‘Crawley’. At the end of the village go through a gate, 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. Go through a kissing gate next to a field gate 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.
Go through a gate and ahead up a slight incline. Cross a stile 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.
Turn right and follow the pavement past Manor Farm, with its huge pond. Cross the humpback bridge over the River Windrush, looking 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.
At the junction of paths by two gates 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. Go through the gate and straight onto a second gate, and follow the path down through the woods.
At the bottom go through a gate and follow the path ahead, along the bottom right-hand edge of the open slope. The wildflower meadows of Maggots Grove lie to the right. Continue through several more gates and bear left by the trees.
Go through a gate and enter the woods. At a fork go right, following the arrows, and cross a boardwalk and footbridge. Continue on the path and cross a bridge over the river. Walk up the meadow towards Minster Lovell Hall. Go through two gates to explore the ruins.
Leave by the top entrance and walk through the lower edge of the churchyard. Cross a slab stile and continue along a hedged path with the village up to your right. Cross a footbridge, go through a gate and veer to the right. Go through a gate and then another into Wash Meadow recreation ground. Keep right and go through a gate onto the high street, with the Old Swan to your left. Turn right and walk up through the village to the car park.
Meadows, tracks, pavement and lane, woodland, several stiles
Shallow, fertile valley of River Windrush
Lead essential on road through Crawley and Minster Lovell
OS Explorer 180 Oxford
Car park at eastern end of Minster Lovell village, at start of lane leading to the church
None on route
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Located at the heart of England, Oxfordshire enjoys a rich heritage and surprisingly varied scenery. Its landscape encompasses open chalk downland and glorious beechwoods, picturesque rivers and attractive villages set in peaceful farmland. The countryside in the northwest of Oxfordshire seems isolated by comparison, more redolent of the north of England, with its broad views, undulating landscape and dry-stone walls. The sleepy backwaters of Abingdon, Wallingford, Wantage, Watlington and Witney reveal how Oxfordshire’s old towns evolved over the centuries, while Oxford’s imposing streets reflect the beauty and elegance of ‘that sweet city with her dreaming spires.’ Fans of the fictional sleuth Inspector Morse will recognise many Oxford landmarks described in the books and used in the television series.
The county demonstrates how the strong influence of humans has shaped this part of England over the centuries. The Romans built villas in the pretty river valleys that thread their way through Oxfordshire, the Saxons constructed royal palaces here, and the Normans left an impressive legacy of castles and churches. The philanthropic wool merchants made their mark too, and many of their fine buildings serve as a long-lasting testimony to what they did for the good of the local community.