Oxford and The Cotswolds

Oxford and The Cotswolds

Walk around the environs of hallowed academia and see the college and university buildings of Oxford. Explore the chapels, dining halls and libraries, visit the excellent, informative museums and glide along the River Cherwell or Thames on a punt. Then drive down the leafy lanes of the Cotswolds and visit honey-stone villages lost in time.

Oxford is a vibrant, bustling city as well as home to the oldest University in the English speaking world. It is advisable to use the Park and Ride facilities to get the most out of your visit here. Out of the five Park and Ride services the best one for a city visit and a later Cotswold excursion is Pear Tree. It is ideal if you enter Oxford from the north on the A34 and convenient from London if you are heading west on the M40/A40. If you are on the A40 ignore Thornhill Park and Ride and remain on the A40 until Wolvercote Roundabout, briefly joining the A44 north to get to Pear Tree. This parking area is the perfect launch pad to head to the Cotswolds later.

Park and Ride buses will drop in the centre of Oxford at Magdalen Street East which is just around the corner from Broad Street, just a few steps from the bus stop and you are right in the heart of the University and its buildings.

One thing that will become clear as you enter Broad Street is that Oxford University does not have a campus. It is made up of 38 individual self-governing autonomous colleges, usually a cluster of buildings where students live and have their tutorials, in other words one to one meetings where their academic progress is monitored. In addition to this the University also has its own buildings for lectures, libraries and exams. Students from various colleges will mix with other students doing the same subjects at a University lecture but go back to their own college for the tutorials. As you walk around you will see how colleges and university buildings are standing side by side next to shops, houses and churches of the city.

Broad Street follows the line of the north part of the city wall. As you walk east you will see Balliol College on your left, followed by Trinity College next door, set back from the main road behind large blue gates. Across the street are tourist shops and cafes and then you will see Exeter College. A little further down you will come to the 'public' buildings, those shared by all students. The Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and used for matriculations and graduations and the Museum of the History of Science, a free museum of early scientific equipment, calculators, microscopes, clocks and a blackboard from 1931 with Einstein's equations still written on it. Most of the other buildings form part of the Bodleian Library, including the Clarendon Building, the former University printing house now used for library admissions and designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1713, and the Weston Library, housed in a building designed in the 1930s by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Within here there is a free display of the treasures of the Bodleian Library with some very rare manuscripts and first editions on show, temporary exhibitions and a very nice cafe.

Across the road behind the Clarendon Building are the oldest buildings of the Bodleian Library, established in 1598 by diplomat and Oxford scholar Thomas Bodley. The earlier library buildings founded in the 15th century by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, son of King Henry IV, still remain despite the books being burnt or sold abroad during the Reformation. These rooms are open to the public as part of a guided tour. Harry Potter fans will recognise Duke Humphrey's Library and the Divinity School from their roles in the series of movies. The Divinity School with its beautiful carved 15th ceiling was Hogwarts School Infirmary. The room itself was built for exams and lectures before replacement buildings superseded it.

Many of the colleges are open to visit and Harry Potter fans will want to head over to Christ Church, the largest of Oxford's colleges (and the most expensive for tourists to visit). The impressive Dining Hall is 16th century, look out for characters from Alice In Wonderland decorating the stained glass windows, Lewis Carroll was a mathematician here and Alice Liddell was the daughter of the head of the college, Dean Henry Liddell. A visit to Christ Church also includes Oxford cathedral, of which the college Chapel has the dual role of.

Other colleges include Magdalen, a college built outside the city walls so its grounds were not limited or hemmed in. As a result, 100 acres of beautiful gardens await the visitor with the River Cherwell meandering through. This was the college of C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, Sir John Betjeman and Dudley Moore. Across the road are the Botanic Gardens, Britain's oldest, and on the adjacent riverbank punts can be hired.

On Turl Street you can step inside Lincoln, Exeter and Jesus Colleges. Smaller and more compact, Lincoln has a beautiful ivy-clad quadrangle and a tiny chapel plus rooms once used by John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement. The oak panelled dining room of Jesus College contains portraits of former students, Lawrence of Arabia and Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Exeter College was the former undergraduate college of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Victorian chapel, by Sir George Gilbert Scott, has a stunning interior with work by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Saint-Chapelle in Paris is said to have been an influence.

Finally another academic institution to visit is New College. Don't be put off by the name, it was founded in 1379 and contains a significant length of old city wall, a beautiful dining hall and chapel and charming eye-catching cloisters and gardens which also featured in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!

Over in Beaumont Street one can find the Ashmolean, Oxford's premier museum. Founded in 1683, initially in Broad Street, it became the first public museum in Britain. Now housed in C.R. Cockrell's vast Neo-Classical building over five floors, it merged its collection of antiquities with the University's collection of art at the end of the 19th century. Greek, Roman, Egyptian treasures can be found alongside paintings by Turner, Pissarro and the Pre-Raphaelites. The museum is free to enter.

Before you leave stroll around Radcliffe Square and view the impressive 18th century Radcliffe Camera, formerly a science library and now an additional reading room for the Bodleian. Visit the 13th century University Church of St Mary and climb the 127 steps to the top of the tower. Head over to the University Museum of Natural History on Parks Road, a free museum of geology and zoology. The museum lies on the southerly edge of the fine suburb of North Oxford with its grand brick Gothic villas, built for the University's academics once they were allowed to marry after 1877. The Park and Ride bus services takes you in and out of Oxford through this leafy grand residential part of the city.

From Pear Tree Park and Ride head north on the A44 towards Woodstock and follow signs for Blenheim Palace. You will eventually make a left turn into the grounds of this huge estate and find a parking spot near to the ticket office and entrance. You can choose to just visit the park and its landscaped grounds or buy a ticket that includes the Palace as well. Blenheim Palace is the largest privately owned house in the country and was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh for the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, and was completed around 1724. The 9th Duke of Marlborough's cousin was Sir Winston Churchill who was born at the Palace in 1874. The room he was born in, complete with a lock of his hair, is part of the tour of the house which includes a stunning library, magnificent state rooms and lavish tapestries.

The formal gardens in the Italianate style are also open to visitors as is the chance to take a stroll down to the grandeur of the Cascade, a waterfall created by Lancelot "Capability" Brown who was also responsible for landscaping the estate in the 1760s. And to enter the world of Harry Potter one more time, take the bridge over the lake to the large Cedar of Lebanon tree on the left, now known as the Harry Potter tree, as it features in a flashback scene with Snape in the Order of the Phoenix film.

The adjacent town of Woodstock is beautiful in its own right with plenty of pubs and tea rooms, clad, like Blenheim Palace, in the local honey-coloured limestone. The free Oxfordshire Museum in Park Street is worth popping into. It deals with local history from prehistoric times, through the Cotswold wool trade, the Victorian era and has a regimental museum plus a dinosaur garden.

From Woodstock briefly retrace your journey back on the A44 towards Oxford but at the first roundabout head right towards Bladon on the A4095. It is a short journey down into Bladon and just after the White House pub on your right, as the main road starts to bend to the right, you will see a lane heading steeply up on your left called The Green. Its a 'blink and you'll miss it" turn, so be ready. Find a slot to park the campervan at the top of the road then walk down Church Lane to St Martin's Church to see the graves of Sir Winston and Lady Churchill. They are located outside the church in the graveyard along with Consuelo Vanderbilt, first wife of the 9th Duke and members of Sir Winston's immediate family. There is also a small exhibition inside the church and photographs of the final part of his funeral that took place here after the service in St Paul's cathedral in London.

Leave Bladon and turn left onto the A4095 towards Hanborough and Witney. Once you arrive in the old wool blanket manufacturing town of Witney you'll see a double mini-roundabout, bear right on the first one and right on the second, following the B4022 signposted for Charlbury. Witney's blanket mills closed in the 1980s and now it acts as a fairly busy Cotswold gateway town and commuter hub for Oxford, so to continue to the quieter smaller villages be prepared to head along the River Windrush valley by going straight on using the Crawley Road as the B4022 bends off to the right. The Windrush, a tributary of the Thames, is on your left,  partially hidden by bushes and shrubs.

The Cotswolds are a region of limestone hills famous for its wool trade. The limestone provided nutrients in the grass and the wool from the Cotswold sheep (the Cotswold "lion") was exported all around Europe resulting in great wealth for this region. This golden age, lasting from the 15th to the early 18th century, ended with industrialisation, especially in the coalfields of the North of England. The small bespoke cottage industries of the Cotswolds could not cope with the economics of mass production. As a result the Cotswold wool trade died out and the area became a sleepy backwater. All the old villages with their weavers cottages and wool merchants houses still remain, untouched by modernisation.

In the little hamlet of Crawley turn right and look for the Lamb Inn. Take the road that runs up the hill in front of the pub, this is the Leafield Road and it will take you over the hill to a split in the road where you bear left following signs to Minster Lovell and Burford and noting the warning signs announcing Narrow Road and No Passing Places, well, to be honest, there are actually one or two passing places and you'll only be using this road for about a mile and a half (about 2km) to the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. The road itself goes back about 2,000 years, originally part of a network of roads built in the Cotswolds by the Romans. Today we call it Akeman Street.

As you emerge from a short bit of woodland you will see a small car park to your left. There are about 10 spaces. From here just walk down the lane to the mid-15th century St Kenelm's Church and just behind you will find the extensive ruins of Minster Lovell Hall which are free to visit. The ruins stand next to the babbling River Windrush and the oldest parts of the house date from the 1430s when they were built for William, 7th Baron Lovell. His grandson, Francis, the 9th Baron backed the losing side in the Wars of the Roses, supporting Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. As a result he had to forfeit his house and estate. Although the house and grounds passed to the Crown and then a succession of other owners, it was abandoned in 1747.

You can explore the Great Hall, the ruins of the stable block and the west wing with its (sadly) inaccessible tower and take a look at the Dovecote and Tithe Barn. Many inviting doorways lie several feet up in the air, revealing access to long abandoned upper floors and higher levels. It is a popular picnic spot in a charming riverside setting.

You can now stroll into the village of Minster Lovell or drive from one end of it to the other and park by the old Swan pub. The pub and the mill are now part of a hotel complex. The village has a mix of stone and thatched roofed cottages. Thatch is uncommon in the Cotswolds as the area has an abundance of limestone, nevertheless the contrasting styles and the quiet little main street makes this village irresistibly pretty. 

From the Minster Mill hotel head up the hill northwards with the stone walls of the hotel buildings on your left. Just after the wall ends turn left following a lane towards Asthall Leigh and Fordwells. Continue on this road to Asthall Leigh then turn left. Follow this road towards Swinbrook. You are now in the heart of the Cotswolds, off the beaten track, travelling down beautiful narrow country lanes, away from the main tourist routes.

You will be above the Windrush valley which will be on your lefthand side. You can look down towards the village of Asthall in the distance with its 17th century manor house. The lane will swing left into Swinbook, passing some old stone barns to your right, some of which have been converted into private houses, here you will find a T-junction. At this point turn left past the Swan Inn and cricket field on your right. At the crossroads at the end of the cricket field make a right turn here following the road to Burford.

You are still following the Windrush at this point as you enter the town of Burford, a settlement of about 1,300 people. Parking can be found all over the town, on the High Street, down Sheep Street, by the church, even on the road you enter the town by, which is Witney Street. However at busy times it might be prudent to head to the town car park rather than spending the next period of time looking around for a space. As you drive in on Witney Street turn right on Guildenford and drive down to the car park. It is a short walk from there to the 12th century church of St John the Baptist. 

St John's is a classic example of a Cotswold wool church, built on the wealth of the wool industry and rather large and decorative for the small community it serves. By the 15th century it had expanded by knocking through into the adjacent Guild Chapel which now forms the Lady Chapel. Look out for the "woolsack" tombs in the graveyard, stone representations of a bale of wool wrapped in string, where wool merchants are to be found buried. Inside, on the large memorial to Edmund Harman, barber-surgeon to Henry VIII, there are carvings of his numerous children and some of Native Americans, perhaps the oldest known carvings of inhabitants of the New World in this country. Check out the graffiti on the font, poor old Anthony Sedley had plenty of time on his hands to carve his name here while being held prisoner along with 300 others during the Civil Wars, he even gave us the date, 1649!

Over on the High Street a cascade of honey-coloured stone houses run from the hill down to the river. There are tea rooms, cake shops and plenty of places to buy gifts and souvenirs. It is a beautiful town, although this main artery heading from north to south can get a little backlogged with traffic on high days and holidays.

You can use the High Street to exit Burford by heading over the river on the old 15th century bridge. It was remodelled in 1791 but was never widened so it's single lane only. You may just have to wait for the lights to change before crossing the Windrush. Almost immediately after this, turn left at the mini-roundabout and head towards Stow-on-the-Wold. Like earlier in Witney, the main road, in this case the A424, starts to bend right to go uphill. Ignore that and keep left on the valley road towards Taynton.

You'll now be enjoying a scenic drive through some unspoilt idyllic villages. Charming Taynton with its mix of thatch and stone roofs and a 14th century church hidden by ancient Yew Trees. Over to Great Barrington, an estate village owned by the family who live at Barrington Park, the great house at the end of the village's main street. Notice the houses, doors and window frames all have a uniform look to them. All owned by the "Lords of the Manor". At the end of the street turn left, back over the River Windrush to bucolic and delightful Little Barrington with its old honey stone cottages huddled around a large open green. From here head up the hill to the A40 and make a turn right for Northleach.

There are a number of Roman roads that span the Cotswolds, one of which, Akeman Street, runs east to west. Now and again you will drive on a section of it, for example you drove on it briefly towards Minster Lovell Hall. By 1812 a new and more direct road was built right across the area, rendering the older road to almost abandoned status. Some sections have been lost and some parts exist to link together one or two of the smaller Cotswold villages. You will be taking the road of 1812 towards Northleach. A road that carried a lot of traffic between London and Wales, crossing the River Severn in Gloucester, right up until the opening of the large Severn suspension bridge in 1965. This new route crosses the estuary further south and now forms part of the M4 motorway.

Branch off the A40 left to follow the 'old A40 route' into the pretty town of Northleach. It's a long linear settlement of stone houses punctuated just once by a small town square about two thirds of the way along towards the west. Two pubs, a tea room and a bakery await you there as well as parking for about 30 vehicles in the centre of the square. The church of St Peter and St Paul dominates the southern skyline and is largely 12th to 14th century with the usual Victorian restoration clearly apparent. If you drive to the end of the town you will find the Old Prison. This was the former Northleach House of Correction built in 1792 and now the home of a cafe and tea room with a chance to visit the old cells and prison warden's room. There is also a rural life museum with a collection of old carts and waggons.

Take the A429 southwards from here. You now briefly travel on another Roman road, this one known as the Fosse Way. As fosse is derived from the Latin for 'ditch' it is believed that this road may have formed an initial boundary when the Romans first arrived here in the middle of the First Century. Within a few minutes leave this road by turning right following signs for Yanworth and the Roman Villa. Take this country lane that winds its way through the village of Yanworth, keep following Roman Villa signs, into a wooded area and over the River Coln to the remains of Chedworth Roman Villa.

This impressive site, discovered in 1863, reveals the remains of one of the largest domestic houses in Roman Britain. Built in stages from the 2nd to the 5th century, possibly for a retired military family, it boasts two bath houses, a hypocaust underfloor heating system, fine mosaics and a number of shrines. While nothing survives today above waist height there is still much to be seen. The little mock-Tudor house on site provides a tea room and gift shop. The mosaics can be viewed in the specially created Conservation Building.

Exiting the Roman Villa parking area, just make your way a short distance to the Give Way sign and turn left for Withington. You'll now follow the Coln Valley route, one of those charming and serene country journeys that haven't, as yet, been fully discovered by tourists. Starting in Withington, a stop can be made at the village pub, The Mill. A building that goes back to the 1690s with inglenooks, stone fireplaces and creaky floors. A large garden where the infant River Coln trickles through is an added bonus. Just after the Mill pub be prepared to turn left down the High Street just before the village school. You will now follow the River Coln, a tributary of the Thames, on a scenic back road meander.

Wind your way down pass Chedworth village, along Fields Road until you reach the A429 Fosse Way again. Turn left, head north briefly, then as the road dips sharply down to the Coln Valley immediately turn right at a sign for Coln St Dennis and Bibury. Drive to the picturesque village of Coln St Dennis with its stout-looking 12th church, once dedicated to St Katherine and rededicated to St Kenelm before becoming St Dennis for a while until its present guise of St James the Great, changing its name more often than a spy in the Cold War.

Bear right, passing the church, following signs for Coln Rogers and Bibury. Drive down the leafy narrow lanes, past lush green fields enclosed in dry stone walls where sheep graze and horses gallop, through beautiful Coln Rogers and delightful Winson down to the left turn for Ablington. Cross the Coln again and finish this part of the journey in Bibury,  once described as the prettiest village in England.

Bibury is busy almost all year around and it can be difficult to find a place to park. As you drive in from Ablington you will see the trout farm on your right then the Swan Hotel on your left.  When you reach the main road you can turn right over the bridge where there is a small parking area. It is likely to be full but you may get lucky. If you don't cross the bridge but continue straight on then you may find some roadside parking alongside the river. Most visitors here walk the circuit from the trout farm and old mill around the water meadow known as Rack Isle and over to Arlington Row, a former wool barn of the 14th century converted in the 17th century to weavers cottages. Their cloth was then dried on racks on the river island outside, hence its name. These historic and beautiful cottages are owned by the National Trust having faced demolition in the early 20th century. They are now rented to locals. Guidebooks to England, magazine articles about the Cotswolds, even jigsaw puzzles and chocolate boxes will often have Arlington Row gracing the cover.

The rest of Bibury seems to be overlooked by most visitors, so follow the Coln a short distance down to the other parts of the village which include the 11th century St Mary's Church and the Manor House built in 1560. Then leave Bibury southwards on the B4425. It will swing east away from the valley and at that point make a right turn following signs for Coln St Aldwyns and Quenington.

You now follow another ancient road known as the Salt Way, possibly pre-Roman and used as a route to take salt from the west midlands to what is now the coastline around Southampton. At the end of this section of road make a right turn and drive through the neighbouring villages of Coln St Aldwyns and Quenington. Take this road all the way down to the town of Fairford.

As you approach Fairford make a left turn down Mill Lane, this is the most direct and the most scenic way to the church. On your way you will see the old oxpens to your left. These possibly date back to the 17th century and were used to accommodate oxen that worked the plough. You are welcome to stroll around and look at these buildings. Mill Lane will then take you over the River Coln and onwards to Fairford's historic church.

St Mary's Church is another classic wool church built largely in the 15th century. Its claim to fame, however, is its 28 windows containing medieval stained glass, something very rare in this country after the Puritans did so much to destroy what they felt was Idolatry in the 17th century. These decorative windows that pre-date the Reformation are possibly the work of a Flemish glazier and depict various stories from the Bible.

From Fairford head along the A417 eastwards as you now join the Thames Valley. Drive through Lechlade-on-Thames, the furthest upstream a boat can now reach on the navigable River and then make a right turn about 2 miles (3km) outside of the town following a sign for Coleshill. You will eventually arrive at the B4019. Turn left here and head eastwards. Eventually you will see a National Trust sign pointing right to Great Coxwell Tithe Barn and another sign saying Village Only. Turn right here down The Hollow Road to the magnificent Great Coxwell Tithe Barn.

With a convenient lay-by to your right and the huge 13th century barn towering behind the stone wall, this medieval masterpiece is truly awe inspiring. Built to store tithes (a tenth of your yearly yeild as a form of rent) given to the local landowners (in this case the monks of Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire) the barn is 152 ft (46m) long and 48ft (15m) high and dates from approximately 1290.

Impressive from the outside, it will amaze you from within with its timber beams and stone plinths supporting a heavy stone roof. The larger stone slates at the lower part of the roof are called Cussoms and are load bearing. The ones that follow are, not surprisingly, called Followers and the little slates at the top are called Short-Cocks. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries the barn remained in private hands until gifted to the National Trust in 1956. Admission is by an Honest Box found inside.

From here head out through the village of Great Coxwell onto the A420 which will take you eastwards back towards Oxford, drop back in to reacquainted yourself with the University and city or you can pick up the M40 back to London.