Minster Lovell

August 21st 2013

This is the face of a broken man…



I was still in the Cotswolds on a sultry late-summer afternoon with the air hung charged and heavy. From time to time, darkening thundery skies threatened to silence the quintessential crack of leather on willow that rang out from the closely mown cricket pitch – from the gentlemen in white.

There was a timeless feel about this place. And little wonder, for Minster Lovell is a tiny and ancient village, a cluster of thatch, rose and hollyhock.


A straggle of yellow sandstone walls, mediaeval inns – and owl cottages with happy faces …


But mine was not a happy face. Far from it, because it was hot – oppressively hot – and every sinew within me was straining and aching to swim.


Mentioned in the Domesday book, Minster’s history probably extends further back through the centuries, for it lies close to Akeman Street, a Roman road linking Cirencester with St Albans.

Beyond the cool peace of St Kenelm’s Church lie the 15th century ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Henchman to Richard III, Francis Lovell became one of the wealthiest men in all England, but after Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, Francis became a fugitive. A man on the run. A man with no place to hide.


Legend has it that an underground room was discovered in the early 1700s and within its confines sat a skeleton, upright at a table and surrounded by books, papers and pens. Was this the notorious Viscount Lovell?

But I had made a far more notable dicovery….


This is a picture of a happier man.

A man who has found water, for the River Windrush runs right past the ruins of  the great Hall.

The cool smell of its flow was in the air, but there was a problem – and a big one at that…

For it was quite busy and many children were swimming. Unusually, I was totally unprepared; I had no trunks and I knew that to skinny dip here would earn me a custodial sentence and an uncomfortable meeting with the General Medical Council!

What was I to do?

Luckily, the average Brit on a day out has an unshakeable belief that walking more than 200 metres from the car causes one’s feet to shrivel and wither. So they tend to clump together – like the ‘huddled masses’ of Emma Lazarus.

Determind to escape the ‘teeming shore’ and to ‘breathe free,’  we set out along the narrow path that first crossed a meadow, then a humble bridge before finally entering a small wood where it meandered hand in hand with the river.


Here the Windrush was a chalky green colour and I hoped this was because the Cotswolds are, well, green and chalky. But there was a real risk that the hue was far more sinister.


Did you ever own a chemistry set? If so, did your Christmas morning excitement fade when the copper sulphate crystals you grew were a tiny reflection of the vast blue shards pictured on the lid?

You also likely failed to generate sufficient hydrogen sulphide to make much of a stink bomb. So in frustration you probably just mixed all the little packets of powder together, added a drench of water and left the vile concoction sitting on a windowsill.

Where it became the exact colour of the Windrush…


Near the bridge, where the river widens into a pool enjoyed by children through countless generations, two girls were swimming quietly together. Neither appeared to be foaming at the mouth or dissolving away so I travelled on for a few minutes and then plunged into the murky waters. Like a clockwork toy boat, I was off, shooting across the water in a wide circular navigation until my coil finally unwound and I drifted to a sedate halt.


Where I stayed.

Life was casual and gentle here.

A slow drift carried me into an oxbow where the path and the river briefly parted company in a lover’s spat. In this backwater, distant from the known world, all was silent and peaceful and perfect.


The reeds beside me murmured, as if, Moses-like, they sheltered a secret.

More movement, then a shuffle of water to reveal a female mallard, paddling and babbling through the verdant emerald margins.


Embarking on a wldly reckless dare, a damselfly alighted close by in a shock of vivid blue. Folded-back wings, fragile body and feeble water-hugging flight distinguished this delicate insect from its bigger, bolder dragonfly cousin.

To simply float with eyes at surface level, to become immersed in this place, to be painted into the scene was a very pure delight. To be part of that canvas, whose detail unfolded with the looking, was a privilege; a private viewing.

And to turn for the shore was a wrench, tempered only by a slow bankside sun-dried half hour.

Back at the Old Swan, whose pedigree spans almost 600 years, I downed a cold pint, played chess and chatted with Marty, my future son in law.


Seated in the pub garden, suffused with the saffron glow of the setting sun, Marty said he thought the way I am happy to just jump into a river and swim, unplanned and uninhibited was “real cool”.

To be honest, I was a bit pleased, a bit proud!  With puffed up chest I strolled to the bar to buy us another drink …


….. Or did he say “fool”?

Swimming in a Chocolate Box

River Windrush

August 20th 2013

Today, one of my daughter’s is flying away. Flying away to sunny climes.

As we exchange airport texts, my mind drifts back to a holiday we shared last summer.

For it really was a drifting time.

Drifting off the beaten track through impossibly quaint Cotswold hamlets, drifting across golden cornfields under pure blue skies and drifting down the very prettiest of rivers and streams.

Golden cornfields above Adlestrop

Golden cornfields above Adlestrop

Pretty rivers with pretty names.

Like the Windrush.

To me, this paints a mind picture, not of a howling hoolie, but of a gently winding reed-lined stream. So I was not disappointed when, on a sultry August afternoon, I decided to retrace the footsteps of Roger Deakin, like a disciple on a pilgrimage, to find a swimming hole described with great beauty in ‘Waterlog’ – the book that launched a thousand wild swimmers!


‘About a mile downstream from Burford on the meandering footpath to Widford, I found the finest oxbow bend I have ever seen. Sheep grazed the meadows and the cropped grass was in wonderful condition, springy and deep green. At the narrow turkey neck of the oxbow were two old pollard willows. One of them masqueraded as a hybrid, with dog-roses, hawthorn and elder growing from the marsupial recesses of its anguished trunk. Each was an independent world, with whole cities of insect life in the grimy wrinkles of its bark and generations of bird’s nests in its dense topknot. I slid into the upstream side of the oxbow and swam all around it, almost back to where I had begun, climbing out by the twin willows again. Two hops across the grass and I was back in the river where I began, swimming the next power-assisted lap around the grassy peninsula.’

Roger Deakin: Waterlog: Chap 25: The Oxbow (Published by Vintage Books, 2000)

I rather fancied a ride in this flowing fairground, so we headed to the small and much photographed town of Burford – cover pic of many a chocolate box.


Steeped in history, Burford is remembered as the place where, in May 1649, the leaders of the ‘Levellers’ were finally cornered in the parish church and executed. These three brave men had led a mutiny in Cromwell’s army, believing that their leaders had betrayed the notion that all men were  equal under the law. This desire to level out social inequalities cost them their lives, but their pre-socialist ideals are remembered every year on Leveller’s Day – with a celebration of music, processions and political debate.

Photo courtesy WEA

Photo courtesy WEA

Wild swimming is a levelling activity…

Anyone can do it, regardless of class, creed or colour. You don’t need money or have to undertake expensive training. The only equipment you really require is the suit you were born in – and there’s nothing more levelling than that!

Leaving Burford on foot and using a local map that cost 20p – (a poor investment as it transpired – and a lesson always to invest in the Ordnance Survey) – we walked for what seemed an eternity along the busy road leading to Witney and Oxford beyond. The verge was dry and dusty – a Roman march away from the quiet footpath that I had imagined at the day’s dawning. So it was with relief that we turned downhill, left the road behind us and headed down towards the famous oxbow.

Unfortunately in the 14 years since Roger first penned his account, many a pilgrimage must have ensued.

Too many!

For now the way was barred, fenced and signed as strictly forbidden territory. The addition of searchlights and razor wire would not have rendered the scene any less welcoming. But we were a large group with small children so I did not feel that this was the right time to push boundaries.


Instead we headed downstream, through fields that afforded no easy river access. A swan with two cygnets looked me up and down with a ‘make my day’ sneer that required no Dr Doolittle translation.


I was beginning to feel a little crest-fallen, a little desolate, when suddenly, rising up ahead of us – Shangri-La.

As if purposely planted as succour to the weary traveller, two sturdy willows stood overhanging a wide pool, casting deep shadows across the water and into the meadow. There could be no better place for a swim and a picnic.


Moments later we were sliding down the muddy bank* and into the still water – slate green and barely moving, like a thin pea broth in the pan of a lazy chef.

*[Memo to self – muddy banks that are great to slide down are not always so great to slither back up!]


The character of the Windrush could not be further removed from the moorland rivers that I am used to. No cool clear waters in a restless hurry, no rattle of stone or foaming fall. Instead, a slow steady procession,  straining through metre long tendrils of emerald weed. Thistledown tumbled from the banks, blown along in the softest of breezes, too little wind to ruffle the perfect reflection of reeds and sky that were painted across the water.


The river bed was gravel and silt, typically three to four feet deep, so we swam upstream with ease before floating down on our backs, receiving a massage from the weed below whilst soft willow leaves casually brushed our faces. No exotic health spa could have offered more!

Like a shipwrecked sailor, Maddie clung to a small log with cries of glee as she too was softly carried down the stream, past tall grasses and fields of ripening barley.


All about us were bankside burrows, speaking of lives unseen in the heat of the afternoon. Here one could meet Ratty, Mole or Mr Toad without surprise, for this English river was quintessentially theirs.

With swimmers drying in the afternoon sun, we took shelter in the shade of the trees and enjoyed a lunch of cheese, chorizo, french bread and fruit. Meadow games followed before we embarked on the tired, slow walk back to Burford with swim bags dangling.


And all around us, the chatter of children and crickets …