First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Where overnight rain had been sluicing through the Thames Valley, winter sunshine as clear and sweet as honey was now pouring across the grey and gold stone houses of Kelmscott.
William and Jane Morris spent their summers at Kelmscott Manor from 1871 onwards. William, the Father of the Arts & Crafts movement, found the obscure Oxfordshire backwater a balm for the soul. ‘Heaven on earth,’ he called Kelmscott. It became a rather more earthy paradise for Jane, who conducted a passionate affair at the manor with pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
We found the manor confined in a winter jacket of scaffolding. Sulphur-yellow quinces had dropped over the garden wall. They rolled along the lane we followed down to the rain-charged River Thames.
Rooks in their dozens went up cawing from the trees along the river, a broad highway of contrary tides whose main flow pushed downstream at running speed, while backwaters eddied and spun in opposing directions. On the graceful curve of Eaton footbridge we stopped to admire the strength and surging power of the water, then turned east through wide green meadows whose medieval furrows each held a miniature lakelet of rainwater.
The little church of St Michael & All Angels at Eaton Hastings benefited from the proximity of the Arts & Crafts powerhouse of Kelmscott Manor. We found a William Morris west window showing three ultra-romantic archangels with flowing locks and androgenous countenances. In the north chancel window Edward Burne-Jones created a stormy St Michael, heavy-eyed and morose, a striking characterisation.
The Thames lay distant as we walked on through the fields. The brimming ditches were lined with crack willows and ash trees distorted, bowed and twisted out of shape. A rowdy gang of winter thrushes roistered among the hawthorns, raucously exclaiming to one another as they stripped the branches of their crimson fruits.
A pair of sturdy old stone bridges spanned the bifurcated Thames at Radcot. A skirmish here in 1387 between the forces of King Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke saw 800 men flee into the marshes and drown, but there were just three deaths by fighting – Sir Thomas Molyneux, a varlet, and a boy. History records that the knight was treacherously stabbed, but one would like to know more of the misfortunate varlet, not to mention that wretched child.
Such strife seemed far away as we strolled the Thames Path back towards Kelmscott. On the bank we passed a young woman in a bathing suit. She had been swimming in the cold and flooded river with the help of a stout rope and a strong companion. Pink from head to toe, she glowed with health and vigour. ‘The swans were scary,’ she confided through chattering teeth, ‘but I loved it!’
How hard is it? 7 miles, easy field and riverside paths.
Start: Plough Inn, Kelmscott, Lechlade GL7 3HG (OS ref SU 249991)
Getting there: Kelmscott is signed off A17 (Lechlade-Faringdon)
Walk (OS Explorer 170): Passing stump of cross and Plough Inn on your right, fork left along road. In 150m, right (250990, ‘Kelmscott Manor’). Ahead beside manor (‘Radcot Bridge’). In 150m, right on Thames Path (253988). In ½ mile, left across footbridge (247985). Through left-hand gate beyond cottage; left along field edges (National Trust green arrows) for 1 mile to road (263985). Ahead past Eaton Hastings church; follow D’Arcy Dalton Way east for 1¾ miles through fields (kissing gates, stiles) to A4095 at Radcot (286994). Left across 2 bridges; right (285995) on Thames Path for 3 miles to Kelmscott.
Lunch/accommodation: Plough Inn, Kelmscott (01367-253543, theploughinnkelmscott.com)
Info: sal.org.uk/kelmscott-manor; satmap.com; ramblers.org.uk