First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
When the National Trust took over Canons Ashby in 1981, the Tudor country house in gently rolling Northamptonshire countryside was a wreck, its gardens run wild. It was hard to imagine that, on this brisk spring day with volunteers tending the tulip beds and topiary in the immaculate gardens, and others ready to fill in the story of the ironstone house and its dark panelled rooms gathered tightly round a tall courtyard.
The Augustinian canons of the medieval priory here were rather a naughty lot. In 1432 the visiting Bishop had to rebuke them for lecherous, rowdy and drunken behaviour. When the priory was finally dissolved in 1536, the outgoing Prior had earned a sorry reputation for hosting wild student parties, worshipping in a lavish silver robe, and flouting his vows of celibacy.
Out in the parkland beyond the house, ewes bleated for lambs who scampered up with grubby knees. Bullocks jostled to stare at us over the hedge. At South West Farm a couple of guineafowl went scuttling across the road with their characteristically furtive air, hunched down in spotted cloaks of feathers as though guilty of some misdoing.
The trees around the priory fishponds were loud with birdsong – chaffinches, blackbirds, great tits, blackcaps and song thrushes giving it their best springtime chorus. The path led round the margins of enormous fields of wheat. In their hedges white blossom of blackthorn and pink of crab apple gave promise of a fruitful autumn six months hence.
Up on the crest of the land we turned along a ridge road with long views over the plough-striped undulations of the countryside. The verges of the road were lined with trees, wide grassy strips that told of past animal droving.
Oxford Lane, our return route to Canons Ashby, was another broad green highway. Cattle, sheep and pigs would be driven down here towards the slaughterhouses and college kitchens of the University Town. The old green road has lost its easterly hedge to modern farming. The soil of the wheatfields that bordered it was thick with flint, chert, fossil shells and pebbles rolled smooth and round by some great prehistoric river.
Bluebells hazed the ground under the larches of Ashby Gorge, pink bonnets of milkmaids spattered the damp ditches, and a few early bees went buzzing among the white sloe blossom.
How hard is it? 5 miles; easy; field paths
Start: Canons Ashby house, near Daventry, Northants NN11 3SD (OS ref SP 577505) – NT pay car park. Limited parking at church
Getting there: Canons Ashby is signposted from A361 (Daventry-Banbury)
Walk (OS Explorer 206): From car park, right down road. Just past South West Farm, right (573503, fingerpost) on field path, following arrows. In ¾ mile, at ‘Private’ notice (568512), left along farm track, then hedgeside track. In ½ mile at oak tree with arrows (564519), right with hedge on right. In 400m left up hedge (568520) to road (568521). Right; in ⅔ mile, opposite road on left, right down Oxford Lane hedged track (578525, ‘Byway, Macmillan Way’/MW). In ½ mile MW bears right (580516), but keep ahead. In ½ mile cross road (584508) and on. In 400m right (584504, gate, arrow); half left across pastures till right-hand hedge meets fence (579501). Through 3 kissing gates, across footbridge; on across field to cross road (577499, fingerpost). Field path to road at South West Farm (574503); right to car park.
Lunch: Crown Inn, Weston NN12 8PX (01295-760310, thecrowninnweston.co.uk); NT teashop at Canons Ashby.
Accommodation: Weston Hill Farm, Moreton Pinkney NN11 3SN (01295-760217)