by Ben Johnson
Imagine a perfect summer’s day in England – warm sunshine, just the hint of a cool breeze, birds singing, the sound of a church bell chiming somewhere in the distance.
Imagine a romantic ruined manor house set beside a lazy river in a tiny picturesque village in the heart of Oxfordshire. Imagine all this and you could be at Minster Lovell Hall, near Witney, in the Cotswolds.
To enter the village you descend down a narrow road and cross the river by the playing fields before passing the hotel and inn to enter the main (and only) street of the village, lined on both sides with cottages. Follow the signs for the Hall (signed English Heritage). Entrance is free to the Hall which is situated next to the church, itself dating from the 15th century. There is also a medieval dovecote in the next field, open to the public but exterior viewing only.
The history of Minster Lovell Hall is one of legend and mystery.
The house dates from 1435 and was built by the seventh Lord Lovell, on the site of an earlier building. The lands had belonged to the Lovell family since the 12th century. However it is the fate of Francis, the ninth and last Baron Lovell, that gives rise to the mystery and legend of Minster Lovell Hall.
After the death of his father, who fought in the Wars of the Roses on the side of the House of Lancaster, Francis Lovell was brought up not as a Lancastrian but as a Yorkist and was created Viscount Lovell by Richard III. After fighting with Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, at which the king was killed, Francis fled, returning two years later to take part in the Lambert Simnel rebellion. After this no-one is certain what became of him.
However it is said that in the early 18th century, during building work at the Hall, an underground room or vault was discovered. In this room was found a skeleton, sitting upright at a table, surrounded by books, paper and pens. Was this the ninth Lord Lovell? Perhaps we will never know as no underground room has ever been found since.
Francis Lovell was declared guilty of treason after the Battle of Bosworth and his lands reverted to the Crown. The Manor was bought by Sir Thomas Coke in 1602 and in the mid 18th century Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, dismantled the house.
The ruins of the Hall are quite extensive. The photograph (left) shows the view through the entrance hall which has a beautiful cloistered roof. Original plaster work is still visible on many of the walls.
But perhaps it is the setting of Minster Lovell Hall that is most appealing – it really is quite superb.
Enjoy a picnic by the river and admire the fish that can be seen clearly in the crystal clear waters. Or take a walk through the meadows by the river. From the Hall, take the footpath through the gate as though you are going to view the dovecote.
Keep on the path beside the river through the meadows until the path crosses the river at a small weir. The water here is sometimes deep enough for local children to swim. Continue through the small wood until you emerge into beautiful meadows and fields, the peace and tranquility broken only by the sound of the occasional aircraft overhead from Brize Norton Airfield!
The River Windrush flows through some of the most beautiful countryside in England, flowing as it does through Cotswold towns and villages such as Bourton-on-the-Water, Burford and the Barringtons. It is also responsible for the wool trade of this part of the Cotswolds. Even today, blanket manufacture continues in Witney. Along the banks of the river, evidence of the woollen mills can still be found.
When visiting Minster Lovell, do not forget to explore the Wychwoods, another area where you can escape the hordes of summer visitors who descend on the better known villages of the Cotswolds. This was once the ancient Royal Hunting Forest of Wychwood, much of which survives. The villages all have a charm and beauty of their own, several with welcoming country inns providing excellent food and real ale. Be sure to take a good map with you though, as it is very easy to get lost amongst the pretty, narrow, winding lanes of Wychwood!
How to get here
Minster Lovell Hall is in the village of Minster Lovell, 3 miles west of Witney off the A40. Follow the English Heritage signs from the village. Try our UK Travel Guide for more detailed road and rail information.