Cotswold Ways Walk: A literary ramble around Garsington Manor
PUBLISHED: 10:55 11 September 2018
Where better to spend an August afternoon than amid the literary history of handsome Garsington Manor?
August is a time for garden parties, the clink of glasses and the froth of chatter and laughter, music and games on the lawn, picnics and daisy-chains, day-dreaming on a deckchair, or diving between the pages of book while soaking up the sun, and where better than the handsome Garsington Manor and its environs to imagine such Epicurean and literary pleasures?
Garsington might be best known these days for being the home of the annual opera festival, which was held in the grounds of the Manor from 1989 to 2010 (until its relocation to Wormsley Park), but this quiet, charming village near Oxford played host to a different sort of operatics and melodramas in the early part of the twentieth century.
Garsington Manor, built on land once owned by the son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (to set its literary credentials in stone) was purchased by Philip Morrell and his wife, the society beauty Lady Ottoline, (who rather tellingly annexed her husband’s name, but was not subsumed by, becoming Lady Ottoline-Morrell), in 1914, when it was in a dilapidated state, its former glory as ‘Chaucers’ faded, but not irreparably. They set to restoring it, and as the juggernaut of the Great War commenced, they flung open their doors to conscientious objectors, many of whom were in the Ottoline-Morrell’s charmed circle already, as it happened – chiefly the ‘Bloomsberries’, as the loose cohort of literati who converged around London WC1/NW1 were affectionately called, AKA The Bloomsbury Set. The likes of Clive Bell and Duncan Grant opted for agricultural work instead of the Trenches – deemed of ‘national importance’ value by the War Office – and the grounds were given over the growing veg and rearing livestock. With the help of the architect Philip Tilden, the Manor and Gardens were restored to their glory in the 20s and the home of the Ottoline-Morrells became a popular gathering place for literary soirees. The calibre of D.H. and Freida Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, Siegfriend Sassoon, Lytton Strachey, Aldous Huxley and others were guests. The parties were legendary, and inevitable gossip and scandals emerged – some generated by those in the ‘in crowd’. Aldous Huxley caricatured his hostess and her ‘set’ in his novel Crome Yellow, which she never forgave him for. Other guests, such as Strachey, were similarly ungracious in their accounts of Garsington, and yet all benefited from Lady Ottoline-Morrells hospitality and the atmosphere she created – of wit, hedonism, and beauty. There are breathless reports of Garsington’s enchantment – a true sanctuary from the madness of the world – and racy stories of the hostess’ affairs, most famously with Bertrand Russell, whom she had billeted ironically in Conscience Cottage. The Ottoline-Morrells were better at throwing parties than running an estate. Threatened with bankruptcy they were forced to move out in 1928 and an era came to an end.
The house was owned by Sir John Wheeler-Bennett until sold in 1981 to Leonard and Rosalind Ingrams and family. Wandering around Garsington village it is hard not to imagine the comings and goings of the Bloomsberries during the Roaring Twenties. The operatics and scandal may have moved on, but the ghosts of all of yesterday’s parties linger.
1. Exit the carpark of The Three Horseshoes, turning left. Follow lane down hill, passing the bluecoat school and some pretty cottages.
2. Keeping on left side of road – a raised footpath – follow lane down hill, past church of St Mary’s (where you’ll be returning shortly), continuing as it bends to the left. On the opposite side of a road a large house will appear, the splendid Garsington Manor. Enjoy the fine frontage, imagining the comings and goings of Lady Ottoline Morrell’s many famous guests.
3. Facing the Manor, turn right back up the lane briefly until you reach a track on your left that runs alongside of house to the woods and fields beyond. It passes a pond, where it is rumoured Lady Ottoline lured a lover by bathing naked (apparently this was a myth: she was wearing a bathing suit)!
4. Pass through gate and make your way across field uphill to church of St Mary’s.
5. Enter churchyard through a little wooden gate flanked by gravestones set into the wall.
6. Exploring the interior of this lovely Norman church. On the immediate right as you enter there is a memorial plaque dedicated to Lady Ottoline.
7. Emerging from your church enjoy the view before descending back through the small gate you entered the churchyard from, but this time dropping straight down to footpath signs over the field.
8. From here pass through gate and enter the field of therapeutic horses – don’t be tempted to feed them. Dogs must be kept on leads.
9. Keep on the same direction until you reach a gate on far side of field, pass through this turning left, crossing a ditch.
10. Follow edge of field along, enjoying the sense of space. In the distance, to your right, you’ll the distinctive ‘twin peaks’ of Wittenham Clumps, made famous by the painter Paul Nash (1889-1946).
11. On your left your see Garsington Manor in the distance.
12. Pass through a small gate in corner of field, continue on to the houses in the distance.
13. Keeping to right side of field (hedge of your right) enter village, turning left up track.
14. Take footpath on your right between the houses.
15. Cross field, heading towards the church on the hillside. Don’t worry you won’t have to walk all that way, but it’s handy to navigate by.
16. Cross field diagonally. Keep on going in same direction – eventually you’ll reach a track, and emerge between farm buildings.
17. Exit through gate onto metalled lane, turning left.
18. Turning left at top of lane.
19. Ignore ‘Footpath to Garsington’ sign on left. Soon after on right you’ll another footpath sign (slightly hidden) take this across field, doubling back on yourself as it makes a diagonally to the corner of Denton House, where you may meet some friendly horses, and spot some interesting ruins across the paddock.
20. Continue opposite those to stile on the far side of field.
21. Take this and continue diagonally across field, slowly making your way back towards the village of Garsington.
22. Ignore footpath in gap on right – the right of way seems to have been blocked off further up by the houses; so you’ll need to follow tractor tracks around corner of field until you reach a gate on far side – past all the backs of the houses. Keep going and don’t give up!
23. Emerging onto lane turn right then left down into village, emerging by the memorial cross and old market cross opposite pub.
24. You’ve made it back – time for a drink!
Distance: 5.83km / 3.62ml walk.
Duration: 2 hrs
Parking: The Three Horseshoes car-park.
Toilets: in pubs for patrons.
Pub: The Three Horseshoes, 16 The Green, Garsington, Oxford OX44 9DF. Tel: 01865 368666
Transport Links: Buses from Oxford (103/104 Mon-Sat).
Map: OS 180 Oxford.
Kevan Manwaring is a Stroud-based writer and storyteller. He is the author of Oxfordshire Folk Tales and Northamptonshire Folk Tales, a contributor to English Folk Tales and editor of Ballad Tales, all from the History Press. He teaches creative writing for the Open University and the Stroud area.
Find Kevan on Twitter! @bardicacademic