Minster Mill: a riverside break in Oxfordshire
Enjoy walks, fishing, horse riding – and learn how to throw an axe. Matthew Partridge reports
Oxfordshire is home to several charming market towns that are full of character and history. Perhaps the most distinctive is Witney. It lies on the edge of the Cotswolds, only eight miles from the village of Charlbury, and 12 from Oxford, both of which have trains to London. For hundreds of years Witney took advantage of its position on the River Windrush (from which the SS Empire Windrush took its name) to become famous for its wool industry, especially its blankets and mops. Indeed, during the 18th and 19th centuries nearly every ship in the Royal Navy contained a mop made there.
The prosperity that the wool trade brought to the town funded Witney’s distinctive architecture, as well as the Witney Blanket Hall, one of the key tourist attractions. Built in 1721, the hall originally functioned as both a weighing centre and a place for important public meetings. Today, it doubles as a fascinating industrial museum and a shop selling locally made woollen goods, ciders and pies. The museum Cogges Manor Farm, which appeared in the hit television series Downton Abbey as Yew Tree Farm, is only a ten-minute walk away.
Just two miles outside Witney is the village of Minster Lovell, which contains the ruined manor Minster Lovell Hall, which was originally built in the 15th century for William, Baron of Lovell and Holand, at that time one of the richest men in England. However, it was abandoned and partially demolished in the 18th century after its last owner, the First Earl of Leicester, moved to a much larger country house in Norfolk. While only fragments of the exterior of the fine hall, tower and dovecote remain, they are enough to give you a good idea of what the hall would have looked like in its heyday.
Two great boutique hotels
In addition to Minster Lovell Hall, Minster Lovell is the location for two great boutique hotels: Minster Mill, which lies on the banks of the River Windrush amid 60 acres of gardens, and its sister hotel The Swan, which is just next door. The Andrew Brownsword Group of luxury hotels has owned both since 2016. The 38-bedroom Minster Mill is a modern luxury boutique; The Swan has a more relaxed country inn vibe, and has 15 rooms.
Minster Mills also has spa facilities – after being roasted in the rock sauna and boiled to perfection in the steam room, I was grateful for the ice fountain as well as the chance to cool down in the two showers that aim to emulate the experience of a tropical rainforest. I then took an invigorating dip in the indoor pool (which contains whirlpool-style jets), before snoozing on the nearby loungers. For those who are a bit more adventurous, the spa offers you the chance to book a range of individual treatments, including Rasul Mud Therapy.
By the time I had finished, it was time to taste the delights of Minster Mill’s restaurant, which is run by experienced chef Joshua Brimmell. The menu varies, but my meal included a selection of sourdough bread, followed by torched chalk stream trout with celeriac, Granny Smith apple, horseradish and oyster buttermilk and dill. This was followed by roast halibut with king cabbage, Jerusalem artichoke, pickled lemon and roast chicken jus. For desert it was dark chocolate fondant with roast pear and miso caramel ice cream. Then it was time to retire to a spacious junior suite for a comfortable night’s rest, waking up to a striking view of the river.
Minster Mill’s attractions are not just limited to its interiors. Not only is it the starting point for some great country walks, but the hotel also has a mile of fishing rights (although you will need to buy a licence), as well as a giant chess set, and croquet, badminton and boules facilities. The staff are happy to put you in touch with long-standing local providers if you want angling lessons, or to arrange other activities, such as horse riding – or even a lesson on how to throw axes. The hotel is also frequently used as a venue for wedding celebrations, accommodating up to 120 wedding guests, or for business gatherings of up to 200 people.
Matthew was a guest at Minster Mill. Double rooms start from £167 per room, with two sharing, including breakfast. Current offers include a “Spring Fling” package, available for stays on selected dates until 31 May 2022 and including an overnight stay, three-course meal and full English and continental breakfast from just £290 per room, per night. Contact minstermill.co.uk