The recent wet weather had made some of our planned walks a little difficult underfoot and during a chat with the editor, I discovered that the Four Shires most southerly distribution point was Abingdon and that in the north it was Coventry.
So we formed a plan to travel the whole length of the Four Shires area in one day.
We start in Abingdon. It claims to be the oldest town in England. There may be others that could be older but Abingdon’s claim is that it is the oldest continuously occupied. It was recently given as the definitive answer on BBC TV’s QI programme, so it has to be right!
A really interesting town to explore, Abingdon is well worth a visit. It is however, England’s largest town without a railway station – another useless fact – it was until 1974, in Berkshire as well, until it was succeeded by Reading as the county town.
We start our adventure in the Abingdon County Hall Museum formerly “The grandest town hall in Britain”. It stands on pillars, with the museum on the two floors above, full of Abingdon history – and an MG car on display.
MG’s were built in Abingdon from 1929 until1980 and the car on display in the museum, an MGB, was one of the very last built in the town. There is a fascinating film showing how the car was lifted, in many pieces, through the windows and then reassembled.
There is a roof terrace that is open when weather allows, from where there are views stretching for many miles over the Oxfordshire countryside.After a quick coffee in the basement café we headed out of town towards the west on a lane to Frilford. Lunch and red wine were still some hours away but we were tempted by a road side sign: ‘Bothy Vineyard’. The drive led us up to a very modern property and a big brass bell hanging from a tree.
The vineyard, which is Oxfordshire’s oldest, is owned by Richard and Sian Liwicki. Sian answered our bell ringing and we were very lucky as the vineyard is only normally open to the public during May, June and July and again in September. During which times, tours are available, at a small cost including a tasting.
Sian gave us a very interesting talk about the background to their wine making and the vineyard. She also explained to architect Roger why his own grapes may have failed this year. (It will be many years, however, before Chateau Great Bourton will be available in your local supermarket!)
We left, laden with Cote du Bothy, Oxford Pink and two or three different white wines. We picked up a lane near Frilford Heath Golf Course and headed north past the mighty Farmoor reservoir.
We then crossed the River Thames, over the Swinford toll bridge. There was a moment of panic, however, when trying to raise the 5p fee between us! It is estimated that four million vehicles a year use the toll bridge, one of only two on the Thames. Owners of toll bridges do not have to pay tax. A quick calculation will disclose that this makes the £1 million price that the bridge last sold for, a bargain!
We headed over the bridge that brought us into Bladon. The church there is St Martins and nearby Blenheim Palace is within its parish. The church is best known for homing the last resting place of Winston Churchill and is visited each year by thousands of visitors.
By now, not only was it getting close to lunch, but we were still a lot further south than we intended to be (such is the variety of Four Shires country that perhaps we should have allowed two days). Sticking to the lanes to the east of Woodstock and Chipping Norton we arrive in Armscote.
The Fuzzy Duck opened just over 18 months ago and was reviewed in the Four Shires back then. Now fully established and very popular, we were lucky to get a table. Really good burgers were washed down with a couple of bottles of ‘Whistling Duck Australian Shiraz’. Though sadly, as I was in charge of the steering wheel, not for me.
There was some debate as to whether we were on the Fosse Way or not. Not that it mattered as we were off to meet a grand old lady. En route we pass Compton Verney, one of the secrets of the Four Shires; An 18th Century country house, now an art gallery. It caters for all age groups and is a great place to spend the day.
Wellesbourne Mountfield airfield, where we stop next, lies between Banbury and Stratford upon Avon. It is the home to the mighty Vulcan XM655. It regularly fires up its engines and once a year carries out a fast taxi run.
The Touchdown Café at the airfield is open to both pilots and public. It is a great place to sit with a coffee and watch the planes. A small museum is situated alongside the car park and of course, every Saturday there is the huge Wellesbourne market.
There are many National Trust and English heritage properties in the Four Shires region and we chose to pop into Charlecote park. Charlecote is open every day except Wednesdays. It is a great place for a day out. You can picnic, play or wander through the parkland where Shakespeare is reputed to have poached deer.
We leave Charlecote and skirt around the north of Warwick to Hatton. We spend some time at The Hatton Flight, 21 locks on the Grand Union Canal that covers less than two miles and ascends 148 feet.
This is another terrific picnic spot, with views down the flight to Warwick. A café, boat hire, fishing, great walks and The Hatton Arms pub are all within easy reach. This would make another superb day out in The Four Shires, which you could combine with a visit to nearby Hatton Country World and Shopping Village.
It was beginning to get dark now and it was time to head for our final destination – Coventry. The retired airline pilot was getting excited as we are going flying!
Or last country lane takes us past the Piers Gaveston memorial (I will save that story for another time) and the Saxon Mill restaurant, through Stoneleigh to Coventry airport. We briefly visit the Midland Air Museum on the north side of the airfield. Amongst the huge number of planes is our second Vulcan of the day, though it looks a bit tired compared to that at Wellesbourne.
Next door is the Electric Railway museum and just a little further back in Baginton village, The Lunt Roman fort. The fort is a recreation of a timber and turf Roman Fort, though it is only open to the public on selected days.
The focus for our visit however is the DC6 diner. This is a Douglas DC-6 aircraft housing a restaurant and bar that offers great food and drink with great views of other famous aircraft. Indeed, not only did this one fly regularly from Coventry to New York, it is the very plane that featured in the James Bond film Casino Royale. It is a great venue for parties.
The cockpit is open to sit in and my pilot friend got all teary eyed as he played with controls, switches and tapped dials. I am sure if he had the keys we would have flown back to Banbury!
We will be walking next month and we will be going underground!