East to West Walk

With Peter Jones

Without leaving the Four Shires we start with a view of the sea and end up at a lighthouse we take in a brewery, a ruined abbey, a full size train set and, of course, a bottle of red.

We take the Broughton road out of Banbury and leave Oxfordshire just before Brailes, where we enter Warwickshire. Here we only spend a short time before passing through Shipston on Stour turning left on to the Fosse Way and into Gloucestershire at Moreton in Marsh, (three shires in just 30 minutes).

Our first stop for the benefit of our retired airline pilot is the Wellington Aviation Museum. It is easy to find as it is on the Broadway road out of the town and the exterior is dominated by a pair of wheels and propellers from a Wellington Bomber – one of many aircraft that were stationed at nearby RAF Moreton.

The museum opens on Sundays until November, full details of which are on its very informative website.

Continuing on the Fosse we turn off just before reaching Stow on the Wold on the road towards Upper Swell. We pay homage to one of the world’s greatest bass players, John Entwhistle of The Who, whose former estate we can see to our left.

We are steadily climbing across the Cotswold hills that run from south to north and make a small diversion to look at the idyllic Donnington Brewery. Sadly, they do not run brewery visits but you can buy beer there. There is now a 62 mile walk “The Donnington Way” that takes in all 15 of their pubs, we will save that for next year.

We resist the temptation to stop at The Plough in Ford, once voted ‘racing pub of the year’. It is opposite Jackdaw’s Castle – the gallops of the racing stable of John Jo O’Neill. It is a mecca for followers of National Hunt racing.

The Cotswold Farm Park is to our left, run by Countryfile’s Adam Henson. It is the home of many rare breeds and a great family day out, and there is much to see do and join in with there.

We have reached the highest point on our trip and even though we are only 40 minutes from Banbury we can see the sun reflecting off the sea! Strictly speaking it is the Severn Estuary with the Bristol Channel just beyond….but we are only 40 minutes from Banbury.

We turn right into the village of Stanway where we find the stunning Stanway House, home of the Earls of Wemys who still live there. It is open to visitors in the summer months or groups at any time of the year. It is spectacular in every way as are the gardens where Britain’s tallest fountain can be found. At 300 feet it is spectacular and again Stanway House is another great choice for a day out.

However, the highlight for us is the estate’s cricket pitch and thatched pavilion which was the gift of Peter Pan creator, author J M Barrie. Architect Roger points out that the staddle stones on which the pavilion rests were designed to keep rats from gaining access though we did suggest to him they could always use the steps!

Just a mile or so from Stanway is the starting point for our trip, Hailes Abbey. It is closed now till March though you can get close enough to it at this time of the year to take some decent photos.

Established in the 13th century it is now a spectacular set of ruins set at the foot of the Cotswolds. It is owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage. Just opposite the abbey is Hailes church in which there are some well preserved medieval wall paintings.

We turn east and start our trip back across the four shires, and for me the highlight of the trip is Toddington Station, home of the Gloucester and Warwickshire Railway, the GWR.

Both sides of my family have railwaymen in their history, which made this a special visit. There are regular services and trips in a variety of steam and diesel pulled trains.

We were lucky on the day of our visit as even though it was closed, we had arranged access and a locomotive had been put in steam for us. The station itself is in a time warp and has been used as a location in many films.

The line operates from Toddington to Cheltenham race course and plans are well underway to complete it all the way to Broadway, run by just three full time staff and over 700 volunteers the GWR makes for a great day out, especially if you include a train ride.

Next door is Toddington garden centre where we warm up with a great cup of coffee before rumbling tummies tell us it is time for lunch.

We head for the Kings Head in Bledington just off the Stow to Chipping Norton Road. It is very popular following a couple of glowing reviews in the national press – we are lucky enough to get a table in the bar.

I am a long term sufferer from gout. Shellfish, offal and red wine are best avoided, so my lunch of potted shrimps, devilled Cotswold kidneys and excellent French house wine appeared on the face of it a silly choice. Delicious however.

Standing proud on the skyline for sometime has been the impressive tower of All Saints Church in Churchill. Built in the 19th century the tower is a two thirds copy of Magdalen College in Oxford. Sadly the church was closed so we will revisit later in the year.

A navigational error takes us south westish, rather than east and we find ourselves in Chadlington where we find the fabulously named Café de la Post. It serves great coffee and lunches and just one meal on Friday evenings. That night it was boeuf bourguignon and mash. On Saturday nights the Café de la Post becomes a pizza restaurant.

Keeping to the lanes we head steadily east through villages we had never heard of including Gagginwell. We arrive in Duns Tew, where we stop to wander around the village and visit the 12th century church of St Mary Magdalene.

We are now pretty confident where we are and swing up through Somerton, Fritwell and Souldern before heading towards Croughton. The two gate guardians that stand at the entrance to RAF Croughton, a F-100 Super Sabre and the F-105 Thunder Chief are beginning to look a little tired and in need of some paint.

We now turn into petrolheads and as we enter Brackley we pause to visit the home of the 2015 F1 World Champions, Mercedes F1 Team whose factory entrance is marked by a roundabout with a topiary three pointed Mercedes star.

Sticking with the world of Formula One we pass the home of British Motor Racing at Silverstone and on up the road just north of Towcester – our finishing point.

One of the landmarks that we have often seen during our walks in the north of the four shires region is the National Lift Tower in Northampton. It is a grade II listed building, a lift testing tower and known locally as the Northampton Lighthouse! As we had a view of the sea at the beginning of our day it seemed fitting to end with a lighthouse.

However that was not quite the end, we called into the Whittlebury Hall hotel, a vast, modern hotel and conference centre just north of Silverstone where the focus of our visit was the Silverstone bar. The walls are decorated with photographs and memorabilia of racing drivers past and present.

We do make one final navigation error. It is odd how they always happen when we leave a bar, although it does give us a big bonus. After a very short distance we realise our mistake when we reach a sign announcing our arrival in Buckinghamshire which whilst not where we want to be does mean that we have visited all five counties of The Four Shires in One day.