Legends might haunt the ruins of Minster Hall but visitors to the Old Swan & Minster Mill find good food, comfortable surroundings and super service.
What happened to Lord Francis Lovell? Did he escape the clutches of Henry Vll by taking refuge in a secret locked room at the hall - his whereabouts so secret that only his manservant knew? If so, following the untimely death of his servant, Francis's fate was sealed. Was it his skeleton, along with that of a small dog, which was discovered by workmen in 1708? Or what about the story of the young bride who, on playing hide and seek on her wedding day, climbed into a storage chest and was not seen again? The story goes that years later a well-preserved body of a girl in a wedding gown was found in a lead lined chest that had been used to store food. We shall never know! Myths and legends haunt the ruins of Minster Hall.
What is certainly true is that Minster Hall, owned by the Lovell family, dates back to about 1440. Eventually in 1602 it passed into the hands of the eminent lawyer Sir Edward Coke. His descendant Thomas Coke, later Earl of Leicester, lived there from 1721 and in 1728 assumed the title of Lord Lovell of Minster Lovell. But the Cokes preferred their main residence Holkham Hall in Norfolk and the last resident Thomas Coke dismantled much of Minster Hall selling off the building material to raise money for Holkham.
Whether Minster Hall is haunted is open to conjecture, but it is itself hauntingly beautiful – a magnificent towering ruin tucked behind the church and graveyard of St Kenelm's church in the village of Minster Lovell not far from Witney in Oxfordshire.
Minster Lovell was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. Two manors once existed either side of the charmingly named River Windrush their lands connected by a toll bridge. Reeds, said to be the best in the south of England, were taken from the river for use in thatching or for caulking barrels; the marshlands were good for game birds and the river was well stocked with fish and crayfish. With timber from the close by Wychwood Forest and plenty of stone readily available it was a good place to settle.
And with its old church, the high street flanked by charming thatched homes, the abundant fish and crayfish in the river plus the welcoming embrace of the Old Swan & Minster Mill provided by its friendly, charming staff, so it is today.
The Old Swan and Minster Mill
After having checked in at the Old Swan & Minster Mill and a particularly delicious light crayfish lunch we set off in late autumn sunshine to find the ruins. But first we stumbled on the peaceful small church of St Kenelm, built on the site of an earlier priory. The present building dates back to 1450 and it is thought that the bones of William Lovell – founder of the church and the Hall – rest in the alabaster tomb in the Lady Chapel.
Behind the graveyard we spotted the ruins of what once must have been a truly grand Hall. Only the sound of the river and the haunting rasping call of birds amongst the nearly bare autumnal branches disturbed the scene's tranquillity.
Back at the Old Swan & Minster Mill we set out to explore our surroundings with the aid of a map. Well, the two buildings are set in 60 acres of grounds that include a garden temple perfect for wedding photos, tennis courts, croquet lawn, rose garden, herb and vegetable garden, chickens, guinea pigs and children's play area. The map also shows a spa and fitness rooms.
We were staying in the Minster Mill section; our rooms, part of the Garden room complex alongside the busy, rushing River Windrush. Their patios furnished with loungers and fire pits (complete with logs) for chilly evenings or for toasting the provided marshmallows. The Mill was an 18th century working woollen mill and the buildings have been converted into cosy and well-equipped en-suite bedrooms with nice toiletries and thoughtful touches like hot water bottles. Also on the Mill site we found the comfortably furnished Drawing Room with its Minstrels Gallery and roaring log fire. Across the road in the Old Swan are a few more bedrooms plus the dining room, snug and bar.
Dinner that night was lovely. Talented chef David Mwiti runs an excellent kitchen; he and his team producing beautifully cooked food with interesting flavour tweaks. We chose River Windrush Crayfish and Devon Crab cocktail plus a chicken and mushroom terrine for starters. The main course steak was cooked perfectly to order and I would certainly take the Oxford Gold Beer battered Brixham Haddock with triple cooked chips, minted mushy peas and homemade tartare sauce any time. The puds looks lovely but neither of us has a sweet tooth so we opted for a brandy in the bar instead.
Breakfast the next morning was set out in the bar area and stunningly good it was too, fully deserving its AA 'breakfast egg award'. The egg award is particularly appropriate as its chickens do a sterling job of laying the freshest of eggs for the scrambled, poached, over-easy, sunny-side-up breakfast options – and if the girls have been particularly productive their eggs can be bought at reception.
After breakfast, accompanied by Betty and Eddy the resident hotel white ducks we set off for a final tour of the garden where we discovered Head Chef David checking over the vegetable and herb crops to see what was available for his menu that evening. David, who hails from Kenya and never seems to stop smiling, is a firm believer in using seasonal produce as fresh as it can be. If it doesn't come from the garden he favours the local Cotswolds produce where possible – the crayfish come from the River Windrush. David quite obviously loves cooking, loves the Cotswolds and loves the Old Swan and Minster Mill.
We do too! A.M.H. and I.C.
The Old Swan & Minster Mill – Nr Minster Lovell, Witney, Oxfordshire
Tel: 01993 774441