The Westwell Bridleway

   People (and not just villagers) often wonder about the Bridleway which runs from the pond area in the centre of the village and goes up through the Old Rectory, past the Glebe House and on to the Cirencester road. Surely it is unusual for any public right of way for horses to go up the front drive of what is now a private house?

   Georgie Fox not only answers the question, she also files a definitive narrative outlining how the matter developed and resolved... 

   St Mary's Church to the right, the Old Rectory to the left.

   There are more photographs at the foot of this article

   This photograph, by Giles Edwards, is from 'The Land of The Twelve Churches: Reflections in the landscape in The Time of Corona' to be published by Parish Pump during August 2021

   For a number of centuries the living at Westwell, which included the Manor and its lands, belonged to Christ Church, Oxford. This only changed early in the twentieth century when in 1912 Sir Southern Holland bought the Manor and its farm lands from Christ Church. And in 1925 the then Rector, Robert Sharpe, resigned the living, and the parish was joined with that of Holwell, whose existing incumbent remained in the Rectory there (now referred to as Holwell House). The Church Commissioners then offered Westwell’s Rectory for sale, and it was bought by a Mrs Cordes as a wedding present for her daughter, Dorothy, on her engagement to Captain Bertram Freeman-Mitford. He later became the 3rd Lord Redesdale after the death of his brother, the father of the famous ‘Mitford Girls’ died. Both house and garden were in a parlous state and they set about restoring these with zeal. There is reference in Captain Mitford’s diary of the fact that his front drive was being used as a right of way, and if it was a bridleway, rather than a footpath, why did it only apparently start in the middle of the village?

   The answer seems to have been that it provided access to Parsonage Farm (whose barn and yard behind the Old Rectory are now a ‘party barn’ and variously a wildflower meadow and a car park for contractors’ vehicles) and also enabled the various small farmers from the village to take their corn across to the mill at Great Barrington for threshing – the right of way does in fact continue across both the Cirencester-Burford Road and the A40. The only farm immediately north of the Rectory was Parsonage Farm, with this access from the south, although there seems to have been a rough track out to Cuckoo Pen Lane and northwards only. The farm’s two cottages were those now known as ‘Freelands Cottages’ by the pond. When in 1929 Christ Church sold off much of their Westwell lands Captain Mitford bought Parsonage Farm and sold off the cottages by the pond to Sir Southern Holland who had Manor Farm. With the proceeds he then built the first four of those along what is now referred to as ‘the concrete road’.

   Post World War II, Capt. Mitford built Mitford Cottage for his sister, Iris, and also nos. 5 and 6 Mitford Cottages, and the approach road was improved, although the connection from the end of it down to the Eastleach Road was not made until a little later. Ted Coleman, who was born and brought up in No. 4 Mitford, remembered a time when Cuckoo Pen Lane ended at the junction with the concrete road.

   Lord Redesdale (as he was then) died in 1962 and his wife in 1967. The Rectory, Mitford Cottage and a small amount of land were left to Lord Redesdale’s niece, Mrs. Rosemary Bailey. Rosemary was the elder of two daughters of Clement Mitford, who would have become Lord Redesdale had he not died in World War I, leaving no sons. Rosemary sold off the Old Rectory and a couple of paddocks to the Grimston Family, and lived herself in Mitford Cottage.

   It is not known exactly what the Grimstons were told about the Definitive Map of Rights of Way showing a bridleway through the property when they bought it. But, with children and animals running about, it was clearly inconvenient to them to have both horses and pedestrians, some with dogs, going up their front drive. And before long, they started to make it inconvenient for anyone to do so. To start with this was done with gates each end which were not easy to open. Then later they put in a shallow cattle grid by the front entrance, meaning that horses were forced to use the churchyard route. They referred to this as a ‘gravel trap’, whatever the name it was not something anyone who valued their horse would attempt to ride over.

   Some villagers were not happy about this, but the Grimstons were very much part of village life (Robert Grimston was Chair of the Village Meeting for a while, they gave the church its weathervane and were most generous hosts), and on the whole went along with the situation. The most unhappy were Bert and Muriel Baldwin, long-time residents, who from 1975 were living in the Old School House, now named Peacehaven, who objected to horses passing so close to them on a narrow path, which could quickly become muddy. But on the whole horse traffic was light.

   Matters came to a head when Mrs Jane Mills from Barrington started a riding stables and brought numbers of horses through the churchyard on a regular basis. The inevitable mess in bad weather resulted in pedestrians beginning to take other routes across the churchyard, creating new paths and passing through and over graves. In 1991 the Grimstons, using Savilles as agents, applied to Oxfordshire County Council to have the route confirmed as going through the churchyard. This was refused. With the acquiescence of the Village Meeting, they then applied to divert it round the concrete road. This was also refused, following objections from organisations who felt it unsafe to ride, or walk, through the village even if the concrete road part was suitable.  Meanwhile the Rector at the time, the normally mild-tempered Ron Lloyd, became irate at the despoiling of ‘his’ churchyard, and what he perceived as the Grimstons intransigence in blocking the use of the bridleway as shown on the Definitive Map. This did not just cause a rift between him and the Grimstons, but also resulted in their withdrawing almost totally from village life and making things even more awkward for anyone trying to assert their right to walk or ride through the Old Rectory. It was at this time that Bert Baldwin put a breeze block below the little retaining wall on the north of the ‘rector’s path to provide a step so that Rosemary Bailey could continue to come to church without a long diversion. Later, Chris Fox, Manager of the farms at the time, got his maintenance man, Bob Stowe, to put a step into the wall for use by pedestrians.

   In 1998 the Grimstons appealed against the 1991 decision to the Secretary of State. In 2002 Chris Fox, on behalf of the PCC erected a wooden swinging gate at the bottom of the churchyard, which was normally locked, making access almost impossible for horses. Before this he had also installed a metal barrier at the north end, which could be passed by pedestrians and pushchairs and the odd wheelbarrow, but not horses. Thus for some years horses were far less often seen in Westwell.

   The Appeal resulted in an order, not made until 2004, to add a bridleway through the churchyard to the Definitive Map. The PCC in their turn appealed against this decision, resulting in the Public Enquiry which took place in the Council Offices in Witney in September 2006. By this time Robert Grimston had died and his wife June had been moved by her children to a property owned by her family, the de Maulays, in Little Faringdon. The family then sold the Old Rectory to David MacMillan, who was assured by the agents, Butler Sherborne, that it would be possible overrule any objection to the Secretary of State’s decision and thus win an enquiry.

   By now both Revd Lloyd and long-time Church Warden Janet Phillips had retired from their posts, and the case for the PCC was headed by Churchwarden Chris Fox whose long presence in Westwell (he arrived about the same time as the Grimstons) and 19 years as a District Councillor made him much the best person to head the PCCs case. Unfortunately around this time he was often absent from Westwell for weeks at a time sailing wherever he could. This meant that when a large document arrived from the Inspectorate demanding to know the PCC’s case for their objection, and giving only three weeks to produce it, arrived, after a longish period of silence, he was not just away but mostly out of touch.

   Thus the brunt of this fell on me as Chris’ wife, who apart from working full-time was trying to keep everything going at home. But most fortunately Derek Portman, who had just the right sort of experience behind him, came forward to assist, even though he had family from America staying at the time. By getting up at 5 a.m. to read through the other side’s case and also more than one visit to Oxford, a reply was put together with the assistance of the Diocesan Registrar, John Rees. Derek’s Oxford research confirmed some interesting points. Firstly that until the school was opened in ca 1855, there was probably no official footpath even through the churchyard. Such through route as there was seems to have been by permission for villagers to reach a patch referred to as ‘Mr Bagnall’s garden’ – perhaps some kind of allotment? He also came up with the fact that when Janet and David Phillips bought the barn which became the house ‘Barnstorm’ one of the works they had to do was to shore up the retaining wall between their property and the churchyard. Excavations literally threw up human remains spreading from the wall across the churchyard, so surely farm carts etc could not have been going over graves?

So, a response was put together, witnesses were primed, and with the help of John Rees, Counsel was appointed to fight the PCC’s case.

   Thus, at long last, this came to a public enquiry, held in the District Council Offices in Witney, on 5, 6 and 7 September 2006, followed by an adjournment until 16 November when the Inspector gave her judgement. A nail-biting time, plenty of apparently convincing evidence having been submitted by both sides. The Inspector was extremely thorough, making two site visits herself, unannounced.

   But she came down in favour of the PCC! What a relief – to all but David Macmillan, who assured that it was nothing personal, took it on the chin. The footpath, which was not part of the claim, remained through the churchyard, but a bridleway was confirmed as going up the Old Rectory Drive. A considerably poorer PCC had seen the matter put to rest.

   Why the Inspector came to the conclusion she did was the result of very thorough and fair proceedings. She possibly, like many, had a gut feeling that horses should not go through churchyards – a thought which although the Diocesan Registrar shared  he could find no proof of – and so to this day horses can regularly be seen traversing the Old Rectory Drive. In fact equine traffic is increasing with horse riding becoming an ever more popular leisure activity, but the present owner, Garvin Brown, so far remains relaxed about it!

   JR Fox July 2021

Westwell Old Rectory in The Land of The Twelve Churches
Roy Dixon at the entrance of Westwell Old Rectory in The Land of The Twelve Churches
The Westwell Bridleway in The Land of The Twelve Churches

Apart from her own notes & recollections, Georgie Fox drew on the following sources:

Westwell, Oxfordshire, A S T Fisher, 1972 Privately Published

 Order Decision Erica Eden MIPROW, The Planning Inspectorate, 5th, 6th & 7th September and 16th November 2006

Personal Recollections by the Foxes, Baldwins and Stowes, Westwell residents

Thanks to Roy Dixon & his horse.

   Julian Choyce, 2021