A Literary Pilgrimage

Last weekend I went on a little jolly to Oxford to visit my dear friend (who blogs at Bloomsbury Bell but has been naughtily neglectful of late!) Naomi. We used to work together at the V&A but just over a year ago she upped sticks and moved to a beautiful little village just outside of Oxford. I miss her terribly so it was with much excitement that I boarded the Oxford Tube at Victoria and wended my way through the misty streets of a very early Sunday morning London before heading out into the countryside. In just over an hour I was dropped off at the outskirts of Oxford, Naomi picked me up, and we drove straight to the tiny village of Swinbrook, home of the Mitford sisters.

I am a typical Londoner and so any sight of fields and farm animals sends me off into raptures of delight. I found Swinbrook absolutely beautiful; it is surrounded by gently rolling open farmland and sparsely populated with handsome period cotswold stone cottages whose golden yellow walls melt seamlessly into the countryside beyond. In the middle of the village sits the church, which has been there since the 18th century judging from the date of some of its oldest gravestones. In this quiet, peaceful spot are buried four of the Mitford sisters. Nancy, Unity and Diana are next to one another, and Pamela lies slightly apart, next to her cousin. Their graves are marked by simple, unshowy stones, and I felt really rather touched by seeing them there. Having been fascinated by them for such a long time, to see where they have been laid to rest was quite moving, and I am so glad that they are all together in such a beautiful place that is saturated with memories of their extraordinary lives.

After wandering around the village and enjoying the Autumn settings and bracing, woodsmoke-scented air, we moved on to a nearby pub for a hearty roast and a good catch up. Then it was back to Naomi’s village via Woodstock, home of Blenheim Palace, where we stopped for a quick potter around and a peek through the grand gates down to the house…before a nice cup of tea and a sit down. After some more chatting we went on a tour of Naomi’s gorgeous little village, complete with adorable general store, local pub, and amazing manor house, as well as some spectacular views across the open countryside. All too soon it was time for me to reluctantly return back to the Big Smoke, so I said my goodbyes and boarded my bus back to the metropolis. A whirlwind of a day but an absolutely lovely one – it reminded me of how precious and breathtaking the English countryside is, and I was delighted to finally be able to pay my respects at the grave of one of my favourite writers, and see the scenes that I have so often read about through my own eyes.

41 comments

  1. Beautiful. When I think of England, this is exactly the sort of place that pops into my mind (having never been, outside of “book-travel”). Thanks for sharing your adventures with us.

    1. Come back, come back! My mum lives very close to Churchill’s house, Chartwell, in Kent – that’s a beautiful place to visit too. The great thing about England is that it’s so small, you can see everything within a short space of time!

  2. What a beautiful day you had. I would find it difficult to leave the beautiful countryside to return to a city, even such a beautiful one. Your photos are just lovely and enough of a tease to make me want to make a visit.

    1. Well, Janet, London is the jewel in the crown of England if you ask me! Glad you enjoyed the pictures, and you simply must come – stay for a month or two and enjoy the gorgeousness of England!

  3. OH, you naughty girl, I thought we were going to see each other! I still have the book Darlene wanted to pass onto you. AND I’ve never been to Swinbrook, which is criminal.

      1. have replied😉 I definitely need to go to Swinbrook (tried to take my brother there last time he visited… he wasn’t having it) so if you can bear it for a second time… (!)

  4. Next time you are near Oxford go to Finstock near Charlbury and visit the home of Barbara Pym.
    I’m sure you will love her books once you get started.

  5. I can imagine walking down that path and spending time in that lovely cottage, Rachel. What a terrific day you had – I’m green with envy. The Mitford graves seem so humble when one considers their lives and such. I have so admired all the literary places you have shown us.

    1. Isn’t it gorgeous? All the houses there are like that. I was so envious of the people who lived there! Yes – I liked that about their graves. Ultimately I think they were rather modest people who never took themselves seriously – anything extravagant wouldn’t have suited them. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my literary wanderings…hopefully there will be many more to come!

  6. Swinbrook is lovely! Am glad you had a nice day out. Naomi lives in such a nice village compared to the “village” we live in (the largest in Europe apparently; also in my opibion the ugliest)

    1. It’s soooo pretty it almost made me want to leave London! Naomi’s village is gorgeous…so quaint. She drove me through yours on the way to the bus…it’s not that bad!!

  7. Oh that little trickle in the third photo, that must lead to a larger stream somewhere, is so charming! It must have been beyond wonderful to sit down with Naomi (hello stranger!) and have a really good catch-up. And I’ll have to add Swinbrook to my list of places to visit since I will definitely be going back to Oxford one day. Did you need a tissue while you were paying your respects to the Mitford ladies? I’m sure I would.

    1. Darlene you would have died and gone to heaven! It was lovely – emails are no substitute for face to face! You must go to Swinbrook and its environs when you come back. I did feel a little emotional…it’s strange to think of them as being dead when their voices are so alive on the page.

  8. Is that a mole on Nancy’s gravestone? Beautiful lettering.

    It’s so lovely that you are showing the English countryside (although it makes me very sad to be living away from home) – Britain is a beautiful place and gets too much of the wrong sort of publicity.

    You alwsy use your time so well, Rachel.

    1. Yes it is, apparently a reference to some sort of nickname. Perhaps someone can shed some light?!

      Thank you – I know – there is a lot wrong with Britain of course but essentially it is a beautiful country and I adore it and will never stop doing so. I love getting to see the countryside and realising how amazing the landscape and the history of this little island really is.

      Thanks Chrissy – not sleeping is my secret!!

      1. The mole is from the Mitford coat of arms.

        The great thing about reading about the Mitford sisters is that the reading goes on and on and on. Have you read the collections of their letters? I love those books. And, if you finish reading everything about them, you can read all the books the various sisters have written!

      2. The engraving at the top of her gravestone is a mole, which is the animal of the coats of arms of Mitfords, as she hated crosses.

  9. I’m a bit surprised so many of the sisters were buried close together. I suppose Jessica wouldn’t have consented to be buried near Diana and Unity?

  10. Jenny, Decca died in California where she made her life, and her ashes were scattered at sea, after an ultra-cheap ($500) cremation in keeping with her “American Way of Death” muckraking attack on the funeral industry. Later, though, a thousand friends gathered for a memorial and there was a procession with six black horses, reflecting her joking request. Rachel, you’ve done it again – visited a place I’ve wanted to see all my life, and accomplished it so young, too! Simon, I herewith make a request a year in advance: Let’s go to Swinbrook together! Actually, I never went, because the Mitfords’ own descriptions of Swinbrook made it sound so gloomy. I should have guessed it would be heavenly. They never could be serious! Thanks for the revelation, Rachel.

    1. Thanks for that information Diana, I didn’t know that!

      Well it’s not much of an accomplishment – it’s only an hour away! You must visit when next you come. I think their house at Swinbrook was awful – Naomi showed it to me and it’s not very attractive – but the village itself is as picture postcard as you can get. Though I suppose for six lively and glamorous girls it was dull as dishwater!

  11. I think most of my fellow Anglophiles would say, upon reading your post and seeing the pictures, there is still an England! The England we love in our hearts. We read so much about changes over there that it thrills me to see such beauty. And those gravestones! Oh my.

  12. I read “The Mitford Sisters” earlier this year with my bookclub and it was a great read. They were (are) fascinating people! Why is Pamela apart from her sisters? I was sorry that Lovell’s book neglected her a bit.

    1. I loved that book – it started my obsession! I’m not sure why Pam is apart – I can only assume it was due to space restrictions when she was buried or other plots being purchased in the meantime. If anyone knows I would be all ears!

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