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Jane Bingham visits the home of the eccentric – and troubled - Mitford family.

If you ever need reminding of how odd the English can be, take a trip to Swinbrook. The setting is idyllic - a perfect Cotswold village nestling in the Windrush valley just two miles east of Burford - but inside Swinbrook church is a very strange group of tombs. Lined up on a set of shallow stone shelves are six reclining knights, each propped up on one elbow as if preparing to wait out eternity.  (The playwright Alan Bennett has compared them to sleeping passengers in a “sepulchral couchette”.) They are the Fettiplaces, a once powerful clan who ruled vast areas of Oxfordshire, and played an important role in the English Civil War.

 

Mitfords at Swinbrook

At the rear of the church another famous family is remembered. A set of memorial plaques commemorate David Freeman Mitford, second Baron Redesdale, his wife, Sydney, and their only son, Thomas, killed in World War Two.  And outside in the churchyard, a row of simple headstones mark out the graves of four more Mitfords: Nancy, Diana, Pamela and Unity.

 

By the mid-20th century, five of the six Mitford sisters had gained some form of fame or notoriety. Nancy, the oldest, became a comic novelist and social commentator, pronouncing on what was ‘U’ or ‘Non-U’. Deborah married into the high aristocracy, becoming the Duchess of Devonshire, Diana left her husband for Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, while Decca took the opposite political route, joining the Communist Party. Most notorious of all, Unity became a devoted follower of Adolf Hitler. When war was declared in 1939, Unity shot herself in the head, and returned to Swinbrook to live out the rest of her life as an invalid.

 

Mitford Family in Swinbrook, 1929

Mitford Family in Swinbrook, 1929

 

Strange Games

The Mitford link with Swinbrook began in 1919 when the family arrived in the neighbouring village of Asthall.  The children loved the rambling Asthall Manor, with its romantic garden stretching down to the river, but after eight years they moved to the newly built Swinbrook House. In her fascinating memoir, Hons and Rebels, Decca described the house at Swinbrook as a mixture of a small barracks, a girls’ boarding school, a private lunatic asylum and a country club, and acknowledged that it filled most of these roles for her family. In their Cotswold homes, the girls were educated by a series of governesses, and indulged in wildly imaginative games, sharing a secret language of their own. One of their favourite sports was the “child hunt”, in which Lord Redesdale chased his children through the countryside with his bloodhounds in full pursuit, and this and other highly peculiar pastimes found their way into The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford’s best-selling novel of eccentric English family life.

 

Visiting Swinbrook

Swinbrook House can be viewed today from the road to Shipton-under-Wychwood, and you can visit Asthall Manor every other year, when the house and grounds provide the perfect setting for ‘In Form’, a spectacular show of some of our very best contemporary sculptors. But the place where the Mitford memories are strongest is Swinbrook village. The picturesque Swan Inn, on the banks of the River Windrush, is owned by Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire and youngest of the Mitfords, who has covered its walls with photos of her family posing with numerous horses, dogs, and hens. You can absorb the Mitford story in the Swan and then stroll through the village described by Decca as “a dozen grey cottages huddled like Cotswold sheep.”

 

In the village churchyard you’ll notice a set of railings beside the church door where, according to Decca, the Mitford children tethered their pets before attending Sunday worship.  Decca claims that the railings provided a convenient cage for a sheep, several dogs, a goat and a dove “whose loud whelps, cooing and baaing blended nicely with the lusty voices of the village choir.” Today, in sleepy Swinbrook, such surprising noises have long since disappeared, but the colourful stories live on.

 

Visit Swinbrook with Cotswold Walks

Cotswold Gardens Tour. Spend 5 nights/6 days based in Chipping Campden and Barnsley, touring the gardens in the area including a visit to the village of Swinbrook. Read more about this tour.

 

Burford Luxury Short Break. Spend 2 nights in Burford and walk in the area, including a walk to Swinbrook along the River Windrush. Read more about this short break.

 

Oxford to Bath Self-Guided Walk. Try our new walk which passes through Swinbrook (9 nights/103 miles walking). Read more about this self-guided walk.

 

Mitford Family photo © Mitford Archive, Chatsworth, Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

Posted by Andrew
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