Paradise found: Fishipedia locks up the office and heads off to the Cotswolds to sample the food, fishing and warm hospitality on offer at the Old Swan and Minster Mill, a secluded hotel in deepest Oxfordshire
There’s a deck chair sitting outside the front door of the Old Swan bearing a familiar crown motif above five famous words: “Keep calm and carry on”. A day or two at this secluded Oxfordshire hotel and it begins to dawn on you just how appropriate that sentiment is.
For one thing, it is simply impossible to be anything other than totally, contentedly, possibly even smugly calm in a setting like this. But the other thing about that simple sentence is the feeling it invokes. For many, it represents the very distillation of Britishness; a sense of style and serenity in the face of chaos and uncertainty, the ability to withstand life’s dramas without so much as a wobble in the upper-lip department. The best that Britain has to offer, essentially. It’s a concept that has been perfected at the Old Swan and Minster Mill at Witney – a hidden idyll in one of England’s prettiest corners where the food is hearty, the welcome warm and the sense of peace all-enveloping.
This property, on the edge of the Cotswolds, was taken over by the de Savary family in 2010, who promptly set about restoring its majesty. The result is two separate hotels – the older, more traditional Old Swan and its more contemporary companion, the Minster Mill – all nestled in 65 acres of countryside, the River Windrush meandering quietly alongside. There are 60 rooms or so in total, but you simply wouldn’t know it.
In the 17th-century building that houses the Old Swan, secreted away between metre-thick walls and topsy-turvy floorboards, are 16 individually styled bedrooms combining a handsome and traditional ethos with just enough modernity (flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi) to appease today’s traveller.
The restaurant downstairs serves gastro pub-inspired food (all ingredients sourced locally) and the bar offers a range of local ales. You’ll probably find these are best enjoyed while loafing in one of the hotel’s inviting snugs. Fortunately, with the sun beating down for our stay, there was no need to test the quality of the open fire. Next time maybe…
With all of this assorted comfort, I almost forgot the reason I had brought my wife and child to this little hideaway in the first place. The fishing, of course. Now, it’s not often I can confidently suggest a holiday location to my wife and not have to sell it to her. This time was different – one look at the pictures on the website and she was on board.
The River Windrush that carves a path through the property’s meadows and alongside Minster Mill is a gem. Offering both coarse and game fishing, this chalk bed river is filled with a variety of species, most notably a healthy population of wild brown trout. But there are plenty of other species to go after – chub, bream, plenty of pike and perch, not to mention the odd grayling.
If I’m honest, I hadn’t really considered anything other than trout before we arrived. And I was still in that frame of mind right up until head gardener/fishing aficionado Tristan gave me a tour of the fishery. At some point during our chat, he casually mentioned that chub taken in this section of the river regularly tip the scales at 6lbs. These monstrous sizes have been attributed by some to the influx of the signal crayfish, the scourge of so many British waterways, but apparently a welcome addition from the chub’s point of view.
I was itching to get started. Wandering north from the hotel, through lovingly manicured rose gardens, past the tennis court and croquet lawn, I traced the path of the river through deserted meadows, a woodpecker and the occasional partridge my only company.
It’s one of life’s pleasures to have a river such as this all to yourself, but I’m assured that’s how it usually is on the Windrush at the Old Swan. Shallow riffles give way to deeper cuts and lily-fringed passes, the water tumbles into a weir pool and sweeps under bridges, and each new spot appears more perfect than the last.
It’s challenging stuff though; don’t expect the fish here to surrender without some effort on your part. By the time the first fish exploded onto the fly, I’d fallen so far into a silent reverie, working a pheasant-tail nymph under some low-hanging branches, it almost seemed like an intrusion. A chub of around two-and-half pounds seemed a good enough way to start.
Switching flies, adjusting depths, creeping for one swim to the next, I covered almost all the available water (over a mile on both banks) over the next day. Highlights included the wild brownie that emerged from nowhere in the evening sun on that first day to sip a parachute adams from the surface film. It came to hand just long enough for me wonder whether it had ever seen another angler’s fly, before a single back-flip signalled its departure.
The following morning was equally special. A golden flash on the edge of some lilies had me thinking about those 6lb chub again. After my small dry fly went ignored, I decided to up the ante. Well, you know what they – sometimes, you’ve got to ‘show the dog the rabbit’. On went a booby – surely no self-respecting chub can ignore that kind of meal? It turns out they can’t; I’d probably skated it about two feet back from the far bank when it disappeared in a boil of water. Two pounds of pristine Windrush chub, and it turned out to be my last fish of the trip. OK, so it wasn’t the 6-pounder I knew was in there somewhere, but that just gives me another reason to return.
It’s never easy saying goodbye to somewhere like this. But leave we must. With baby and bags tucked under arms, we made our way down the windy corridor, between the bomb-proof walls, down the spiral staircase and out into the light. “Keep calm and carry on” read the sign. Well, quite.
Tackle & tactics
Keep it simple and keep it light. A 4-weight rod and line will be plenty – no great distance-casting is required, and light flies are the order of the day.
The following should cover most eventualities: mayfly, olive dun, blue dun, parachute adams, black gnat, red quill, greenwell’s glory, various weighted nymphs. Also, pack a few heavier surface flies for those times when the chub are in the mood. Topwater action can be explosive.
Trotting tactics score well here, but you might want to consider bringing a light ledger rod and a light spinning rod too. There are plenty of pike that’ll grab a lure, not to mention some large chub and perch.
Coarse and fly tackle can be hired at the hotel, and a ghillie service is available
All dishes are made with locally sourced ingredients, and imaginatively prepared. Traditional favourites like rack of lamb and steak (28-day hung and melt-in-the-mouth good) sit alongside some top-notch seafood and seasonal specials. The focus is on modern, British cuisine, and the results are knockout.
The picnic hampers
You might to want to fast for a day or so beforehand if you’re going to do justice to one of these. Doorstep sandwiches; cold meats; carrots, cucumber and dips; Greek salad; cheese and crackers; fruit salad; chocolate tart… and all washed down with a bottle Oxford Gold ale. After that, you’ll probably find it’s siesta o’clock – just make sure one of those deck chairs is nice and handy.
You can take the family fishing
I know, sometimes it’s the best way to ruin a perfect day. But occasionally it just works. At one point I had my wife relaxing on the croquet lawn, our baby daughter sleeping gently under a parasol by her side and me just a few steps away with fly rod in hand, the river running by.
And when they say they’re child-friendly, they mean it. Our five-month-old was welcome in the bar at dinner (although if you’d prefer, your baby monitor might just work over that distance) and the hotel can recommend a baby-sitting service should you need it. There was even a present waiting in Junior’s cot when we arrived.
So near but so far
If you’re visiting the UK from abroad, you’ll find Witney just an hour-and-a-half or so by car from London. But once here, you’ll feel like you’re in a different world. Historic Oxford is about 20 minutes down the road.