Adventures with windmills in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire - far from La Mancha where Don Quixote is said to have jousted and ‘tilted’ at windmills in the 17th century... Your travels will bring you to Brill, the inspiration for Bree, the fictional village in Tolkien's Middle-earth, east of the Shire. Along the way, the windmills of the mind will feed your imagination on quiet country lanes riding your noble stead through forests, meadows, and gentle sloping hills in search of new exciting adventures. “Good fortune is guiding our affairs better than we could have desired, for there you see, friend Sancho Panza, thirty or more enormous giants with whom I intend to do battle and whose lives I intend to take, and with the spoils we shall begin to grow rich, for this is righteous warfare, and it is a great service to God to remove so evil a breed from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
“Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with the long arms; sometimes they are almost two leagues long.”
“Look, your grace,” Sancho responded, “those things that appear over there aren’t giants but windmills, and what looks like their arms are the sails that are turned by the wind and make the grindstone move.”
“It seems clear to me,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not well-versed in the matter of adventures“
(“Don Quixote“, Miguel de Cervantes, transl. Edith Grossman)(Photo: Copyright Ann Harriss 2017 facebook.com/AnnHarrisskittPhotography)
Arrive at Oxford train station to start the quest that will take you to 12 windmills over four days. You can travel light with each day ending with potential places to stay along the way. Still, you could arrive early and use the morning exploring Oxford's many wonders, from the shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum to the hidden treasures in Colleges including El Greco’s magnificent painting of St James in New College Chapel.The first stage is 65km, and you start by cycling through the bustle of Jericho, into north Oxford, past the house where a fellow traveller in tilting at windmills, Lawrence of Arabia, lived on Polstead Rd. You then ride along the picturesque Oxford Canal, where house boats and barges pack the narrow canal which was once the main thoroughfare for goods travelling up and down the country. See if you can spot the inspirations for Lyra and her daimon - or the gyptians in their colourful barges found in Philip Pullman’s classic trilogy “His Dark Materials”.You leave the canal path at Yarnton and cycle through country lanes to North Leigh where you will find the first windmill, the North Leigh tower mill which was built in 1833 with four common sails and a conical cap. Sadly, it fell into disrepair in 1940 but immediately to the north, you can see a complete miniature windmill in a private garden. A chance, perhaps, to briefly relive “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift.Following the quiet country lanes leads you to Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill. The magnificent grounds are well worth a visit but cycling is not permitted. Before leaving the village of Woodstock, you may want to drink a cup of coffee in one of the many cafés. The ride takes you through leafy countryside before passing Bletchingdon Park, a Palladian country house built in 1782.
Continue your ride through the small villages of Weston On The Green, Wendlebury and Ambrosden until you reach Blackthorn Hill, south of Bicester. The ”East Mill” tower windmill dating back to at least 1809 appears after 57km. Unlike its twin “West Mill”, it has survived the ravages of time - but has lost its sails and cap and has been converted into holiday accommodation. Turning south, you cycle up to Brill; the inspiration for Bree, the fictional village in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, east of the Shire. Brill Windmill is a post mill dating from the 17th century and an excellent example of the earliest type of European windmill. From here, you can enjoy the spectacular views across the Shire. Places to spend the night in Brill include, for example, the delightful Pheasant Pub.
The second stage of 59km awaits, giving you plenty of time to enjoy in the countryside as you cycle through forests and fields of the Shire. First stop is Quainton Windmill, also known as the “Banner Mill”, built in the 1830s as a 20m tall six-storey brick tower mill making it the third tallest windmill in the country. The original mill machinery and fittings are intact and in working order; ready to grind. Next to the windmill you will find excellent lunch options at The George & Dragon pub.Continuing west through rather stunning scenery, you will pass the village of Mentmore before you get to Pitstone Windmill, which is another early post mill dating from 1627, which unlike similar mills in East Anglia, was turned to face the wind on top of a huge wooden post using a tail pole instead of a fantail or shuttered sails.Climbing into the Chiltern Hills brings you to beautiful country estate of Ashbridge set amongst 5000 acres of woodlands and parkland. Owned by the National Trust, the estate has a rich history, which includes being used as a monastery college in 1283 before being taken by Henry VIII during the period of the dissolution of monasteries. You may recognise some of the scenery from the “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” film.The stage ends in Berkhamsted, passing the Berkhamsted Castle Ruins, a Norman motte-and-bailey castle which once controlled a key route from London to the Midlands. The castle is generally thought to be have been constructed by Robert of Mortain, the half brother of William the Conqueror. There are various options for spending the night in Berkhamsted including the Kings Arms Hotel.
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The third stage is only 56km but includes some climbs into the Chiltern Hills. Today you will visit four windmills, each with their rich history. After a mere 8km, you will come to Hawridge Windmill, a tower mill constructed in 1883. The windmill ceased operation in 1912 and then became a studio by the English writer Gilbert Cannan and his actress wife Mary (née Ansell). They entertained many of the period’s foremost writers and artists including D.H. Lawrence and Mark Gerstler. Back in Oxford at the Ashmolean Museum, you can see Gerstler’s painting “Gilbert Cannan and his Mill”. One of the dogs in that painting belonged J.M. Barrie and is thought to have been the inspiration for Nana, the Darling children’s nurse in his much beloved novel “Peter Pan”.After 23km and two more gentle climbs you will find yourself at Grove’s Windmill in Coleshill, which is a tower windmill built in 1856, ceasing operations around 1903. Cycling further in the Chilterns Hill will bring you to the stunning Lacey Green Windmill, probably the oldest smock windmill in the country, dating back from the middle of the 17th century. After falling into disrepair, it was lovingly restored by the Chiltern Society in 1971.Descending from the Chilterns into the foothills will bring you to Chinnor Windmill; a historic flour mill originally built in 1789. If you cycle further along Chinnor road to Aston Rowant, you can find lodgings for the night in the Mercure Thame Lambert Hotel.
The final stage back into Oxford is a mere 60km but first you will ascend again into the Chiltern Hills. After the first climb followed by a gentle descent you arrive in Ibstone Village, where on Turville Hill you will find Cobstone Mill, a smock mill built around 1816 and fully functioning until 1873. Followed a long period of deterioration, it was cosmetically restored for the film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. Climbing back up in to the Chiltern Hills, you will find Swyncombe and St Botolph’s church, a hidden gem founded in the 11th century. Make sure to enjoy the views over the Shire before you descend in to the village of Ewelme, dating from the 15th century. Of note are the almshouses, officially called “The Two Chaplains and Thirteen Poor Men of Ewelme in the County of Oxford”.Cycling along the quiet country lanes through glorious countryside will bring you to the gorgeous Great Haseley Windmill, 40 km from where you started. It is a stone tower windmill with four common sails and a fantail which is thought to have been constructed in 1760 and, along with most other windmills in the country, ceased operation before the First World War. The stones of the tower were not reused for nearby buildings, which greatly helped the restoration of the windmill in 2014 to its current beautiful state. The quaint villages of Great Milton and Cuddesdon roll along before you reach the 12th and final windmill of your tour. The splendid, octagonally shaped 18th century Wheatley Windmill with four sails which turn clockwise rather than the more usual anti-clockwise. Interestingly, for a time the windmill operated on two sails only. The canvas - similar to that of the Thames barges from the beginning of your journey - were rigged on the wooden frame of the sails and could be set according to the state of the wind and the amount of work the miller had to do. After this long journey could a similar thing be happening to the windmills of your mind?Back into Oxford, perhaps time for an espresso on the way back to the train station? Peleton Espresso on Cowley Rd is very bike friendly and serves beautiful banana bread. Be sure to ask for the special menu, which includes a healthy dose of chocolate for your pleasure. And why not roll past Halley’s Observatory near the Hertford Bridge? You can marvel at how Edmond Halley were able to compute the orbital period of between 74–79 years for Halley’s comet (1P/Halley) which is the only short-period comet visible to the naked eye from Earth. Latest appearance of the comet in the inner parts of the Solar System was in 1986 and it will next appear in mid-2061 to 2062.