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The River Windrush

Freda Isaksen

The River Windrush in England is a quiet meandering river which flows for thirty miles from the Cotswolds into the Thames River. The name derives from its character because it winds through the rushes along the hidden valleys and lush meadows. Water is the necessity of life so for many centuries small villages sprang up alongside the river’s banks with farms, cottages and homesteads built of the stone which was already there, supplied by nature. In fact the stone from this area helped to build St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oxford University and other prominent buildings. Several mills were built as the ever-flowing water would provide the power to turn the mill wheels, so the local people could provide for themselves such necessities as flour for food and cloth for personal use. The famous Whitney blankets were first produced in this area.

The river was there long before the start of this story in the seventeenth century. At that time a merchant in London had been successful in his business and had raised a family of fine sons and daughters, but as he approached his middle years he became dissatisfied with the busy city, the fog, the grime and the corruption. He longed to get away from the turmoil. His son was studying at Oxford University and when the father visited him there he envied the rural life of Oxfordshire. He rode around with his horse and coach and stopped off at St. Giles Church where he paid his respects and then sat down on an outdoor bench and contemplated the beautiful surroundings. Dogwood and honeysuckle climbed on the bushes, peacocks and wagtails were strutting on the green lawn. Across the lane he saw the river gently flowing beside a small cottage, a neglected house and an old mill. It all looked abandoned and alone. He walked across the lane and strolled around the area and envisioned himself as the owner and restorer of this piece of land and its time-worn buildings.

In great haste he returned to London which was a ride of several hours with his mode of travel and enthusiastically explained his future plans to his family. His grown children ridiculed him. “You are going to become a gentleman farmer?” they laughed. Only his wife agreed that she would be willing to embark on this new venture. They made plans to become the new owners of the Church Mill and its surroundings. They made arrangements to sell out their business and home in the city and live in the country with or without their children.

With professional advice negotiations went forward, an overseer was hired who settled into the cottage and arrangements were made to build a new main dwelling and restore the old buildings into a working farm and operating mill. Livestock was purchased, a dairy building was added and as they produced wheat which was ground into flour in the mill they added a bakery where their products were baked and sold commercially.

Local stone was used throughout and a very comfortable life was assured for the former city gentleman and his wife. As he reached his senior years his children reached their middle years and they in turn relented and became gentlemen farmers and Church Mill and the farm and home continued successfully for a couple of centuries.

Into the twentieth century life became more sophisticated, the family moved with ease into various professions and to distant places and once again in the mid 1900’s Church Mill became neglected as the owners lost interest in farming, sold out and moved away. Only the original cottage was occupied by the new owners, the mill while still driven by the constantly flowing river was not practical to operate as modern technology replaced the old methods. The other buildings no longer functioned satisfactorily in modern life. So the present owner just ignored all of the neglect, and so it stood abandoned until about the year 1990, when a successful merchant in London was approaching his middle years and was tired of the rat race of modern life in the city. He had a son studying at Oxford University so he drove his automobile to visit him there, about an hour drive from his home. He admired the rural scenery of Oxfordshire and drove around in his vehicle to view the surrounding area. He stopped off at a centuries-old church, paid his respects there and sat down on an ancient bench on the green lawn. Across the street he saw a very old stone building with a thatched roof and several other buildings which looked to be abandoned. Out of curiosity he crossed the street and looked and wandered by the river where he watched the birds flying overhead, and strode along the path by the wildflowers in the meadow.

He returned to the town of Oxford to do some shopping and buy a gift for his wife and as he passed by a real estate office he noticed a picture of the farm on a poster that listed the property for sale. He became very excited, returned to London immediately and exclaimed to his wife “I know what I want to do with the rest of my life!” He pushed her into the car and drove back to Standlake and the farm, all the time glowing over the decision he had already made. She was shocked as she saw the poor condition of the property, but she also saw the fish swimming in the clear water of the river, she saw the rose bushes, the apple and the plum trees, neglected but profuse and vibrant. She smelled the perfume of the elderberries growing on the hedges and of the climbing vines flowering on the old walls and she inhaled the fresh air.

Together they examined the main house, it was obviously worm-eaten and uninhabitable. The former dairy was nothing but a filthy barn, the bakery and its oven and display shelves were all falling apart. Only the cottage was fit to be occupied by its present owner.

The couple inspecting the old farm were my niece and her husband and they had a vision of what the farm had been and could be in the future and they both fell in love with it. They liquidated their assets in London and revitalized this four-hundred-year-old farmstead not as a working farm but as a lovely home to enjoy by the River Windrush.

Now the renovation is completed. All that still remains is the original exterior which is mandatory under English law for historical landmarks. The interior has been almost completely gutted and restored. Most of the wood and stone has been treated with chemicals and reset where necessary to resemble as closely as possible the original appearance although it is completely modernized. The furnishings and decor are country-style and charming. The kitchen floor and entry hall of stone, the wooden beams, the thick walls, the fireplaces, the thatched roofs, the windows are all originals.

The eighty-year-old mill is still in operation and grinding flour from wheat which they purchase. They bake the bread in their up-to-date kitchen, just for fun. Once a year the mill is open to the public on England’s National Mill Day when history buffs will tour the country to see the old mills. The other buildings that were part of the old farm are now used for storage. Two big Labradors run around the grounds and enjoy their unfettered freedom.

When I visit I relax in that lovely modern English home with the country flavor. I imagine all that could have happened through the centuries in those comfortable rooms. In the gardens I can breathe the fresh air and listen to the waters of the river flowing by. I even welcome the presence of imaginary ghosts. Maybe the past will repeat itself and my great-grandchildren will visit Church Mill and the future generations of those who live there now.

I know for sure that the River Windrush will flow forever.


Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at math.wayne.edu.

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