MAGGIE HARTFORD gets on the bus to uncover the history of family tragedy, a secret guerilla army – and a project working towards a greener future

Oxfordshire’s route 66 may be less famous than its American cousin, but it has plenty of attractions. Instead of linking the 1930s Dust Bowl to the US West Coast, the number 66 bus takes passengers from Oxford to Swindon every 20 minutes.

It can also whisk walkers to the misty blue hills around Faringdon, where we were heading for a high summer ramble. This time we turned our backs on the town’s famous folly to explore parkland that offers a new perspective on the area’s most popular walking route, the Ridgeway.

We got off at the Little Coxwell turn, using the Tarmac footpath to Great Coxwell, home of the famous tithe barn, one of Oxfordshire’s greatest medieval treasures. This huge stone and timber building was used to store some of the rich harvests of distant Beaulieu Abbey, in the New Forest, whose tenants were obliged to pay a tenth of their crops to the monastery.

After gasping at the impressive timber posts and the medieval graffiti on the thick Cotswold stone walls, we continued down the beautifully-named Puddleduck Lane. It used to be called Coleshill Lane, and it still goes to the National Trust village of Coleshill, but fortunately is not accessible to motor traffic.

The tarmac soon gives way to gravel and shingle, and the track rises gently to give wonderful views of the Ridgeway, which spreads across the horizon as a wavy blue ledge. On the hazy day of our walk, we could easily make out the beautiful hollow below the White Horse known as the Manger, but the famous chalk figure was hard to see.

It was great fun to pick out favourite spots on the Ridgeway from a new angle, starting at Liddington Castle near Swindon past Wayland Smithy to the Devil’s Punchbowl near Wantage. We were following National Trust waymarks of orange and purple, which took us to Colleymore Farm.

It is run on organic lines, as evident from the profusion of wild flowers on the verges, and the fact that many of the fields of pasture were still green, despite the drought, growing clover and other mixed fodder plants rather than just grass.

We turned north at the farm, crossing the busy B-road to join the D’Arcy Dalton Way, a 66-mile route created in 1986 to mark the Oxford Fieldpaths Society Diamond Jubilee, named after the late Col. W. P. d’Arcy Dalton who worked to preserve rights of way in Oxfordshire. It links four major paths – the Oxford Canal Walk, Oxfordshire Way, Thames Path and Ridgeway, following roughly the western boundary of Oxfordshire in unspoilt countryside.

We had completed this a couple of years ago, but never had time to explore Coleshill, a beautiful village just off the route, inside the Oxfordshire border with Wiltshire.

This time we did have time. After gorging on ripe blackberries, we emerged on to the B-road opposite the grand gateposts which now lead nowhere. They are all that remains of the once grand Coleshill House, designed in 1650 with a lavish interior in the style of Inigo Jones.

In 1952 a window-painter using an old-fashioned burner set fire to the mansion, creating such an inferno that the house had to be demolished. It was later left to the National Trust, along with much of the village and several thousand acres of farmland.

The park walls now hide a flourishing organic garden, while the 19th-century farm courtyard houses rural businesses and – until the end of August – a community shop and cafe, where we headed in search of tea and cakes. Unfortunately, this volunteer-run venture looks likely to finish after the summer, though hopefully it will re-emerge in another guise.

The village pub, the Radnor Arms, is open all day in the summer, so walkers in need of refreshment are spoilt for choice.

The buildings, a picture-postcard scene of rural life, are remarkable legacy of what was once a model farm, where a tramway carried animal feed and manure from one side of the site to the other. Today the farm houses a biomass boiler, part of a pioneering renewable energy project in which the National Trust worked with villagers towards a more sustainable future.

The historic Coleshill Mill is powered by the River Cole, which forms the boundary between Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. We followed the National Trust’s ‘red walk’ for ten minutes to reach the river, which has been restored to a natural winding course destroyed by 20th-century drainage. The project has left an obvious legacy in a glorious display of water lilies, as well as meadows where knapweed and other wildflowers grow. Children are encouraged to enjoy the wildlife with regular river-dipping days.

Before leaving we peeped into the Second World War guardroom, marvelling at the bravery of those who volunteered to join a secret guerilla army in the event of a Nazi invasion. Members of the auxilliary force were told to expect an average lifespan of 10 to 14 days once their resistance work started, and Coleshill House was their training headquarters.

It was part of a network of spies and saboteurs, weapons and espionage, where small cells of six people worked independently in isolation from other groups.

With a shiver down our spines, we left the guardroom for our return journey through the parkland, landscaped in the style of Capability Brown. Along the valley we could see the mock facade of Strattenborough Castle, a romantic landscape feature which hides ordinary farm buildings.

Our path was brightened by the red seeds of cuckoo pint as we followed the edge of Flamborough Woods, part of 850 acres of nearby woodland owned by the National Trust. We were soon back in Great Coxwell, where we retraced our footsteps to the bus stop.

The National Trust walks leaflet can be downloaded from its website or bought for £1 from its office at Coleshill. Our walk, a combination of the purple and green walks, was about five miles. A similar 7.6-mile walk is described in Elaine Steane’s book of mill walks, Milestones to Millstones (SRA, £9.99). The mill is open 2-5pm on the second Sunday, April-October.

National Trust events at Coleshill include an open day, including mill entry, on September 9. Over on the Ridgeway, volunteers will be chalking the White Horse on August 26 and 27.