Witney is a historic market town on the River Windrush, 12 miles west of Oxford in Oxfordshire, England. The place-name “Witney” is derived from the Old English for “Witta’s island”. The earliest known record of it is as Wyttannige in a Saxon charter of AD 969. The Domesday Book of 1086 records it as Witenie.
A walkable market town, Witney is in lush countryside between the east flank of the Cotswolds and the River Thames.
Since the Middle Ages Witney has been distinguished by its woollen blankets, woven using water from the River Windrush, which was claimed to be a secret to their high quality.
The blanket industry has all but disappeared, but the 18th-century Blanket Hall, where blankets were weighed and measured, has recently reopened, and the town museum has displays recalling this old trade.
Wychwood, the UK’s largest organic brewer, is based in Witney, while there’s a market trading twice weekly and a flourishing High Street with trusted chains and independent businesses.
1. Cogges Manor Farm
A wonderful piece of rural heritage, Cogges is a manor founded in the 13th century, and made up of farm buildings, a manor house, walled garden and orchard.
Used as a shooting location for the period drama Downton Abbey, the manor is a heritage attraction appealing to all members of the family.
Kids will adore the pygmy goats, Shetland ponies, rabbits, guinea pigs and Oxford sandy and black pigs.
Many of these can be cuddled during the “meet the animals” sessions on weekends.
There are 15 acres of grounds, including the walled garden and orchard growing many fruit varieties, including Moorpark apricot, Cox, Blenheim orange and Morello cherry.
The Cogges Kitchen prepares locally roasted coffee and homemade scones, using produce from the walled garden, while the Manor House opens regularly for tours and is mostly from the 16th century with hints of the 13th-century building in the kitchen, hall and dairy.
2. Witney High Street
A lot of Witney’s amenities and monuments are on the long High Street, lined with buildings from Cotswold stone.
The High Street starts at the south end with the Butter Cross, which stands opposite an 18th-century Town Hall.
This Classical building has an arcade supported by Tuscan columns.
The Victorian Corn Exchange is from 1863 and often opens up for exhibitions and live music, while we’ll go into more detail on the 18th-century Blanket Hall on the next entry.
There’s a beautiful row of lime trees on the street’s west side, while typical UK high street chains and a healthy dose of locally-owned shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants vie for your attention.
3. The Witney Blanket Hall
In 1721 Witney’s Company of Blanket Makers opened the Blanket Hall, to govern the blanket-making trade.
For the next 120 years every blanket woven in Witney had to be brought here to be measured and weighed.
On the upper floor in the Great Room the Company would meet to agree on the trade rules.
The Blanket Hall became obsolete from 1845 after mills were set up using their own guidelines, and from that time on the Blanket Hall filled all sorts of roles, from a brewery to a wedding venue, lemonade factory and grand private home.
In 2015 the Blanket Hall turned back the clock, reopening as a museum documenting Witney’s relationship with blankets and the people who worked in this trade.
You can take tours of the Blanket Hall and shop for authentic woollen blankets, while there’s a cafe/pie shop and a pleasant garden winding down to the river.
4. Minster Lovell Hall
In the 1430s one of the richest men in the country, William, Baron of Lovell and Holand built himself a manor house by the River Windrush.
Minster Lovell Hall surrounded a square on three sides and had a tower on the south-west corner.
One of many noteworthy guests in the 15th century was Richard III, but after Richard III’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth the manor was seized by the crown and passed to the uncle of Henry VII and then Henry VIII’s grooms of the stool (basically toilet attendants). The extensive Grade I ruins are looked after by English Heritage and are made up of the partially intact hall, the corner tower and a nearby dovecote, all in a romantic riverside setting.
5. St Mary’s Church
A Grade I monument, St Mary’s Church has Norman origins and has elements from every Medieval English style, from Norman Romanesque to 15th-century Perpendicular Gothic.
The oldest parts are the north aisle and north porch.
The latter, dating to the 12th century, features a tell-tale Romanesque round arch and foliate capitals on its jambs.
In the 13th century the tower, spire, transepts and chancel were reworked in the Early English style, and the side chapels came roughly a century later.
That magnificent Perpendicular west window meanwhile was moulded in the 15th century.
In the south chapel you’ll come across a tomb chest for one Richard Wennan (d. 1501) and his two wives, while there are 14th-century effigies of a man and woman in the north transept and the north-west chapel has an effigy of a member of the clergy, also form the 14th century.
6. Witney and District Museum
Opening Wednesday to Saturday from April to October this local museum is run completely by helpful volunteers and will give you lots of context about the history of Witney and its surroundings.
You’ll learn more about the town’s signature trades, like blanket making, glove making and brewing.
There’s a working loom, an impressive collection of local handmade toys and interesting reconstructions of a Victorian classroom and a kitchen from the 1950s, all using authentic furniture and props.
As for artefacts you can peruse fossils, Roman finds from the North Leigh Villa (covered below) and Medieval objects recovered from Witney’s Bishop’s Palace and Minster Lovell Hall.
The tourist information point is in the same building, while the adjoining cafe is fine way to round off a visit.
7. Witney Butter Cross
An abiding landmark on Market Square, Witney’s Butter Cross is a Grade II* market shelter raised at the turn of the 17th century.
This structure comprises a timber frame and 13 round ashlar limestone pillars.
The little Baroque cupola on top is a later addition from 1683, and boasts a clock and sundial, as well as a medallion bearing the inscription, “Erected 1683 by Gulilmus Blake Armiger of Cogges”.
8. Wychwood Brewery
Producing 50,000 barrels (8,200,000 litres) of cask ale every year, the Wychwood Brewery is the largest brewer of organic ales in the country.
The company is possibly best known for its Hobgoblin brown ale, which like the rest of its line draws on the folklore of the ancient Wychwood Forest, that once covered the landscape north and west of Witney.
Guided tours of the headquarters in Witney come highly recommended.
These last two hours and show everything from raw ingredients to the finished product.
You’ll see the big copper mash tuns and learn about the double drop brewing method used for Brakspear’s ale (taken over by Wychwood in 2002). And at the end you’ll be free to taste a Hobgoblin or a choice of Wychwood and Brakspear brews. Source: Wychwood Brewery: Store, Tour & Tap / facebook
9. Crocodiles of the World
Established in 2011 by the conservationist Shaun Foggett, this unique zoo has been a big success and moved to its current home in Brize Norton in 2014 after outgrowing its previous location.
There are more than 150 crocodiles from 17 species (out of a total 24), at the only zoo in the UK dedicated to crocodiles.
Of course you’ll find the fearsome saltwater crocodiles, as well as some species you may never have set eyes on before, like the endangered Siamese and Cuban crocodile, tomistoma, slender-snouted crocodile, Cuvier’s caiman, black caiman and broud-snouted caiman.
The zoo also keeps an assortment of mammals like meerkats, Asian short-clawed otters and rare cotton-topped tamarins, as well as several species of monitor lizards, snakes, tortoises and a small collection of exotic birds. Source: Crocodiles Of The World / facebook
10. North Leigh Roman Villa
In the Evenlode Valley you can view the vestiges of a Roman courtyard villa, dating to around the turn of the 2nd century AD, although the site has older, Iron Age origins.
The villa was first excavated in the 1810s and then again in 1910, while an aerial survey in 1943 identified an unseen west wing.
By the 4th century this residence was extravagant, with 60 rooms on the three sides of the courtyard, including four baths, 11 rooms warmed by a hypocaust and 16 decorated with mosaics.
One of these mosaics, dating to the 3rd century and thought to have been in the dining room, has been preserved in situ and is protected by a shed with a glass.
11. Oxford Bus Museum
This museum charts 200 years of road transport history in Oxfordshire, from a primitive hobby-horse bicycle to a collection of 40 historic buses and coaches.
You can also check out a preserved horse-drawn tram, and all manner of public transport paraphernalia like ticket machines, bus stops, uniforms, posters, timetables and an exhibition of black and white photographs.
Over half of the museum’s buses and coaches were run by City of Oxford Motor Services, and range from a 1913 Commer WP3 to a 1999 Dennis Trident.
Since 2004 this has also been the home of the Morris Museum, telling the story of this local manufacturer with 11 Morris cars and one van.
Also in the Morris Museum is the Faulkner Collection, displaying 40 mostly 19th-century bicycles like the Singleton English velocipede and the Penny Farthing. Source: Oxford Bus Museum and Morris Motors Exhibition / facebook
12. Witney Lake and Country Park (Ducklington Lake)
On the other side of the A40, less than a mile from the town centre, is a lake, wet meadow and grazing land in more than 70 acres.
Witney lake was created by gravel extraction and is remarkably deep throughout, with just a straight drop and no muddy edges or beaches.
There’s a path around the banks, which has recently been improved and has picnic tables and benches at close intervals.
As well as some seldom seen invertebrates and wetland plants, the lake is a real haven for birdlife.
You may see kingfishers and swifts in summer, snipes and lapwings in winter, while great crested grebes are year-round residents.
13. Bishop’s Palace
Just to the east of St Mary’s Church in the grounds of Mount House you can find the remains of a once grand manor house owned by the Bishop of Winchester.
An archaeological dig has brought to light a set of buildings fronting a courtyard and all ringed by a moat.
These are sheltered beneath a canopy and may require a little imagination as the original buildings were pulled down in the middle of the 18th century.
But you might be inspired by the thought that some important historical figures set foot at this very place, not least King John around 1209. New garderobes were even constructed for the occasion! Source: www.oxfordshirecotswolds.org
14. Witney Lakes Resort
On Witney’s western periphery there’s an upscale leisure destination, whether you’re up for a spa day or a round of golf.
There’s an 18-hole par-71 championship course in lakeland terrain.
With tricky doglegs, huge drives and technical par 3s you’ll have to use every club in the bag and every skill at your disposal.
Book via the website for a cheaper green fee (One Ball, £22 on weekdays and £26 on weekends) The spa at Witney Lakes is as complete as they come, offering a huge menu of treatments, from five different types of massage, to facials, wraps, manicures, make-up, waxing and tanning. Source: Witney Lakes Resort / facebook
15. Woolgate Centre
On Market Square in Witney’s conservation area, this shopping centre is smartly designed to blend in with the townscape, using Cotswold stone and traditional building styles.
You’ll come across big name retailers at the Woolgate Centre, like Waitrose, Waterstones, H&M, Next, Game and Holland & Barrett, as well as a few independent shops, adding to the sense of cooperation with the town centre.
For a break and a chat there are branches of Costa Coffee and Starbucks, or you can try out the pubs, cafes and restaurants just across the High Street (The Eagle Vaults, The Blue Boar, Ye Olde Cross Keys, Como Lounge, Bill’s Witney). Source: Woolgate Centre / facebook