The historic Cotswolds town of Woodstock is the setting of Blenheim Palace and the birthplace of Winston Churchill, as well as numerous antiques shops and rolling Oxfordshire countryside
Just to the northwest of Oxford, on the A44, is the pretty Cotswolds town of Woodstock. Today it is famous chiefly as the location of Blenheim Palace, one of the very stateliest of Britain's stately homes and the birthplace of wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill.
The market town itself, though, is also not to be missed. The main street – Park Street – is lined with fine Georgian houses, many of them faced in honey-coloured Cotswold stone.
At one end is the grand 18th century town hall while at the other is a triumphal arch heralding the entrance to the grounds of Blenheim Palace. In between, a whole stretch of the south side of the road is occupied by the Macdonald Bear Hotel Woodstock, which, with its old-world feel and bags of character is a wonderful place to base yourself during your visit. The core of the hotel is a 13th century coaching inn, while to the rear, the reception area occupies what was once a small glove workshop. Indeed, many of the town's fine historic buildings were paid for by a once prosperous glove-making industry. A glove press and examples of local craft are on display here. If you're not staying in one of the hotel’s antique-furnished rooms, The Bear is still worth a pit stop for its atmospheric bar, with open fire and ancient oak beams, or for the award-winning restaurant.
Opposite The Bear, on the other side of Park Street, is the Oxfordshire County Museum in Fletcher’s House. This provides a survey of local archaeology, agriculture and domestic life. There is also a room devoted to memorabilia associated with Winston Churchill, the town's most famous son. The gardens to the rear are used for the display of contemporary sculpture.
Elsewhere in the town, there is plenty for those in need of retail therapy. In particular, this is a good place for antique-hunters, with dealers in furniture, pictures and objets d’art selling treasures at all prices. For traditional English oak and country furniture you might try Antiques Of Woodstock at 18/20 Market Place, while Heritage Antiques at 6 Market Place is packed with all kinds of curiosities - though pottery and porcelain is definitely a strength. A more exotic emporium is Lapina at 17 Market Street which specialises in original pieces of furniture and accessories from China, Tibet and Mongolia.
Others will enjoy browsing in the gift shops, clothing boutiques, interior decoration stores or even the toyshop. Staying true to the town's heritage is the Woodstock Glove Shop, down the side of the town hall on Market Place, while the Julia Beusch Gallery at 21 Oxford Street sells fine contemporary jewellery, much of it made in the owner's workshop. If you are looking for gift shops, try Inism at 10 Oxford Street or Perspective, on the High Street at no. 18. The latter also has a toy shop in the rooms at the back, selling wonderfully old-fashioned amusements, particularly for younger children. For interior design ideas visit Well Spotted at 6 Park Street. And after all that shopping, if you are in need of a rest, then why not stop in at the Blenheim Tea Rooms at 17 Park Street (www.theblenheim.com) for a traditional cream tea?
Of course, though, the main attraction of Woodstock is Blenheim Palace itself (tel: 08700 602 080; www.blenheimpalace.com ; house and gardens open mid-Feb–Oct daily, Nov–mid-Dec Wed–Sun, 10.30am–5.30pm; park, all year daily, 9am–4.45pm). As you approach through its glorious parkland, landscaped by Capability Brown, the scale of the estate soon becomes apparent. The palace building alone occupies an area of seven acres, and another 2,700 acres of gardens and farmland surround it.
Originally, it was a royal possession, notorious at one time as the place where Henry II kept his mistress, Fair Rosamund – until, that is, she was apparently poisoned by Eleanor, Henry's jealous wife. The present palace, however, came to be built after Queen Anne gifted the land and money to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, as his reward for defeating the French army at Blenheim, on the Danube, in 1704. The building was designed by John Vanbrugh with the assistance of Nicholas Hawksmoor. The architects soon, however, quarrelled bitterly with their employers after the costs escalated even higher than expected, and confusion ensued over who was paying for what. In the end, dozens of artists and craftsmen went unpaid.
Inside are cavernous state rooms decked with huge tapestries, frescoes and numerous portraits of the Marlboroughs. With all its pomp, it’s easy to forget that the building also functioned as a home. A room that reminds you of this fact is the one where Sir Winston Churchill was born in 1874. Unlike his ancestor, the 1st Duke, however, who is commemorated by an extravagant monument in the palace chapel, Sir Winston is buried in a simple grave in the parish church of Bladon, on the southern edge of the estate.