A couple of weekends ago, we visited Oxford, but didn’t really fancy staying in the city, especially as the glorious Cotswolds are just beyond! We decided on Woodstock, partly because it’s just 20 minutes away from Oxford (and accessible by car, train or bus), and partly because it’s the home of mighty Blenheim Palace, which we also wanted to explore. Oh, and also because this tiny town is pretty magical in its own right.
Our home for two nights was to be The Feathers Hotel. It’s only a small place, but everyone seems to have heard of it. The fact that it’s formed from a jumble of buildings gives it a higgledy piggledy quaintness. The restaurant was originally four separate cottages and the remainder of the hotel was formerly a butcher’s shop and, prior to that, a draper’s.
Rooms are all different and there’s a restaurant and an amazing gin bar, with more varieties than you could shake a swizzle stick at. It did hold the Guinness Book of Records title as largest in the world, but was recently outnumbered by a bar in Manchester. So they are now on a mission to increase their number of bottles, currently standing at over 400, to over 500. Phew. It would have been rude not to try one or two of the many on offer, of course.
There’s a restaurant (we didn’t dine there) and a couple of intimate lounges where the décor, as elsewhere in the hotel, is fairly contemporary but sympathetic to the beautiful old building. Outside, there’s a pretty courtyard, a real boon in the summer months, I imagine.
The breakfast was good, but I do hate it when you come down at the latter end of the breakfast period to find the buffet depleted – one or two lonely pastries on a plate, fruit almost all gone… I understand that hotels have to think about costs (and waste) but I also believe the spread should just look just as splendid for guests whatever time they choose to eat.
It’s a small niggle, however, because the charm of the hotel goes a long way to make up for any minor shortfalls. It’s a refreshing change from many of the faceless and bland chain hotels out there, that’s for sure.
Later on, we wandered around the village. It’s dreamy, with interesting, upmarket shops, galleries and tea rooms all housed within the impossibly pretty golden Cotswold stone buildings. Visitors stand glued to estate agents windows planning their escape here!
The main draw of Woodstock for many people is Blenheim Palace, home of the Dukes of Marlborough for the last 300 years. Woodstock was the estate village for the Blenheim Estate and there is something thrilling about the fact that you can slip into a ‘side’ entrance to the Palace after walking a couple of minutes along the main street.
Blenheim has undeniable wow factor – it makes Buckingham Palace look positively pedestrian! The first sight of it is breathtaking, with its Baroque façade and roaming grounds and parkland, dotted with woodland, lakes and bridges, landscaped by Capability Brown. Apparently Hitler ordered that the Germans were not to bomb Blenheim Palace during the Second World War as he meant to live it in himself when the war finished…
I was surprised to learn that, although it was his ancestral seat, Blenheim Palace wasn’t actually Winston Churchill’s home. He was born here, but only because he arrived early when his parents happened to be staying here. And he spent most of his holidays, when he was home from boarding school, here, so it was close to his heart throughout his life – he is buried in the graveyard in the little church at Bladon, on the edge of the estate.
We did the lovely lakeside walk, then toured the house. As you enter the cavernous entrance hall (ceilings painted by James Thornhill, no less), you have a choice of turning right or left. We chose left, to do the ‘Blenheim Palace: The Untold Story’ tour. It is a rather bizarre experience. You make your way through a series of rooms and it is timed – the doors open at a set time to let you through to the next part (so you’re pretty much stuck with it once you’ve entered). The tour uses slightly creepy animated mannequins – you can see them breathing and, on a screen, an apparition of the maid of the first Duchess of Marlborough. Bear with… She flits between different points in the house’s history. I get what they are trying to do, but am not sure it entirely works. The children found it boring and a Chinese family who were there at the same time of us clearly thought it was bonkers!
We returned to the entrance hall and turned right – which was perhaps what we should have done in the first place! Now we were able to explore the Churchill Exhibition (if you’ve been before, note that it was ‘re-curated’, with new items added, in 2015).
For us, this was much more fascinating. It includes the room where Churchill was born, his first baby curls, letters from a young Churchill home to his family whilst he was unhappily at boarding school, video clips from his state funeral and of course many, many photographs of him with his family and his wife.
Master and Miss Gallivant loved seeing Churchill’s ‘romper suit’, a bright red velvet affair designed to provide modesty over night clothes during air raids, but apparently Churchill found it so comfy that he wore it, with monogrammed slippers (also on show) for cabinet meetings, too!
We then visited the state rooms. A guided tour was just starting and I eagerly started to tag along until I was pulled away by the other Gallivants who had obviously had their fill of tours…
Instead we wandered by ourselves. “It’s not very cosy, is it?” commented Miss Gallivant, as we came across one gilded room after another. Indeed, it is not cosy. But it is very, very grand, with lavish tapestries, priceless art and gold leafed and frescoed ceilings, The Saloon was my favourite room, with every inch of its walls and ceilings hand painted with magnificent trompe l’œil. The current Duke of Marlborough and his family (who have apartments within the palace) have their Christmas lunch here every year apparently.
The Long Library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and with views over the water terraces, was originally intended as an picture gallery, and is also impressive.
Including lunch and coffee pit stops we had now been at Blenheim Palace for almost five hours but there was so much more to see. We hadn’t been to the maze, the butterfly house and adventure playground, to the Column of Victory, built for the first Duke (the whole house was a present to him from Queen Anne as a thank you to him for winning the Battle of Blenheim). I really wanted to do the ‘Upstairs’ and ‘Downstairs’ tours. too.
It would take two or three visits at least to properly see it all I reckon and teenage tantrums were threatening, so it was time to beat a retreat to The Feathers for, what else in this ever so English destination, but afternoon tea?
Let us know your thoughts on Woodstock and Blenheim and, if you’re interested in Oxford, read my account of our visit here.