Woodstock, a small town in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, has a long history. The Domesday Book, a survey of England & Wales completed in 1086, describes it as a Royal Forest – a hunting preserve for nobility. Fifty years later the area was enclosed by a high wall, a shooting lodge built, and exotic animals, lions and leopards kept within. Just short of a century later, in 1179, King Henry II built Woodstock Palace and granted a Royal Charter that established a market on its boundary. From thereon, the town developed and prospered. The palace witnessed several important moments in English history including the imprisonment of the then Princess Elizabeth who became Queen Elizabeth the First, and later, it sheltered King James I who had fled London during a plague. By 1653 the Palace had been destroyed by the Roundheads (Parliamentarians) during the English Civil War.
The ruins of the palace and its parkland were gifted by the nation to the 1st Duke of Marlborough in recognition of his military triumphs that climaxed with the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Blenheim Palace, for which Woodstock is now justly famed and visited annually by thousands from all over the world, was built in its place and, with over 180 rooms, it is one of the largest privately-owned houses in England. The birthplace (in 1874) and ancestral home of wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, the splendour and history of the Palace was recognised as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
With mixed financial fortunes over the centuries, the Palace has seen many changes both internally and externally. The parkland was much altered by the eighteenth-century landscape architect, Capability Brown. The River Glyme that runs through the park was dammed and the Great Lake formed, in the process part-drowning the enormous bridge designed by Vanbrugh. Incidentally, the river is the same one as the little winding river that flows in ‘our (now not so secret!) secret valley’ and used in the header of this blog.
Despite the centuries that have passed, the town still clusters outside the entrance to Blenheim Palace. Being so small (only 3,500 people live here), it is a great place to explore on foot – something that is missed by most visitors to the Palace who, if they enter the town at all, stay within the two shop-lined streets at its centre. Behind these lie the church and quaint, timbered houses.
Of course, it is the Palace that dominates Woodstock despite being barely visible from outside the Park. The entrance that cars and coaches enter by, is splendid enough, but doesn’t match the grandeur of the town gate. Just past the ‘tourist’ entrance (and so rarely noticed) are the splendid almshouses built in 1798 by Catherine, Duchess of Marlborough. A visit to the Woodstock Museum should be on everyone’s agenda too; it contains a dinosaur garden to keep the children happy.
The town has several hotels and makes a good base to explore further afield; Oxford with its universities is only 15 miles away and there are numerous villages and National Trust properties and gardens to visit within the area. For keen hikers two long-distance trails, the Wychwood Way (36 miles) and Shakespeare’s Way (146 miles) pass through the town and, as in most of England, numerous public footpaths criss-cross the countryside where you can roam freely. Walking is one of the best ways to see the Cotswolds and it is great exercise too. All the footpaths connect with one another so you can easily take shorter walks but, if you have the time, it is possible to walk from one end of England to the other!
*********************************** [Ifyou would like specific details of any aspect of staying locally and/or walking routes, places to visit, etc please feel free to contact me and I will do my best to answer your queries]
Sources: Wikipedia The Long Distance Walkers Association Cotswolds.info The Making of the English Landscape, W G Hoskins