From Oxford, it’s a short trip west to the Cotswolds and a brief haul south to both the Vale of White Horse and the Chiltern Hills. Nearer still – a brief bus ride north – is the charming little town of Woodstock and its imperious neighbour, Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill.
More about England
Find out more
WOODSTOCK, eight miles north of Oxford, has royal associations going back to Saxon times, with a string of kings attracted by its excellent hunting. The Royalists used Woodstock as a base during the Civil War, but, after their defeat, Cromwell never got round to destroying either the town or the palace: the latter was ultimately given to (and flattened by) the Duke of Marlborough in 1704 when work started on the building you see today. Long dependent on royal and then ducal patronage, Woodstock is now both a well-heeled commuter town for Oxford and a base for visitors to Blenheim. It is also an extremely pretty little place, its handsome stone buildings gathered around the main square, at the junction of Market and High streets.
Blenheim PalaceIn 1704, as a thank-you for his victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim, Queen Anne gave John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722) the royal estate of Woodstock, along with the promise of enough cash to build himself a gargantuan palace.
Work started promptly on Blenheim Palace with Sir John Vanbrugh, who was also responsible for Castle Howard in Yorkshire as principal architect. However, the duke’s formidable wife, Sarah Jennings, who had wanted Christopher Wren, was soon at loggerheads with Vanbrugh, while Queen Anne had second thoughts, stifling the flow of money. Construction work was halted and the house was only finished after the duke’s death at the instigation of his widow, who ended up paying most of the bills and designing much of the interior herself. The end result is the country’s grandest example of Baroque civic architecture, an Italianate palace of finely worked yellow stone that is more a monument than a house – just as Vanbrugh intended.
The interior of the main house is stuffed with paintings and tapestries, plus all manner of objets d’art, including furniture from Versailles and carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Those interested in Winston Churchill may prefer the Churchill Exhibition, which provides a brief introduction to the man, accompanied by live recordings of some of his more famous speeches. Born here at Blenheim, Churchill (1874–1965), grandson of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, now lies buried alongside his wife in the graveyard of Bladon church just outside the estate.
Blenheim’s formal gardens, to the rear of the house, are divided into several distinct areas, including a rose garden and an arboretum, though the open parkland is more enticing, leading from the front of the house down to an artificial lake, Queen Pool. Vanbrugh’s splendid Grand Bridge crosses the lake to the Column of Victory, erected by Sarah Jennings and topped by a statue of her husband posing heroically in a toga.