A postcard from Woodstock
PUBLISHED: 10:42 14 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:42 14 August 2018
Tracy Spiers visited this attractive place a year ago and returned to find it bustling and vibrant, with new independent shops to visit and familiar friendly faces ready to welcome both herself and her family
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
These are the words of one of the most widely revered and iconic leaders in world history. Sir Winston Churchill’s uplifting and compelling speeches and steadfast leadership kept Britain together when she needed it most. Today, his birthplace and ancestral home, Blenheim Palace, is a stunning landmark and visited by thousands.
This monumental English country house, currently home to the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and used as a convalescence hospital for wounded soldiers during the First World War, is part of Woodstock, a delightful Georgian town in Oxfordshire. I visited this attractive place a year ago and return to find it bustling and vibrant, with new independent shops to visit and familiar friendly faces ready to welcome both myself and my family.
• Having been born feet first, I like to do things back to front, so my first stop is Bladon so I can take my Dad to St Martin’s Church and pay tribute to Sir Winston Churchill by visiting his grave. A small display of the great man’s life can be seen inside the church. Dad was born during Sir Winston’s first five-year season as Prime Minister in 1942.
• A further three-minute drive takes us to Woodstock town centre where we find a free car parking space for three hours. This is plus for visitors who can while away some leisurely time enjoying the independent shops, galleries and great places to eat and drink.
• Daughters number three and four, Megan and Rosie, haven’t been to Woodstock before, so I give them a tour of The Oxfordshire Museum. I can’t persuade them to sit in the five-holed stocks immediately outside, but they gladly take a photo of their crazy mother. The Museum, based in a large 18th century house, is like a Tardis and is bigger than one expects, with a plethora of rooms to explore. Megan is currently studying the suffragettes so enjoys the displays marking the centenary of women’s suffrage; Dad appreciates the 20 Years of Treasures exhibition showcasing some of the county’s most amazing treasure finds; while we all find out how Woodstock once supplied gloves to royalty and was famous for polished steelwork, especially cut-steel short swords thanks to the fashionable tourists visiting Blenheim Palace. I find the dressing up corner and don some rabbit ears to embarrass my daughters and help promote the Museum’s interactive exhibition about Beatrix Potter’s most famous creation. Peter Rabbit – Mischief & Mayhem, takes place from June 16 to September 8. We chat to Carol Anderson, the Museums Service Manager who takes the girls to meet Woodstock’s resident dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex. There are also fossilised footprints from this Megalosaurus, dating back 186 million years. “The Museum is based in one of the oldest buildings in the town so it’s quite appropriate to have our collections here,” says Carol. “Woodstock is a beautiful historic town; the centre has remained largely unchanged for years and it is such a friendly place with an interesting variety of shops and cafes.” Not forgetting the Museum’s café, set in its own beautiful garden. It is also home to the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum.
• We leave the Museum with two trails, the Woodstock Town Walk and Woodstock Historic Wall Plaques, which are both full of facts about this town and the people who lived here. Some buildings to look out for include The Samson Press in Park Street which commissioned and printed a wide range of illustrated works, now highly prized collectors’ items; The Bishop’s House built in 1686 by Dr John Fell, the Bishop of Oxford who was instrumental in founding Oxford University Press; The Pest House, in Rectory Lane, formerly an old isolation hospital for infectious diseases and the Ancient Mariner’s House, which refers to the son of a former Woodstock Mayor, Simon Hatley who is thought to have been the mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
• As a family we are flying to Greece this summer, so I take Megan and Rosie to to Woodstock Coffee Shop to meet Greek owners Babis Focas and Xenia Raptopoulou. They had just opened when I met them a year ago, and it’s great to see customers tucking into Greek yoghurt and honey and other Greek delights including Turkish Delight, which we get to sample later. Their coffee is something else. There’s now a choice of three blends, House, Italian and the latest, Brazilian, which is delicious and revives me no end. I ask Babis how the past 12 months has been for their coffee shop. “People have loved it and it’s a fabulous way to meet socially. For us it’s more than serving good coffee, it’s about creating a community, so it is great to see people meeting up here to chat or hold meetings,” says Babis. He tells me that he and Xenia hope to open another coffee shop in a nearby Cotswold town in the very near future.
• Opposite is Martha’s Attic, owned by Lyn and Paul Molony, which opened last summer. They have a passion for buying and selling quality decorative antiques, French furniture, reclaimed window mirrors and interiors. As they travel regularly throughout the UK and Europe, Lyn and Paul come across special one-off pieces. I asked them why they chose Woodstock to base their business. “It’s got lots going on. We love the shops and it felt right,” says Lyn, who enjoys helping customers choose the right piece of furniture to suit their individual taste and home. Martha’s Attic is a lovely shop, inspiring, welcoming and a great addition to Woodstock’s business community.
• Talking about community, Woodstock has its own Wake Up to Woodstock app that visitors and locals can use to find out what is going on, as well as a We Love Woodstock Facebook page. Incidentally Woodstock Carnival, the centre-piece of the town’s summer calendar takes place on June 23, from 2pm. This year’s theme focuses on A Celebration of the Circus and as in previous years, it is a great free day for all the family. Organised by volunteers and funded by local businesses and organisations, the carnival enables local charities to fundraise for their own causes in a safe and fun environment.
• Another popular event in the town’s social diary is Woodstock Poetry Festival, November 9-11. This year marks the 7th festival, which is organised by Rachel Phipps, who opened up Woodstock Bookshop ten years ago. It is a delightful shop and a haven for all booklovers, from academics to those who want an easy summer read.
• We meet the new management team, headed up by Matt Forsyth in Hampers Food and Wine Company, a popular delicatessen, café and gift hamper business. The deli counter includes over 40 British and European cheeses, charcuterie meats, olives, savoury tarts, posh pork pies and patés. Those wanting a special picnic to take to Blenheim Park for example, can pre-order one here.
• Woodstock provides a unique shopping experience for those looking for something unusual. Louisa Maybury has been trading in the town for 20 years and her shop, Louisa Maybury, is a feast of colour. Specialising in bold, vivid authentic vintage Kilims, rugs, textiles, and furniture, this shop opens a window into other exciting worlds. There’s an ever-changing collection from Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, Morocco and the Caucasus, but Louisa does warn customers that if they like something to buy it now as it is likely to be snapped up if they delay too long. Louisa’s warm enthusiasm and knowledge will help customers find the perfect addition to their homes. She also is proud of her town and its residents. “There is a real sense of community and sociability in Woodstock; we are very privileged to have Blenheim Palace and people are very supportive of each other. It’s a just a really beautiful town and a great place to bring up children.”
• Across the road is a place with equal vibrancy and cheer. For the past 18 months Dave Davies has been running Dantzig, an enchanting pocket of uplifting colour and inspiring pieces of 20th century art. The Dantzig collection of International Art includes the Modern Masters such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and many other highly acclaimed artists. Dave enjoys working in this “bustling little town.” “I have been coming to Woodstock since my days at youth club and I never get tired of the town centre,” he says.
• Another relatively new addition to the town’s business community is Barefoot Bakery, which has a fantastic selection of home-made cakes. Here I find Gwen and William Payne, from Whatcote near Shipston-on-Stour, tucking into a large slab of pineapple and coconut cake with an iced coffee. Gwen, a keen cake maker, found the bakery on Instagram and decided to taste the delicacies for herself. They are regular visitors to Woodstock. “It’s so charming and pretty and very unspoilt. It’s a real gem especially at Christmas time,” they tell me.
• I started my postcard with Sir Winston Churchill’s resting place, so it’s only right that I sign off at his birthplace. I enjoy a quick run into the grounds of Blenheim Palace and drink in the beautiful view across the lake. Last year I took Rosie’s twin, Kezia to BBC Countryfile Live, which will again attract thousands when it takes place in the grounds of Blenheim Palace in the first week of August. But this impressive setting pulls in thousands of visitors all year round for its 300 years of history, 2,000 acres of gardens and parklands and plethora of events, tours and exhibitions held throughout the year.
• There is so much to enjoy at this informal, unspoilt and friendly town – not only Woodstock’s rich history and impressive architecture, but the people who work here who offer a warm welcome to all who come.
For more information, head to visitwoodstock.co.uk.