Woodstock: Romance and Royalty

PUBLISHED: 15:03 14 November 2016

Blenheim Palace's second State Room

Blenheim Palace's second State Room

Tracy Spiers

There aren’t many places in the Cotswolds that can boast having a dinosaur and a palace on their doorstep...Tracy Spiers takes a magical tour around the Oxfordshire town of Woodstock as it gears up for Christmas

Blenheim PalaceBlenheim Palace

A young woman meets her French male pen pal for the first time. As it is inappropriate to rendezvous in town where people can talk, they are given an opportunity to meet in the stunning grounds of Blenheim Palace. It is in this romantic and magical setting they fall in love and eventually get married.

It’s not a story one will find in history books because it is a personal love tale belonging to one family in Woodstock, who will pass it down to future generations. The leading characters may no longer be alive, but their nieces, who have children and grandchildren of their own, live in this beautiful unspoilt Cotswold town and are connected to its nearby palace by a romantic thread.

Woodstock is a small town, but makes up for it in personality. It’s beautiful to look at, a great place to explore and it has a history of which to be proud. I happen to hear this love story on my latest visit at a time when both town and palace prepare for the festive season.

Being a child at heart with an inquisitive mind, I can’t help putting my feet into the small holes of the town stocks, based outside the Oxfordshire Museum in Park Street, which tells the county’s story through its galleries and exhibitions. Whilst getting stuck in this historic means of punishment, I amuse a lady perched on the stock bench. She happens to be Kathyrn Thomson, one of the said nieces, who is waiting for her sister Janey.

Romance at Blenheim PalaceRomance at Blenheim Palace

I know I look ridiculous but it’s a fun photo to add to my collection and it earns a chuckle from Woodstock Town Mayor Elizabeth Poskitt as she walks by. We are all united by a sense of intrigue. There are only five holes. Normally stocks have an even number of holes and are historically used for locking both feet of convicted criminal to expose them to scorn and ridicule by passersby. The fifth hole is a mystery and the answer is left to the imagination.

As I wander round the museum, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, I make a beeline for the Woodstock Gallery to learn more about the town’s history. My mum Jan tries on some gloves and we learn about the luxurious leather hand wear, popular not only to fashionable visitors of Blenheim Palace in the 19th century but to the Royal household. At one point there were several glove factories in Woodstock. Moneys, who had a factory behind Hope House in Hensington Road was given a Royal Warrant for supplying gloves to royalty before it closed in the 1930s. But in the 18th century Woodstock was also famous for polished steelwork, reputedly made from horseshoe nails which were reworked, cut like diamonds and used to decorate scissors, buttons, buckles and chains. Particularly sought after were Woodstock’s cut-steel short swords thanks to the fashionable tourists visiting Blenheim Palace who spread the word. Today the main industry is tourism. Thousands flock to the palace, home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough and birthplace to Sir Winston Churchill, to enjoy its 300 years of history, 2,000 acres of gardens and parklands and plethora of events, tours and exhibition held throughout the year.

For the first time the Blenheim Palace estate will be illuminated over the festive period. From November 25 until January 2, an hour-long discovery festive trail will take visitors through the park grounds landscaped by “Capability” Brown and include the scented Fire Garden, a lantern-adorned circular carpet of dancing flames; singing Christmas trees, a swaying lawn of fibre optic colour, sparkling hedgerows and brightly-lit boats filled with snowflakes and presents in the lake.

“The festive period is always a special time at Blenheim Palace and in the surrounding town of Woodstock. We have so much on offer for all to enjoy,” says John Hoy, Chief Executive continues, “We are very excited to launch our first after-dark trail of lights through the Formal Gardens and see a founding father of Italian Arte Povera, Michelangelo Pistoletto host his largest installation throughout the Palace state rooms. In addition we will see our Living Crafts Christmas Fair return for the 14th year and run our own Festive Entertainment Programme, so there is plenty on offer for everyone.”

Blenheim PalaceBlenheim Palace

Meanwhile in the town itself, the Night of a Thousand Candles, has become a traditional and attractive social event. Organised by Woodstock’s pre-eminent business group Wake Up To Woodstock, it takes place on November 26, and is something not to be missed with shops opening late, music and local schools taking part.

“It’s a really lovely evening, all the shops are lit up with candles and it is one of those events where we all work together,” explains Mini Bryon, owner of Perspective, a delightful Tardis-like shop full of exquisite gifts and toys, which seems to go on forever. She is also a member of Wake Up To Woodstock.

“I shall get out my Christmas pudding outfit and encourage my staff to dress up as elves or Christmas crackers and give out sweets to the children.”

Another popular date in the social calendar is the Mayor’s Carols on December 10, held around the Christmas Tree outside the town hall at 5pm, this year in aid of Woodstock Exhibition Foundation Charity.

Tracy in the Dinosaur Garden at WoodstockTracy in the Dinosaur Garden at Woodstock

Incidentally it is in the town hall, a charming grade II listed building where I meet the lady in question, Elizabeth Poskitt, Woodstock’s Mayor. One of the authors of Woodstock and the Royal Park marking 900 years of history, Elizabeth gives me a thorough and informative outline of how Woodstock came to be. My eyes are drawn to the town’s embroidered emblem, a coat of arms sandwiched between two wild men of the woods and a tree. Woodstock means “place in the woods” and it was situated in the heart of the royal forest of Wychwood. Royal relations were strengthened in 1110 by the building of a stone wall around the park by King Henry I, creating The Royal Park of Woodstock, designed to retain his menagerie of wild and exotic animals. This also led to the first settlement of Woodstock (Old Woodstock), although the main part of modern Woodstock was only founded under Henry II, 50 years later.

Upstairs in the town hall, a series of 17 wall hangings by The Woodstock Broderers tells stories of events and characters including Fair Rosamund, the King’s mistress; Elizabeth I as a princess imprisoned in Woodstock Palace by her sister Mary; the trades of Woodstock and the life and times of Sir Winston Churchill who was born in Blenheim Palace and is buried at Bladon.

With Christmas on the horizon, I ask the mayor what her festive wish is for Woodstock.“We want people to come here and enjoy it. We have so much history and so much going on in the community. A lot of people know Woodstock because of Blenheim Palace but we want to be able to stand up in our own right and have shops that are full and interesting, giving people a reason to come to the town,” admits Elizabeth.

Attractions which do draw visitors include the Mock Mayor Making, where traditionally the imposter gets ducked in the river and the Water Meadows, a unique feature providing a valuable habitat for birds, small mammals and plants. The fifth Woodstock Poetry Festival, organised by the Woodstock Bookshop also takes place on November 11-13 with appearances from poets such as Gillian Clarke, Liz Lochhead, Carrie Etter, Deryn Rees Jones, Jane Draycott, Jamie McKendrick, Tom Paulin and Bernard O’Donoghue.

Sisters Janey Dalton and Kathryn Thomson enjoy tea in the gardens of Oxfordshire MuseumSisters Janey Dalton and Kathryn Thomson enjoy tea in the gardens of Oxfordshire Museum

Another popular meeting place is the elegant gardens in Oxfordshire Museum, also home to the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum. It is here I find the two sisters Janey and Kathyrn, enjoying a quiet coffee and a chat.

“I enjoy the many faces of Woodstock. It’s the diversity of the people but also the beauty that Blenheim brings. When you live here, you accept what it gives you. We were brought up with the fishing, the conker trees and the lake. It is a very precious place,” says Janey.

“I think we all need to learn to be able to keep the things that are precious and accept the things that we need to change. Blenheim Palace was instrumental in our late aunt’s liaison with her French pen pal. Without it they may not have got together. It is special.”

I leave them reminiscing and explore the museum’s popular Dinosaur Garden, dominated by a full-size model of a rather scary looking Tyrannosaurus Rex. Looking rather important and Regal-like, my imagination kicks in and I have visions of him wandering round town wearing the famous Woodstock gloves and winter boots in search of Christmas presents. I suggest he opts for fine jewellery, a good book, unique gifts and delicious delicatessen treats or a gift hamper from respective businesses Woldstone and the Woodstock Bookshop in Oxford Street, Perspective in the High Street and Hampers Food and Wine Company in Oxford Street.

Korry Amis, shop floor manager, with Mini Bryon, owner of PerspectiveKorry Amis, shop floor manager, with Mini Bryon, owner of Perspective

Listening to traders and those who live in Woodstock, this image in a way epitomises their Christmas wish. They want the town to be known for its wonderful sense of history and romance, but also for its thriving individual independent shops, cafes and restaurants. For a small town, there is a good collection of interesting businesses selling Agas, antiques, flowers, art, crafts, gourmet food and toys, but they want more.

“My hope is that any empty shops don’t stay empty but become full and we get Woodstock up and going. We would love to see more speciality individual shops that help draw more people here,” says Wayne Boyes who owns Hampers Food and Wine with wife Jane and business partner James.

I hope they get their festive wish. Woodstock is indeed a stunningly attractive town, with a rich heritage and tales of romance which are shared from generation to generation. And there aren’t many folk in the Cotswolds who can boast to have a dinosaur and a palace on their doorstep.

The Woodstock Dinosaur goes shoppingThe Woodstock Dinosaur goes shopping

Want to find out more about Christmas events in the Cotswolds? Take a look at:

Cotswold stately homes and gardens to visit this Christmas

Christmas carol services and concerts in the Cotswolds

Cotswold Christmas markets

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