Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Woodstock: Edge of Oxford or Beginning of the Cotswolds?

Lying just 8 miles north of Oxford and a mere 20 (albeit slow) miles from Stow on the Wold, I am declaring the town of Woodstock as the epicentre of England. The busy A44 is the only drawback to the tranquillity of the town but the road makes up for its intrusion by allowing you only a 10-20 minutes car journey from Oxford.

You wouldn't want to stay for more than 3 nights in Woodstock as it is more of a base to visit either Blenheim Palace, which is so close you can walk in, or Bicester village (20 minutes away by car). The experience of Woodstock is to get that City grime or airport jet lag off you. It has the quiet, laid back ambiance you are looking for, enough eating places and good hotels to recharge your batteries before heading into the Cotswolds.

By the way, most of what I experience is by car as I work as a chauffeur which enables me to experience these places. Other modes of transport are available but bad for my business ;0)

From the glare and noise of London, Woodstock is the first deep breath of Cotswold stone cottages, of village halls, tea rooms and antique shops. Bijou restaurants vie for your business against traditional pubs, where the crackle of log fires is a welcome change to the sound of fruit machines and pool tables. You'll need to adjust quickly to the smell though, for the record it is called fresh air with just a hint of smoky oak, wonderful, but be warned it will have you yawning into your Real Ale before 10pm

Woodstock has plenty of places to stay. My client was guest of the www.hopehousewoodstock.co.uk and spoke very highly of her stay in the Blenheim Suite. Hope House only has 3 bedrooms and 1 apartment. The Hope House owner warmly welcomed my client into his establishment which is beautifully decorated with four poster beds, adorned with Italian sheets and silk duvet covers. No sign of prices in the foyer (which was as far as this below stairs worker got) or on the website so with the old adage of 'if you have to ask then you can't afford it', I pushed off to my more humble abode for the night. Five minutes' drive later and I arrive at www.sturdyscastleoxford.com and it was a damn site easier to find than Hope House was (which doesn't want people to know it is a hotel, apparently). My sleeping needs when working, are simple and always carefully orchestrated by my wife/PA. I must be close to clients hotel, have parking, it must be clean and, financially, within our overnight allowance. Nicola very rarely lets me down but tonight she has surpassed her own high standards. Although I had to do one 'kerb crawlers' lap of the car park before finding a space, there is ample parking, and, to be fair, I arrive at 8pm on a Saturday night so I'm out of step with 'ordinary people' and their sensible jobs. The restaurant and bar are heaving and I stand at the small reception fully expecting to be way down on the priority list. Then one of the barmaids appears and spots me, sets a pint of Guinness in flow while asking, 'checking in?' Then, with a 'sign here and here' I am scuttling behind her towards my room, (yes, she even took me to my room) and still saw her back in time to scribe the clover onto the Black stuff. Ok, I exaggerate but she was as impressive as the room, which may have lacked Italian bed linen admittedly but was a large, fresh and clean bedroom and en suite. With the flat screen TV and free Wifi, I have all I need. I didn't eat in the restaurant that night but plenty of others did which suggests the food is good. Breakfast was large and served well and all that at £63.00 I will definitely be back...........and I can bring the dog if I pay the tenner.

Blenheim Palace is the main attraction in this area. Set back from Woodstock, the Duke of Marlborough's 'des res' sits within its manicured grounds overlooking the lake, perfect for history buffs to discover the bygone ages and family secrets up and down the marble staircases. Winston Churchill was born and raised right here in Tory opulence (he is buried not one mile away in at St Martin's Church, Bladon) and if you pay for the day, you can upgrade free to a yearly pass. The weather today is gloriously sunny and 18 degrees, unheard of but welcome in March, so hundreds have dug out the pass to enjoy, if not the house again, then the gardens, lake and country walk up to the imposing statue of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill. Dogs panting and kids on scooters make for a busy thrum around the grounds. The new restaurant annexe quenches thirst and hunger by serving up meals, hot soup and fantastic cakes for it's now weary visitors (after you have passed through the ubiquitous souvenir shop of course).

Now I am not a lover of shopping, and indeed walked through and past Blenheim's wares without any pang of guilt that I'd not purchased a paper-topped jar of marmalade or a book on the fish that stock the estates lake but must point out that one of the best Outlet Centres in the country is 20 minutes from Woodstock but fear not gentlemen, I have a cunning plan....

Bicester Village has everything a lady (I may come over slightly sexist and generalising for this part) needs for her retail therapy, every high street and Bond Street label/ designer is positioned ready to warm the credit card with, let's face it, last year's fashions. The discounts are healthy and genuine and blaze out across the faux High Street that from the car park look ordinary but, rather like the set of a Hollywood Cowboy movie, once on the 'strip' things change and come to life. Bicester has everything you'll need and a few things you didn't know you needed. The shops, of course, but add in High Street coffee and sandwich stops and a couple of good restaurants and I'm afraid the ladies of the group have little reason to leave. There is even a 'contemplation room' which has all the multi faith reading material for you to sit and think about what you've done. May your God help you. Ahh! My plan though! Gentlemen, we all know if the lady in your life is happy then we too are happy so here's what you do. Drop off your brood with arrangements to meet later, she really doesn't want you with her anyway with your tutting and 'yeah, it looks fine' mutterings. Park the car in their free spaces then look over the road from whence you came, you'll see a couple of rugby pitches and a huge sports ground. There is a walk-way between the rugby club and football pitches that leads into the real Bicester. Strolling towards and through the church yard is peaceful and takes no more than 5 minutes and then, behold, pubs, restaurants and coffee shops that are devoid of the queues your good lady has to endure. Go on a Saturday or Sunday, as I did, and watch Bicester Rugby club play while sipping your tea. More importantly, my plan is the only way to avoid coming into contact with the 'type' of person that the designer shops attract. People who have no more disposable income than you or I but, with their 70% discount, think they are Victoria Beckham or Joey Essex...........you are welcome. If you really can't put yourself through actually going then Bicester Village run a coach from London (several venues) in the morning with a return at 17.00pm for £25 www.bicestervillage.com

Written by Kevin Willis who owns and works for www.chirtongrange.co.uk For all your chauffeur requirements from cars to people movers to coaches. All views are my own and I speak as I find so please check all facts

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