Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Blenheim Park

Blenheim Frontage

For our next walk a rare opportunity came along in the shape of Brownie Camp, which meant that for the first time in many years my wife and I could have a weekend away without having to worry about anybody else.  It was quite a luxury!  We decided to head to Oxford for our weekend as we wanted to go far enough away without being too far in case we were needed.

Woodstock High Street
Some years ago on a gloomy November afternoon I had walked around Blenheim Park using the walk in volume 6 of the Pathfinder Guides (walk 8).  It was a hugely atmospheric walk and I thought that would be a splendid one to do in combination with a visit to the magnificent Blenheim Palace at the heart of the park.  The weather on this day was rather different to last time out.  We started with a sunny morning but the cloud rapidly came across to leave us with rather overcast conditions.

We parked up in the rather smart looking village of Woodstock, no doubt where a lot of the estate workers would once have lived.  Now it comes across as a very well to do place that Oxford professionals might live and feels very much like a Cotswold village.  Perhaps it is the use of Cotswold stone that really ensures this as nearby villages do not have the same feel about them.

Entering the Park
 We parked in the village car park and wandered down the High Street, doing some window shopping as we did so.  There are clearly some very wealthy people in these parts if the prices are anything to go by!  As we walked along the main road the sight of the Victory Column in the park came into view for the first time.  This is something we would glimpse on several occasions as we walked the five mile circuit of the park.  Just beyond here is the area of the village known as Old Woodstock, although much of the housing now looks rather more recent.

Furze Platt
The first mile of the walk can only be really described as positioning as it follows a not terribly inspiring course through some nearby fields.  One memorable sight along the path across the first field was the line of different hollyhocks that flanked us.  I am guess that these were garden escapes but they added some much needed colour to a drab looking landscape.  With the overcast conditions and the recent harvesting of the crops much of the countryside was looking rather tired.

Grand Avenue
Eventually we reached the A44 again and crossed.  We were immediately confronted by the high wall of the estate and passed through a big clunky gate to access the park.  This section of the path is the course of Akeman Street, a Roman Road that would have allowed a direct route from St Alban’s to Bath using connections at each end with Fosse Way and Watling Street.  The path is also followed by the more recent incarnation of the Oxfordshire Way, a 68 mile path that links Bourton-on-the-Water with Henley on Thames.

Aggressive 'Lambs'
Just inside the park we walked past Furze Platt, a rather derelict looking farm.  It isn’t exactly the most picturesque looking house in the park but what a shame to see it without anyone living in it.  The barn outside had an enormous crack in the wall, suggesting that this might have been a deal breaker for turning it into a luxury holiday house.  We soon pulled up to the main drive to the north of Blenheim Palace.  It was a hugely impressive sight lined by avenues of trees and in the distance was the impressive Victory Column once again.  This must have been quite the entrance to any visitor to the estate.  

Autumn Fruits
We continued on our way along the side of fields full of grazing sheep and in some cases some very aggressive ‘lambs’ that had not yet been successfully been weaned and were causing their mothers grief now they were so big.  It was amusing for us to watch even if not for the sheep involved.  Eventually we reached a small woodland at the other end of the park and met the perimeter wall once again.

Swan Family
From here the path takes a tortuous route through the park, going round field boundaries and this enabled us to see some of the features of the landscaping that was put in by Capability Brown, some 60 years or so after the Palace was built.  At this end of the park they were mostly shaped clumps of trees and avenues through to the palace itself but eventually we reached the lakes for which the landscape gardener is particularly famous.

Grand Bridge
The Lake was formed from the natural feature of the River Glyme, which was dammed at its southern end.  The result of the damming was that the Grand Bridge, which formed the main approach to the house was reduced in height and the original rooms that were built into the structure were submerged below the water line for good.  Once the appearance was changed in this way its grandeur was far more fitting for the landscape it sat in.  Walking around the lake was a pleasure and as we got closer to the house we could get glimpses of its enormity.

Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace is on an astonishing scale.  It was built for John Churchill, an eminent soldier who defeated the French at the Battle of Blenheim (hence its name).  The house was allegedly a gift from Queen Anne to thank John Churchill and provide a fitting estate to go with his newly formed title as the Duke of Marlborough.  What followed was the building of a gargantuan house by John Vanburgh who had recently completed Castle Howard in Yorkshire.  It isn’t clear whether Anne had this in mind when she sanctioned the house but unluckily for Churchill there was no wriiten contract and when the Queen died the funds dried up.  This was to become a theme of the estate’s existence, with the house providing a constant drain on resources to the family and bankruptcy was only staved off by some convenient marriages by subsequent Dukes.  It is something of a miracle therefore that the house remains in the hands of the family.  Now of course it attracts visitors by the thousands, especillay as Sir Winston Churchill was born and brought up on the estate.

Woodstock Gate
We took the opportunity to deviate from the walk and tour the house and estate, taking advantage of not having small inquisitive people with us who we would have to constantly tell not to touch things J.  We spent a fascinating afternoon wandering around and although the house is obviously magnificent its opulence is rather too much and it is easy to see why the old place attracts its fair share of criticism as well as plaudits.

Walking to the Column of Victory
Once our tour was over we returned to our walk, crossing the Grand Bridge and passing Fair Rosamund’s Well to the grandiose Column of Victory for a closer look at last.  Around the bottom of the column is a full account of the story of the Duke’s victory – a rather long read for anyone who wants to know the blow by blow account of the battle.  I couldn’t help but think what modern minds would think of anyone trying to put in a similar structure these days.  Could you imagine for example Bill Gates building a column accounting for all his business exploits, or Sir Alex Ferguson with all his sporting achievements?  

Column of Victory
We paused at the column for a while before heading round the last part of the lake and back into the village of Woodstock.  It is rather strange that these two places are side by side for they seem to thrive together and yet the existence of the perimeter wall around the Blenheim estate serves as a reminder of the gulk between the two sets of people on either side.

Column Story
There is no doubt that this is a walk oozing with history and definitely complements any proposed visit to the Palace and estate.  It’s modest length (5 miles) means that it takes only a couple of hours and the lack of any strenuous climbs also ensures that you aren’t a sweaty mess before you enter the house for a visit!

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