Tuesday 24 April 2018

Oxfordshire: A Brexit break to the land of palaces and Harry Potter

Short breaks in the UK

Trinity College, Oxford. Photo: Deposit
Trinity College, Oxford. Photo: Deposit
Blenheim Palace. Photo: Deposit
University buildings in a city, Radcliffe Camera, Oxford University, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
Oxford University's Bodleian Library. Photo: Deposit
The Feathers Hotel, Oxfordshire
Mark Evans

Mark Evans

With Brexit hitting sterling, your euro is starting to go that bit further in England. Mark Evans jumps back in time in Oxfordshire.

It might be one of our nearest neighbours, but it's amazing how little we know of England.

Sure, London's hardly a well-kept secret, with Dublin to the English capital one of the world's busiest air routes. Ditto Manchester and Liverpool, for the football and their Anglo-Irish links, and Newcastle for a weekend of hedonism.

But the rural Cotswolds? The Pennines? Lake District, anyone? Take your average Irish tourist, and chances are they've seen more of rural Spain or Italy than the enchanting small towns of merry old England.

Oxfordshire's about as English as you can get - it's home to the collection of colleges of Oxford University, the oldest in the English-speaking world. Then there's Blenheim Palace, rich in royal history and intrigue, quaint villages and the rolling hills of the Cotswolds.

My base was the tiny town of Woodstock (no relation to the hippy festivals of the 1960s in New York). Just outside the city of Oxford, it's about 230 miles from Holyhead, a little more driving than from Dublin to Dingle.

Blenheim Palace. Photo: Deposit
Blenheim Palace. Photo: Deposit

The town is also home to one of Britain's greatest treasures - Blenheim Palace. Built in the early 1700s to celebrate victory over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession, it's steeped in history.

A certain Winston Churchill was born here, and the astonishing grounds were designed by landscaper 'Capability' Brown.

Elizabeth I was imprisoned on the grounds during the strife with her half-sister Mary.

Today, it's a heritage site, pulling in millions of visitors, and it's on a jaw-dropping scale that makes the likes of Wicklow's Powerscourt look puny in comparison (blenheimpalace.com).

Woodstock is a short stroll from the palace, and a destination in itself.

Dating from at least the 10th century, it's a Midsomer Murders (without the murders) type of place. I stayed in the The Feathers Hotel, a plush 17th-century townhouse. It's got centuries of history, literally, in its walls: Catholic emblems were embedded in them to keep them from Cromwellian forces during the English Civil War.

The Feathers Hotel, Oxfordshire
The Feathers Hotel, Oxfordshire

In these more sedate times, it's a chilled-out spot, with an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for having the largest collection of England's national drink, gin, in the world.

With the sun shining, I grabbed a table in the lovely courtyard and sampled a few of their offerings.

It's got gin from all around the world - local, Bulgarian, American, Canadian, Macedonian, brews from Belgium and Colombia. It's a tough job getting through the tiniest fraction of its 400-plus gins, but someone's got to do it.

Dinner here attracts a big local, as well as tourist, trade, with a high-end menu (£39.95/€47.90 for two courses), including local beef, trout, stone bass and shoulder of lamb. If you're keen on something more casual, the bar menu starts from below a fiver for sandwiches, or £11/€13 for more substantial mains.

The local area is laidback and rural, with the home of the reputed son of writer Geoffrey Chaucer (and Oliver Cromwell) in the town.

It's worth paying a visit to the Black Prince pub, with tables outside on the River Glyme. It's got local beers, cheap pub grub, and is the home to the local game of 'Aunt Sally', where patrons try to knock over a wooden dolly with sticks of wood. Very Wicker Man.

And the big bonus of Woodstock is that it's just eight miles from Oxford, so a handy place to park the car. Oxford - like its rival sister city of Cambridge - isn't car-friendly, so take the bus from Woodstock into town.

Oxford University's Bodleian Library. Photo: Deposit
Oxford University's Bodleian Library. Photo: Deposit

The city of dreaming spires is synonymous with education - and its old students is a who's who of the rich and powerful. Fourteen monarchs, 12 saints, 25 British prime ministers, scientists like Stephen Hawking, celebs such as Rowan Atkinson and Michael Palin, then there's Lawrence of Arabia... and Hugh Grant.

Kids will love the place (much of it was filmed and used in the Harry Potter movies), with museums such as Oxford University Museum of Natural History stuffed with plenty of dinosaur skeletons and learning zones for all ages.

It's a big place (38 colleges and over 20,000 students), so get your bearings with a walking tour. Plenty are available, including 'haunted' tours, but the advantage of the Footprints Tour (footprints-tours.com) is that it's free, with just a £2 online booking fee, and you tip the guide on the two-hour tour what you like.

Leave a bit of time for a quick pint or two as well - the Bear Inn dates from around 1242, the Eagle & Child is heavily linked with Lord of the Rings writer JRR Tolkien, while the Lamb and Flag - where Thomas Hardy wrote large parts of his novel Jude The Obscure - donates much of its profits to scholarship students.

And if you want that lazy Brideshead Revisited-style experience, try punting on the river, passing by where Lewis Carroll wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, for £22 an hour (up to five allowed on board the boat, with oxfordpunting.co.uk).

Who said learning had to be dull?

Getting there:

Flights: Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly to Birmingham International Airport, which has rail connections to Oxford.

Ferries: Having a car opens up the Oxfordshire countryside for exploration, with Woodstock less than four hours' drive from Holyhead, or just over three hours from Pembroke in Wales.

Where to stay: The Feathers Hotel has overnight B&B in beautiful old-world rooms from £99/€118. Add a three-course dinner deal from £159/€190 (feathers.co.uk).


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