Having for so many years heard about The Feathers, found in the historic Cotswolds market town of Woodstock, I was intrigued to go and stay. Woodstock is home to one of the UK’s greatest landmarks, Blenheim Palace, built between 1705 and 1724 and originally intended as a gift from a grateful nation and monarch to John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, following his famous victory against the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.
The construction of the palace quickly ran into difficulties. The Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, a famously strong-willed woman, fell out of favour with Queen Anne, which meant that royal funding for the building of Blenheim was withheld, bringing work to a standstill from 1712 to 1716, when the Duke decided to pay for the palace to be finished out of his own pocket. To make matters worse, whereas the Duke had commissioned the architect John Vanbrugh, who had previously worked on Castle Howard in Yorkshire, to do the design, his wife had wanted Sir Christopher Wren for the job and consequently set about making life difficult for Vanbrugh, who eventually resigned from the project in 1719, leaving his partner, Nicholas Hawksmoor, to oversee its completion.
In the late nineteenth century the Churchill family ran into financial difficulties, and Blenheim’s future became uncertain to say the least. In order to save the family and the palace from its precarious financial situation, the ninth Duke married the American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, securing a dowry payment of $2.5 million from the bride’s father. As soon as their honeymoon was over, the Duke began a major restoration and re-decoration of the palace.
Today, Blenheim Palace is most famous for being the birthplace of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, grandson of the seventh Duke. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The palace is set in 2,000 acres of beautifully landscaped parkland, designed at the behest of the fourth Duke of Marlborough by the famous landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1760s. The exquisite Baroque palace is surrounded by sweeping lawns, formal gardens and a magnificent lake. Walking through these grounds, it’s not difficult to conjure up William Blake’s famous lyrics referring to ‘England’s green and pleasant land.’ Blenheim Palace is truly magnificent.
The town of Woodstock initially grew up as a coach stop on the road north from Oxford, then around the Royal Hunting Lodge that became the site of Blenheim Palace. The Feathers is just a few minutes’ walk from the main gates of Blenheim, and its seventeenth-century townhouse building also has a fascinating history, having been put to many different uses over its long lifetime. These include a sanatorium for those recovering from tuberculosis in the eighteenth century, the Woodstock Literary Institution (including a reading room and library), a draper’s shop at the turn of the nineteenth century, a butcher’s shop – the proprietor, Mr Robinson, was said to have roasted an ox in the grounds of Blenheim to celebrate the Queen’s coronation in 1953 – and finally a hotel, which the former owner, Gordon Campbell-Gray, renamed ‘The Feathers’ due to his love of stuffed birds.
Inside, The Feathers is an intriguing maze of corridors and staircases. The hotel has just undergone a major refurbishment involving a redesign of all the existing bedrooms and the creation of an additional suite. Each room has its own quirky, colourfully furnished style – this is much more a boutique hotel than a smart country pub – but this quirkiness does not come at the expense of comfort. Our suite was a good size, with dining facilities for four, a comfy seating area with a sofa and armchair, desk and separate bedroom. My only complaint was that pillows were made of foam – hardly in keeping with the hotel’s name, and do not make for a comfortable night’s sleep.
For gin drinkers, the Courtyard Bar menu offers over 130 brands to choose from and is a perfect opportunity to indulge in a gin and tonic or the perfect martini. (The well-versed bar staff can be quite persuasive!) The award-winning restaurant serves the best of modern English cuisine using locally sourced ingredients – light and fresh in summer, rich and robust in winter. The only dilemma is the tricky decision of choosing between the tasting or à la carte menus. The restaurant also offers picnic hampers for those looking to explore the surrounding countryside.
Just an hour-and-a-half from London, The Feathers is a great weekend spot from which to visit Blenheim and the surrounding picture-perfect, Cotswold-stone villages. Given the recent announcement that the Olympic flame will pass through Woodstock on 9 July next year, you’d be wise to book your room at The Feathers for next summer today!