Ghost Connections Field Trip
Oxfordshire June 2010
Here we are again. Our fifth year away together as a team to sample the sights and sounds (and food and drink) of some part of Britain. Opting for a change of direction and a little limited on time this year we chose Oxfordshire. We were fairly close to Warwickshire and so we also went there. No great decision on destinations or places to see were made in advance although one destination was certain and would form the bulk of our first full day away.
So without further ado here is our journal of a total of 4 days journeying around southern Britain.
With a little of the day to kill locally before Kim joined the boys we spent the afternoon in Upnor in Kent after lunch and a pint at our normal meeting and drinking house at The Bell at Bearsted near Maidstone. Upnor is a rare sight in the midst of the urban sprawl of the Medway Towns as it is unspoilt by both cars and modernisation and with its Elizabethan Castle it could be stuck in a 500 year old time warp! A few more beers were drunk and photographs taken before we then collected Kim squeezing all our kit into the car and we were off. Unfortunately this was rush hour depart and so traffic was heavier than other times of the day but we made good progress after a services stop in the M40 and got to our camp site around 8.30 but thankfully we chosen a different venture than tenting it.
We had hired a wooden 'pod' at Cotswold View Caravan Park at Charlbury in Oxfordshire. Far easier to set up in in the fading light it just meant blowing up the airbeds and crashing for the night. The park was crowded and every available space was utilised by tents, campers and caravans. If you wanted some privacy you weren't going to get any here. Our pod faced onto the path to the shower block and so we were never short of passers-by but at least we had a fenced off area of our own, a park bench and electricity and lighting in the pod. Luxury!
Both Dave and Ian were up with the lark next morning able to catch the summer sunrise and then walked the mile into Charlbury for a look round able to do so and walk back and make a cuppa before Kim and Paddy even missed them. Charlbury is a charming village and being in the Cotswold's it is pale orange Cotswold stone as far as the eye can see. It looked even more special in the early morning sun.
Back at the site plans were made for the day and as it was glorious we decided that our main focus to visit should be that day. Washed and awake we made our way the few miles to the larger village of Woodstock.
The namesake of the famous music venue may not be famous itself but its grand country mansion is. Blenheim Palace is grand on any scale. A country home built in English Baroque style for the 1st Duke Of Marlborough by Queen Anne it boasts many unique claims to fame. It is the only country palace that is not Episcopal. It is the only house owned by the Royal family that is rent free, the presentation of military colours suffices since it was instituted by Queen Anne as Marlborough, although a controversial character, was her supreme military champion, and the room that Winston Churchill was born in.
The drive to the car park takes in the views across the lake to the Great Bridge which was part of the original design although flooded partly by the later lake. The walk from the car then takes in the long view to the Great East Gate which was purposely designed to taper to give an optical illusion of height and incorporates the water tower within its upper floor.
Many courtyards then open up until you arrive at the grand entrance on the North side. Columns like a giant Greek temple dwarf the visitor as you enter looking up at the eyes painted under the portico and then its into the house. Sumptuous, huge, fantastic decorated walls and ceilings abound. Trompe L'oeil in three rooms on the ceilings and walls is amazing. You just marvel at everything and that's just the interior.
When you walk outside the water garden and fountains with innumerable statues is a feast for the eye and the rest of the grounds is immaculately maintained. There isn't even a blade of grass out of place on the South Lawn and you are invited to walk where you like. Such a relief not to see 'Keep Off The Grass' signs.
There was plenty we didn't see and we were there half the day. You could fill your week at Blenheim and whilst it's not cheap to get in you do get your monies worth.
It was a scorching day and we made for the nearest pub for lunch and drinks and somewhere in the shade. The Woodstock Inn in Woodstock had a parking space outside and did food. No other looking about was required, although we were to wish we had. We may not have been dressed like some of the upper class clientèle but it's just a pub. We were ordered about, ignored, and got shoddy service and they even tried to relegate us to the garden! We ate and then were off before another drink was even succumbed to. Sadly this would not be our last experience of a lack of welcome this weekend.
Here was where our historical bent for following brown signs would kick in as we aimlessly drove round looking for something remote and brown to grab our attention as it has in previous years. Brown signs, for the non English readers, point to places of tourist interest in the UK.
So first brown sign equalled first adventure trying to find the place. After parking the car and taking a mile hike down a country track we found what remains of North Leigh Roman Villa. Its a few remains of foundations and hypercaust in the middle of a field. There are two buildings which purport to cover fine mosaics but these have been vandalised and boarded up making the whole site appear like a desolate, uninviting mess. Owned by English Heritage they really should preserve this place and make it more inviting. It holds little attraction to the casual visitor as it is. Oh and some better signage wouldn't go amiss EH!
Better luck with our second brown sign perhaps 'Cotswold Market Town' of Witney. It's all Cotswold stone with a little bit of Cotswold Stone and a bit more Cotswold Stone. We didn't stop although we did find Sainsburies super store for essential supplies, mainly snacks and alcohol.
Whilst we were in the area we popped past RAF Brize Norton which had a few aircraft on the tarmac but there was no obvious viewing area so we moved on.
Struggling to know what to eat we found the local Indian Takeaway and grabbed a menu as they deliver to the camp. Five Ways Indian Takeaway in Charlbury has got to be one of the best we had used. The food was plentiful, good value and delicious with prompt delivery. What more could you ask for?
Day three dawned at a more sensible hour for us all and after the obligatory cuppa to get started (thanks be to electric).
As we weren't too far away we decided on a destination fairly quickly thinking we would find breakfast on the way. Stratford-Upon-Avon necessitated a venture across the county border into Warwickshire and noting a few sights on the way we headed there.
No breakfast stops en-route was a disappointment but having arrived and parked in Stratford we found a great café in the centre of town called Courtyard Cafe. Great service and good breakfast and a handy pointer to the nearest supermarket we were on our way on foot to explore the town.
Stratford-Upon-Avon is a teaming tourist trap with Shakespeare's house and all the trappings that go with having this in a pedestrian precinct, not that it can moved too easily we guess! We set off on the 'I've been here before' route march at Ian's direction and found ourselves at the canal and aiming for a drink at a pub we found this just a busy and opted against it. Fair play to Stratford but teaming tourists do not allow for those who want a more leisurely pace with some constructive photography thrown in.
Supermarket to re-stock and we were off opting for the 'stop where we see stuff' policy that normally works quite well combined with the brown signs approach. We would be going even further back in history than we had so far.
Having spotted a particularly attractive village on the way through we stopped on our way back at Long Compton where the church is very attractively accompanied by a previously residential lych gate building in thatch. The medieval church of St Peter and St Paul is light and airy with a welcoming air, even advertising the pub along the road. Distracted and realising we hadn't sampled much local ales we headed for the Red Lion.
Now the Red Lion looks the part outside, all Cotswold Stone and an ample garden with an over modernised interior. However having said this we weren't ready for the plain rudeness of the staff. Not having precisely what we requested were told they did not stock said items and were not offered an alternative and had to come up with some other idea of a drink ourselves. We were beginning to think that this was the norm for public houses in The Cotswolds. We sat in the garden to drink our drinks and then promptly left on our way.
Now a careful bit of map study by Paddy, and a spot of a Brown Sign led us to our oldest site on this trip. Scattered between two fields on each side of a narrow country road which forms the county boundary are the three independent sites that are collectively known as the Rollright Stones. They consist of a single standing stone known as The King Stone, a collapsed burial chamber of stones known as The Knights and a stone circle known as The Kings Men. Various legends surround these stones with tales of witches and fairies turning a King and his men to stone, with other tales of The Kings men uprooting themselves and going downhill to the stream for a drink on moonlit nights! Owned by a private group they are well cared for and a popular attraction with offerings in the centre of the circle. In fact pagan rites are still practiced here. This proved a suitable place to take in the atmosphere and have a rest as the stifling heat of the day was proving a little hard to bare.
Having considered our options for the evening meal on what was our last night in Oxfordshire we chose to sample the local inn in Charlbury and very glad we were too. The Bull Inn prides itself on its food and own brewed ales and so it should. The staff and regulars all made us feel at home and the service was exemplary. This was a complete contrast to our other stops during the time there and restored our faith that excellence all round with a friendly service do exist in The Cotswolds.
Leaving the Bull Inn completely full Ian and Dave showed Kim and Paddy the sites of Charlbury itself as they had discovered early the previous morning.
The following morning we left reasonable and as normal chose to take a slightly different route back home via the Thames Valley and paused for a stop in Dorchester on the way. Dorchester is a village the size of a small town but almost entirely ornate with lovely old cottages and inns on the main street. Indeed, previously the site of an abbey, the parish church is something to behold. Sat off the main street next to the old Archbishops Palace, now the visitor centre, it is massive proportions as befits its previous history along with amazing architecture and effigies of knights and bishops on tombs.
So here was our 2010 foray into foreign lands. A mass of differing experiences at both ends of the scale. Our highlights were most certainly Blenheim Palace with the villages of Long Compton and Dorchester snapping at its heels.
Roll on 2011!
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