Image credit: Zoe Hua
If, like me, you grew up in a bustling metropolis where two square metres of grass with a single tree in the middle of the road counts as “green space”, then it really doesn’t take much to inspire awe when it comes to greenery and countryside. But I think the sloping green lawns and shimmering lakes of Blenheim Park could impress even those who were raised outside the concrete jungle. And if nature isn’t your thing, surely the grandeur of Blenheim Palace, home of the Dukes of Marlborough, and the picturesque neighbouring town of Woodstock are both well worth a day trip out of Oxford.
I’ve visited Woodstock and Blenheim numerous times in the two years since I’ve been in Oxford. Situated roughly 13km (8mi) northwest of the city, it is a popular day-trip destination for students, and I would guess that most would have visited at least once during their time here. While the destination itself is something to look forward to, I personally really enjoy the journey. More specifically, cycling leisurely through the Oxfordshire countryside, watching the buildings slowly give way to open green fields.
Following the Woodstock Road north out of the city, it is a relatively easy 45-minute cycle to the main entrance of Blenheim Park and Woodstock. That is if you don’t stop every ten minutes to take photos like I did the first time! There are cycle paths the whole way, taking you out of the city and passing through the villages of Yarnton and Begbroke before reaching Woodstock. The terrain is relatively flat, making it ideal for even inexperienced cyclists. There are bike racks at the Palace where you can safely leave your bike while you enjoy the grounds, as cycling is not permitted within the Park.
If cycling isn’t your cup of tea, or if you would rather not engage in a cardio workout on your day off from studying, fear not! Stagecoach bus numbers S3 and 7 both take you from the city centre to Woodstock, where you can either opt to hop off one stop early at Blenheim Palace or arrive straight in the town centre at the Marlborough Arms, where you will be within walking distance of all the pubs, shops, and cafés Woodstock offers.
I like to stop off at Hampers Deli right next to the bus stop, where they make the most delicious sandwiches and paninis (and such great value!) as well as offer a wide selection of baked goods and sweet treats, before heading to the Park to enjoy a picnic by the lake. Occasionally, I might also treat myself to gelato from Alfonso Gelateria, where the queue will be significantly shorter than any ice-cream van on the Palace grounds on a sunny day.
Blenheim Palace and its surrounding Park and Gardens truly are well worth visiting at least once, although having been about ten times myself, I still find new things to enjoy every time I visit. The Park is entirely free to visit, and you will often find people walking their dogs or families enjoying a picnic on the slopes in front of the Palace gates. I try to visit at least once every season, as the scenery changes and different seasonal activities are on offer–beautiful flowers in the spring, boating on the lake in the summer, golden trees and sheep grazing in the autumn, and (if you’re lucky) seeing the grounds transformed into a winter wonderland on a snowy day in the winter.
If, however, you would also like to visit the interior of the Palace and its Gardens, you can pre-book a ticket online or at the ticket office at the Palace. The Palace itself is an architectural masterpiece, being the only country house in England that is not associated with the Royal Family or the Church to hold the title of “Palace”.
While you might not have heard of the Dukes of Marlborough, you might recognise the family name Spencer-Churchill, and one of its most famous members, Sir Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim itself and buried nearby in the village of Bladon. The grave itself lies within a family plot and is astonishingly simple for someone of such prominence. Fun fact: the Column of Victory in the Park, the Palace’s main entrance and Churchill’s grave form a straight line, with the Column and the gravesite being almost equidistant from the Palace.
Blenheim clearly knows that its visitors often return many times a year, as they now offer a free upgrade to an annual pass when you buy a full Palace, Park and Gardens ticket. For £27 with a student ID or £32 for an adult, you can enjoy all of Blenheim for an entire year! Plus, now you can get an additional 30% discount if you provide evidence that you travelled to Blenheim with “green transport”, i.e. by train, bus or bike. Being just half an hour away by bus, I think this is excellent value if you can see yourself returning several times.
Blenheim is the perfect quick escape from Oxford if you would like a break from the colleges and libraries without breaking the bank. And if you’re an avid walker and nature-lover like me, you will find yourself renewing that annual pass a year after the initial visit.