A walk in Woodstock

The woodstock Trail (First Published in the October 2012 issue of Four Shires Magazine

In 2012 a stone plaque was unveiled on Woodstock Town Hall to mark the installation of seven Portland stone wall plaques around Woodstock.

Local sculptor, Giles Macdonald, created the plaques at sites selected by local residents convened by Councillor Linda Glees.  Dr Robert Edwards, Honorary Townsman and local history expert, provided local knowledge.

Woodstock’s rich royal history dates back over 900 years.  Following the Norman Conquest it became a royal borough where medieval kings came to hunt.  Henry II visited Woodstock to meet his mistress, the ‘Fair Rosamund; the Black Prince was born here and Elizabeth I was imprisoned in the royal palace by her sister, Mary Tudor.  In 1704 Queen Anne gave the manor of Woodstock to John, Duke of Marlborough, victor at the battle of Blenheim.  Sir John Vanbrugh designed Blenheim Palace, still home to the Marlborough family and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.

On a sunny autumn morning I set off on the Woodstock stone plaque trail, keen to explore some of Woodstock’s august history via its ancient buildings, Writes Anne Stabler.

I start at 11-13 Park Street, which housed The Samson Press (Plaque 1).  Founded by Joan Shelmerdine and run from here 1937-1967, artists were commissioned to produce wood engravings, lino-cuts and drawings; Edwin Muir was a noted poet published by the Press.

I proceed into Rectory Lane to The Bishop’s House (Plaque 2) which was built in 1686 by Dr John Fell, the Bishop of Oxford, who was also instrumental in founding Oxford University Press and oversaw the construction of many Oxfordshire buildings including Tom Tower at Christ Church.
Retracing my steps to Park Street, I continue past St. Mary Magdalene Church, the ancient stocks, Oxfordshire Museum and The Bear Hotel, its Virginia creeper resplendent in the morning sun. This former coaching inn dates from the 13th century; the restaurant will soon be run by Alan Murchison’s Michelin starred 10 in 8 Group and I look forward to dining there.

The Town Hall (Plaque 3) in Woodstock town centre was built in 1766 by George Spencer, the 4th Duke of Marlborough. The ground floor was originally open under the arches where markets were held.  In Victorian times the town’s fire engines parked here until 1898, when the arches were filled in.

I continue along the High Street turning right into Park Lane, passing The King’s Head and turn left into Rectory Lane. Away from the hustle and bustle of the High Street I come to number 23: The Pest House (Plaque 4) awash with flowers today gives little indication of its former use as the isolation hospital for infectious diseases where smallpox victims were cared for in six separate rooms.

Continuing down Rectory lane, I reach Oxford Street and proceed to number 52, The Bell Foundry (Plaque 5). Founded by James and Humphrey Keene in 1626, the bells cast here still ring in many local churches.

Back to 28 High Street, Cromwell’s House (plaque 7), built in 1640 as an inn.  The ancient mulberry tree growing in the garden was planted in compliance with a 1603 act which required inns of a certain standard to plant mulberry trees. It is rumoured that Oliver Cromwell stayed here during the siege of Woodstock Manor although no written record exists.

Before the penultimate building on the trail I stop at Brotherton’s Brasserie for morning coffee, its glorious creeper-covered building immortalised in a painting by local artist Rod Craig.

My walk finishes at 6-8 High Street: The Ancient Mariner’s House (plaque 6), built in 1708 by Simon Hatley, haberdasher and former Mayor of Woodstock, allegedly with stone meant for Blenheim Palace.  His son, also Simon, left Woodstock to become a sailor, setting sail for South America on board the ‘Speedwell’ in 1719.  The Captain’s voyage records the shooting of an albatross; it is believed that Simon Hatley (son) was the mariner referred to in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Sculptor Giles Macdonald says: “Woodstock is crammed with history. It was really exciting exploring this and working with local residents, capturing some of the detail in the series of carvings. I hope the plaques hint at some of the people and places that have contributed to the town over the centuries.”