Blenheim Palace and riverside walks
Once you’ve pulled on some comfortable shoes, you’re ready to make the most of Oxford’s beauty spots.
At 440 acres, Port Meadow is the largest, commonly-owned ground in the city and the perfect place to while away the day. Entry is through Walton Well Road or Aristotle Lane and the most popular route is to walk up the west side of the Meadow until reaching The Perch pub. With its riverside location and big garden, this makes an ideal place to linger for a pint or a bite to eat. Continuing on and following the line of the river brings you to Wolvercote and its famous pub The Trout, which has featured many times on TV series Inspector Morse.
With more than 100 miles of canal and riverside walks, there are plenty more picturesque routes to choose from, including those connected to well-known literary characters. Of course, if you’re not overly keen on walking, the other way to enjoy a day out and see the sights is to hop into a punt. Boating on the river is one of Oxford’s oldest and best-loved traditions and there are many punting stations, including Folly Bridge and Cherwell Boat House in Bardwell Street off Banbury Road. Some of the best days out can be had in other parts of the county, such as Blenheim Palace near Woodstock.
Home to the Duke of Marlborough, this picture-perfect stately home is a World Heritage site, set in more than 2,000 acres of landscaped parkland and formal gardens designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Marvel at the Italian and rose gardens and the beautiful water terraces created between 1925 and 1931 in homage to the Parterre d’Eau at Versailles. The pleasure gardens, connected to the Palace by a miniature train which runs every 30 minutes in summer, include one of the world’s largest hedge mazes, a butterfly house and children’s adventure playground.
The inside of the Palace can be seen through one of the several guided tours available. These include a chance to view the opulent apartments where the Marlborough family have lived for decades, or take a ‘downstairs’ tour which gives a glimpse into how life was for servants in past centuries. Blenheim Palace is also a venue for a number of major events throughout the year including the International Horse Trials in September, which attracts more than 60,000 visitors, making it one of Oxfordshire’s biggest sporting events.
Home to the Duke of Marlborough, this picture-perfect stately home is a World Heritage site, set in more than 2,000 acres of landscaped parkland and formal gardens designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown
TV drama series Downton Abbey has amassed 120 million viewers around the world, from the US and Australia to China and as many scenes were filmed in Oxfordshire, following the Downton trail makes a fun day out. Start at the pretty village of Bampton in the west of the county, which doubles as the fictional village of Downton. Several buildings, such as the old rectory Churchgate House and old Grammar School, have become famous as fictional counterparts. St Mary’s Church has hosted a number of dramatic Downton events from weddings and christenings to funerals and even a jilting at the altar.
Bampton is also known for its Morris dancing tradition and has one of the longest-established Morris ‘sides’, as teams are known, in Britain. The village also hosts a donkey derby and well-regarded open-air opera in the summer. Two miles south of Burford is Shilton, where more Downton Abbey filming took place. After admiring the pretty 18th-century stone hump-backed bridge across the Shill brook, drop into local pub the Red Lion for a delicious lunch. Travel back via Witney and visit Cogges Manor Farm, where several scenes of Downton were filmed. Cogges Manor Farm is also fascinating in its own right, as it has a collection of rare-breed farm animals and runs regular demonstrations of traditional country skills such as hedge laying, dry stone-walling, corn-dolly making, weaving and sheep shearing.
Witney was a major centre for the wool and textile trade in the 17th century and world famous for its blankets. Sadly, the last mill, run by the Early family, closed in 2002 but the town’s majestic Blanket Hall building was restored and reopened and includes a collection of woollen throws and other heritage goods, plus visitors can take tours of the restored building. It also has its own pie shop, offering traditional home-made pasties of the sort once eaten by wool traders.
Witney, which has the River Windrush running through, also has plenty to offer day-trippers including an impressive selection of shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs and a cinema. The local Wychwood Brewery offers fascinating tours, including a chance to sample and buy some of its Hobgoblin ale at the end. Heading further west, Burford makes a perfect destination with its archetypical Cotswold cottages which line the main high street but be warned, it becomes very busy during the summer months.
St Mary’s Church has hosted a number of dramatic Downton events from weddings and christenings to funerals and even a jilting at the altar
Farms and zoos
On the way, pull off the A40 and head for Foxbury Farm, where you will find Crocodiles of the World, which offers a chance to see and find out about many types of crocodiles and have a go at feeding them. Not far from Burford is the Cotswold Wildlife Park where you’ll find 250 species of animals, including rhinos, lions, zebras, penguins, meerkats, spiders and snakes. There is more than enough to fill a day, thanks to the children’s farmyard, mini-railway, adventure playground, cafe and colourful gardens to stroll around.
Staying in the west of the county, head for the Oxford Bus Museum in Long Hanborough before visiting historic saw museum Combe Mill, where you can watch working traction engines before tucking into a delicious afternoon tea. Another part of the county where stunning scenery and a real sense of history are in abundance is the Vale of White Horse. Lying between the Berkshire Downs and the River Thames, the area is named after the Bronze Age chalk figure carved into the mountainside, known as the Uffington White Horse which can be seen from miles around.
There are breathtakingly beautiful walks up on the Ridgeway and White Horse Hill, with various historic sites such as the Neolithic barrow and tomb, Wayland’s Smithy. After a bracing yomp, head for nearby Wantage, which has many charming pubs and tea shops and is home to the Vale and Downland Museum. The town holds an annual literary festival each October in honour of former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman who was born there.
Another famous son of Wantage was King Alfred the Great and his statue still watches benignly over the market square. It’s also worth making your way to Faringdon to seek out its quirky Folly tower, built in the 1930s by classical composer and author Lord Berners. While there, check out the sleepy market town’s interesting collection of independent shops, cafes and pubs. If steam trains are more your thing, try Didcot Railway Centre in the south of the county or Wallingford where you will find the Cholsey and Wallingford Railway.
There are breathtakingly beautiful walks up on the Ridgeway and White Horse Hill, with various historic sites such as the Neolithic barrow and tomb, Wayland’s Smithy
Vintage motoring and aviation
As the location used to film popular TV series Midsomer Murders, Wallingford is also an interesting place to spend a few hours. Heading towards Abingdon, Milletts Farm near Frilford Heath, is a good destination for all ages thanks to its impressive farm shop, garden centre, craft gallery, large cafe, children’s playground and farm zoo. Over towards the south west of the county, Henley always has plenty going on, from the River and Rowing Museum to the annual upmarket Henley Regatta in June and July. Probably the best-known rowing regatta in the world, it is also a highlight of the social season and attracts thousands of visitors over a five-day period, with 200 races. Even those not into the sport will enjoy the photography, sculpture, pottery and art exhibitions and pop-up shops selling hats, fascinators, dresses, handbags pashminas and, of course, umbrellas.
If vintage motoring or aviation makes your heart beat faster, make your way to the north west of the county for one of the Sunday Brunch Scramble days at the former RAF bomber Bicester airfield. Bicester Heritage has been slowly but spectacularly transforming the 350-acre plot into Britain’s first heritage motor and aviation specialist parks. The buildings, some of which date back to the 1920s, are gradually being restored after being left to rot since 1976. The airfield has also proved a hit with film-makers, and has featured as the backdrop to Hollywood blockbuster The Imitation Game.
Dubbed a modern-day Brooklands, the site is home to 17 firms specialising in motor and aviation restoration. On scramble days, hundreds of vintage car owners bring their cars, vans and motorbikes, making it a visual spectacle to leave enthusiasts gawping with delight. Up at the top end of the county, you will not regret setting time aside to visit Broughton Castle near Banbury. The moated and fortified 14th-century manor house throws its house and gardens open to visitors each spring and summer. Its good looks have netted it starring roles in many TV and film productions, including award-winning TV series Wolf Hall.
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