I first came to live in Woodstock in the blazing summer of 1976.
London had become a furnace and I was heartily glad to leave it. The removal van drove off to its overnight warehouse. Sam was spending the weekend with his father. A devoted neighbour harboured my cat. I climbed into my car, shaking with fear. I had never driven so many miles on my own before.
I do not remember any of the journey – but I do remember my joy at reaching the Woodstock roundabout and seeing the signpost. I glanced to my left as I drove past the gates of Blenheim. Behind them stretched acres of grass. Not a green blade in sight. Weeks of drought had baked the landscape to burnt sienna. We’ve had some hot summers since, but none as dry as that.
The centre of Woodstock then was a much prettier place. There were fewer mammoth coaches puking fumes as they trundled through Blenheim’s gates, far fewer parked cars – and absolutely no multicoloured dustbins standing like neglected sentries on every vacant corner.
I had bought a small, flat-topped cottage on Hensington Gate Estate for the princely sum of £15,000.00. My main reason for being there was its closeness to Blenheim. However busy I was during the week, every Sunday morning, come rain or shine, I’d cross the intervening streets to Blenheim Palace’s Triumphal Arch, turn right and walk down to Fishery Cottage, up past the lake, turn right again towards the farm, through the woods, round to what was then a kitchen garden and back into Woodstock.
I often left my house harassed, burning with rage over a week fighting ridiculous office politics. Two hours later I’d return, soothed by the exercise, refreshed and ready once again for publishing action. It’s no exaggeration to say that my weekly date in Blenheim’s gardens kept me fit and sane.
The extraordinary quality of walking in Blenheim lies in the fact that it can be all things to all men. If you want to explore the rooms and corridors of a great Palace, with its fixtures and fittings, its grandeur, its innate sense of history, there you have them on a golden plate.
If you want the space and scope of grounds designed by Capability Brown to be seen on horseback, with the image of the Palace on continual glimpse through the trees, they are there for you.
If you also want the gentle ease of farmland, with sheep and pheasants, the scents of the farmyard, the sounds of bleating and the songs of birds, the formality of the lake and its marvellous bridge give way to them as if there were no boundaries.
Swans feed in the lake, with geese and their goslings, and ducks of every kind. Cedars and copper beech grace the edges of the lake. Its waters reflect the changing colours of the sky. Wooden benches allow the walker to sit for a while to reflect in solitude or hammer out an argument with a friend.
All things to all men.
This year in particular the gardens of Blenheim have been all that and so much more. A space to walk and forget the pandemic for an hour. A quietness to ease the mind. A sanctuary for the soul. Sanity gained among the trees, along the paths and beside the waters of the lake.
It has been a year most of us will try our best to forget. None of us have seen or endured anything like it, and hope never to again. We have fought our way through it – and fewer places have helped us more along the way.
To crown the year with optimism and hope, the Christmas lights – a celebration of the genius of modern engineering – have come both to end it, and to create a sense of new beginnings.
Here is my homage.
At the end of a year spent in darkness
We have an explosion of light
A reaffirmation of spirit
To stamp on that virus of blight.
So now let us celebrate Blenheim
Its Palace, new lit, sparkling, piled
With stars for the visitors watching –
With light from the eyes of the child.
The front of the Palace comes dancing
Triumphant in crimson, then green:
It sings as its colours keep changing
It bows to our fabulous Queen.
In spite of the hazards of winter
We flourish. We’ve nothing to fear
With our reaffirmation of spirit
Let us thrive at the end of our year.