We awoke after a restful night’s sleep. I woke up before everyone else and took the opportunity to sneak out and explore the grounds of the hotel before everyone else woke up. The grounds surrounding the Old Swan and Minster Mill Hotel are simply beautiful.
The inn that the hotel was converted from dates back to 1445 and the place oozes history and charm. It was recently turned into a world-class hotel and spa in the 1970’s and was recently updated again when it was purchased by the de Savary Family. Everything on the grounds is impeccable and it’s exactly what you’d expect from a historic English hotel.
One of our favorite features of the hotel is that they have it stocked with petting animals. The staff was particularly excited that their ducks, as Eddie and Betty had recently given birth to ducklings. You can spot them in the duck house behind the restaurant.
Two of my biggest goals for this trip was to visit Blenheim Palace, a stunning stately home and the birthplace of Winston Churchill and also visit Bladon, where Churchill is buried.
After a phenomenal hot breakfast in the hotel restaurant (which is included in your room rate) we packed into the car for the trip down the road to Bladon, where Churchill has his final resting place. We found the village easily enough but finding somewhere to park was a different matter entirely. We must have circled the town 4 times looking for a suitable place to park. You can’t park at the church itself as there is no parking there.
Luckily we found parking down a side street. There’s a pub car park nearby as well – you’re not supposed to park there unless you’re a customer but we saw plenty of people do it. It’s not like you’ll be at the grave for a long time.
The graveyard is a little bit of a trek up a hill and you come up from behind. The yard would be a quiet, contemplative place if we hadn’t gone during recess time at the school next door. Still, it’s a beautiful setting for the grave of one of history’s greatest men.
I paid my respects to someone I admire greatly. It’s really something that meant a lot to me – as lame as it sounds.
After that we went into the little church where they have a few things for sale on the honor system (leave the money in the box). I bought a few Churchill momentos – the money goes to help keep the church operating and then we were on our way.
A visit to Blenheim Palace has been on my ‘bucket list’ for years. It’s possibly one of Britain’s most famous stately homes and is also it’s the only non-Royal palace in Britain. Blenheim Palace was a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough from a grateful nation for his victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim. The house has been in the Churchill family since.
A certain World War II leader by the name of Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim when his family was visiting. The palace takes well advantage of both of these connections to great leaders in British history and the whole place is geared towards them.
The room where Churchill was born is set up exactly like it was when he was born and it has become a bit of a shrine for Churchill enthusiasts.
The house itself is amazing. It’s the finest piece of Baroque Architecture anywhere in the world. The palace is massive in scope – so massive it’s hard to get good pictures of it because you can never fit the whole thing in the frame. Your admission to the palace gets you inside the palace itself, where you can take a guided tour (we didn’t and instead wandered and explored on our own). You can also ride a train on the grounds to the Pleasure Gardens. The grounds are massive and beautiful. You’ve seen these landscapes before in movies and TV shows. Visiting them in person feels like visiting an old friend.
There’s a special display on both famous Churchill’s that’s worth a stop. There’s also a cinema that gives a bit of historical background. This is one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions, so it has facilities to match that moniker. There’s a great restaurant that has a menu of hot food (I enjoyed the burger and chips) and the seating area is out on the veranda with views of the fountains, gardens and the parkland surrounding on the estate.
You can easily spend the whole day there and you should.
On a more personal note, last year I had the chance to visit Churchill’s home at Chartwell and spotted a book in the gift shop I really wanted about his paintings. I didn’t buy the book at the time because I thought, ‘oh, don’t waste trip spending money buying a book I can order when I get back home.’ Big mistake, when I got home I discovered the book was out of print and not available in the States except used (and expensive). So, I was very happy to find the same book in the Blenheim Palace gift shop. I bought it this time and it’s resting comfortably in my Anglophile library where it belongs.
Oxfordshire Canal Boat Tour
Our final stop for the day was also something we’d really been looking forward to. Visit Oxfordshire arranged for us to go on a canal boat tour for the afternoon – with afternoon tea thrown in. So, after our visit to Blenheim, we made the short drive to Heyford where the company hosting us was based.
We arrived a little early and the cafe on site, Kizzie’s, provided us hot tea and scones – which would have been worth the drive alone as they were delicious!
When Dave Dare, the owner of Heyword Wharf Oxfordshire Narrowboats, arrived, he took us on board one of his beautiful canal boats, provided another serving of tea and took us on a tour of the local canal for a couple of hours.
Britain has hundreds of miles of old industrial canals that were built during the Industrial Revolution to service the booming industry at the time. As that industry declined, the canals began to be used for pleasure boating and there’s now a thriving canal boating industry.
Renting a canal boat is now one of the most popular things to do on the English tourist trail.
With Oxfordshire Narrowboats, you have all kinds of options. You can rent a canal boat for the day and give yourself a go at navigating the canals on your own or you can also hire a captain to do it for you. If you’re more adventurous, you can also rent a canal boat for a longer period of time and explore England’s canal network. It’s a great way to see England – you’re treated to mile after mile of stunning countryside – and all your accommodation is on the boat. As long as you can operate the locks (it was demonstrated to us, it’s crazy easy), you can travel the canals at your leisure.
Dave was kind enough to show us the ropes, give us a download on all there is to offer and let us enjoy the breathtaking scenery. We definitely want to rent a canal boat on a future trip.
After our canal boat tour, we headed back to the hotel where Jackie was treated to a much needed massage. We dined once again in the hotel restaurant as by that point in the day we were so tired we didn’t feel like finding somewhere new and we had such a good meal the previous night we just ate there again.
We cannot thank Visit Oxfordshire enough for arranging our visit and we can’t wait to go back!
If you’re planning your own visit to the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, check out their website first.
Come back next week as we leave the Oxfordshire Cotswolds and head to the Georgian City of Bath.