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Taking a walk: Patrick Barkham - Blenheim’s Anglo-Saxon oak

Blog | By Patrick Barkham | Oct 20, 2023

The night before this stroll, I stayed in an ancient Woodstock coaching inn, busy with foreign tourists whose presence gave me an outsider’s view of the strangeness and wonder of England.

Church bells pealed shortly before 11am on a late-summer Sunday as an old market town idyll played out: immaculate but modest Georgian houses opening on to pavements where locals and their dogs chatted beneath old lamps and walls of honeyed stone.

Even so, entering Blenheim Palace by the back door – a triumphal arch built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1723 at the request of the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s widow who, according to a hint of admonishment in the inscription, took charge of ‘the many things that remained unfinished’ after his death – was a jaw- dropping experience.

Woodstock is an affluent and well-proportioned Oxfordshire town, yet suddenly it seemed a cramped hovel. For here was a vast sweep of space, a landscape arranged by Capability Brown: green lawns the size of farms, a huge lake in the valley bottom and a house as big as a large council estate with as much ornamentation as a wedding cake.

It is, apparently, the only non- ecclesiastical English country house that is a palace. I marvelled at the quaintness of the Establishment for turning whatever it decides to be the case into an immutable rule. I skirted around the front of the house and out along its great vista, across the grand bridge over Queen Pool beside a phalanx of joggers, tattooed trippers in Leeds United shirts and children on scooters.

We really were the little people, rendered tiny by the grandeur of this landscape, and tinier still, if gazed upon from the windows of the great house. And yet, although we had never revolted, and all this power survived intact, perhaps it was because there had been this accommodation: the little people let in, swarming over the palace gardens.

I looped around one of Blenheim’s elegant drives past stately Atlas cedars, copper beeches and other parkland trees, and climbed the hill into High Park, where lives the greatest concentration of ancient oaks in Europe. The wood was originally created as a deer park by Henry I in the 12th century, although at least one of

the 220 ancient oaks still growing here predates the Norman Conquest.

The cool, green, bracken-filled forest looked much like any other, until some of the oaks loomed into view, each as distinctive as a person, dead branches waving like fantastic arms.

It is said that oaks grow for 300 years, mature for 300 and then decay for 300 but, like a handsome, happy old person, even these decaying oaks looked good when decrepit. Approaching senescence, they remained full of life, hosting more than 2,000 other species, from fungi to the false click beetle.

One oak called me over. Like many, it had been torn apart at a height of about four yards but was still very alive. It possessed an arched door into its hollow trunk: a small wooden chapel. I entered. This trunk room was scented by fresh sprigs of bracken growing in the floor, which sounded a hollow note as if there was a cellar beneath. Gorgeous acoustics softened all noise although I still heard everything: a green woodpecker cackled, a buzzard mewed and a passing toddler shouted ‘I want my...’

The world slowed to oak time. I felt held. The living wood was unexpectedly cool to touch and damp with rivulets from last night’s rain, but the oak chapel was also somehow warm.

When I stepped out again, it could have been into another century. The rest of the walk passed in a daze, down the hill from High Park, across the river where white willows shook their leaves in the breeze, and back alongside the busy side of the palace – the Sunday bustle of the car park, a miniature train and tour-groups of toddlers.

What a walk in the presence of greatness! And guaranteed not simply to pass on an understanding of a thousand years of English history, but also to help us see and feel our present state, too.

Park in Woodstock and enter Blenheim through the gate at the end of Park Street. Cross the grand bridge and loop south-west for a four-mile circuit