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Pleasures and Treasures of England : WOODSTOCK : A Town to Specialize In

June 13, 1993|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

WOODSTOCK, England — Here's my theory about American travelers who keep coming back to Great Britain: First time out, we start with a broad agenda, cramming Big Ben and Stonehenge and Hyde Park and Cambridge and Bath and the white cliffs of Dover into a single trip.

We come back with our heads as overstuffed as our suitcases, and resolved to specialize. On second visits we confine ourselves to, say, the West End of London, or garden cottages of the Cotswolds. Fine. But eventually we degenerate into deep specialization, and then downright obscurity. I know an Anglophile who arranged her most recent English itinerary around a visit to a rural town she'd never seen, just because its name appealed to her. Woon Gumpus Common. The English are not the only eccentrics on this planet.

I can claim no knowledge of Woon Gumpus Common, yet. But here I sit with another English stamp on my passport, and not a word to say about London. What I do have is a notebook full of scribblings about Woodstock.

Woodstock (Pop.: 3,500) is a well-aged peripheral blur just beyond the much-beaten path from London to Oxford. The town's name is familiar, thanks to Sir Winston Churchill and his 18th-Century forebears, who with the Queen's help built vast Blenheim Palace on the edge of town. But beyond the palace gates, Woodstock's charm lies in its small scale. As Oxfordshire County Museum assistant Pat Crutch puts it, the town is "a very nice little place to look 'round."

Hop off the bus in front of the Marlborough Arms on Oxford Street, and the roadside scene resolves into half a dozen principal streets, the St. Mary Magdalene Church tower (which you can admire but can't climb), a view of distant trees. A handful of small hotels, pubs and restaurants do business, an antique shop or two, a grocery and, as the English are inclined to say when they mean pharmacy, a chemist. Oxford is eight miles down the road to the southeast; 55 miles beyond in the same direction lies London. While the masses dash between them, Woodstock stands aside, offering all things small and specific.

Tea, to begin with. I arrived early on a June morning last year, several hours before check-in time at the Feathers Hotel, and so passed my first Woodstock hour over a warm cup at one of the Star Inn's white patio tables on Market Street. For company, I had aged buildings, potted flowers and uncharacteristically clear skies. (April, the driest month of the year in England, nevertheless brings an average of 2.2 inches of rainfall; November brings 3.8 inches.)

While I sat sipping, a distinguished couple, gray and supercilious, slowly strolled past. Down the street, the Oxfordshire County Museum opened its doors. Up the street, Vanbrughs Coffee House ("Famous for cream teas with real West County Clotted Cream") emitted happy morning scents.

Woodstock looks like an 18th-Century place, but civilization there dates back to at least the 10th Century AD, when royal parties were said to occasionally lodge in the area. By 1279, King Henry II was occasionally residing in a manor there and granting parcels nearby to his subjects. Glove-making emerged as a local specialty. Then in 1704, after the British defeated the French in a battle at Blenheim on the Danube, Queen Anne thanked ranking officer John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, by presenting him the royal manor at Woodstock. On the grounds rose Blenheim Palace, and around the grounds rose most of the Woodstock that travelers see today.

Many travelers use Woodstock as a base from which to strike at the nearby Cotswolds or Oxford, and one would have to be weary indeed to resist Oxford altogether. But Woodstock itself is worth some attention.

The town's commercial center amounts to a triangle of streets named Oxford, Market and High. At the confluence of Market and High stand the Town Hall and the Post Office. The names on the storefronts alone may be enough to quicken some Anglophile heartbeats: K.G. Freeman & Son ("the butchers of quality") at 10 High St., Bentlies of Woodstock (antiques) at 41 Oxford St., Thimbelina Children's Finery at 17 Oxford St.

The glove trade, which peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries and included several large and small factories, has dwindled since World War II to a single company--Woodstock Leathercraft Ltd., a small concern about a block beyond the Oxford-Market-High triangle on Chaucers Lane.

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