‘Train travel really is the only way to travel, isn’t it?’, I said in my most bumptious way as I sat back in one of the Great Western Railway’s most comfortable first class carriages, complimentary water and apple juice to hand. My wife looked at me with a long-suffering expression; she knows me too well. ‘For you, who has never mastered the art of driving, it quite literally is the only way for you to travel. It’s either that, or a very long walk. Or the coach.’ I laugh merrily, and inwardly curse that I have offered myself as a hostage to fortune. We engage in similar badinage on the hour or so’s journey between Paddington and Oxford, and then head up to Woodstock from there, perchance to a stay in the town’s finest hotel, the Feathers.
Having not been to Woodstock for a few years, the thing that I notice more or less straight away is that it’s almost embarrassingly full of places to stay. Old-fashioned pubs and tea shops have transformed themselves into sophisticated boutique options; one particularly rough scratcher that I remember avoiding in my student days is now the epitome of moneyed Cotswold chic. And yet nowhere can compare to the Feathers for elegance, comfort or its gin selection.
I am informed by the manager Dominique that the Feathers once held the Guinness record for the number of gins that the bar stocks, but, at a trifling 400 or so, has now been supplanted by some other Jenever-come-lately. Nonetheless, there is the most comprehensive selection here that one could ever begin to imagine, and it seems rude not to sample one – a Robin of Locksley one is suggested, and sampled, and enjoyed a quite immoderate amount.
And then it’s time to wend our way up to one of the suites, which are spacious, comfortable, feature a separate bed for a small and (on this occasion) well-behaved child and have a host of nice touches; a glass bottle of jelly beans might be infantilising, but my wife and I find our hands dipping into it more often than we might have expected to.
A walk around Blenheim Park (and don’t for heaven’s sake pay the exorbitant entrance fee to the grounds; there is a perfectly legitimate public entrance that is for some reason concealed a short distance from the centre of the town) makes the spirit soar and the appetite grow, and so it’s not too disappointing that we’re dining at the hotel’s (relatively) new restaurant, Kitchen by Dominic Chapman.
The executive chef acquired quite the reputation when he was at Michael Parkinson’s Michelin-starred Berkshire pub The Royal Oak, and so it’s a delight to see that his cooking has retained the same high standards here. Lasagne of wild rabbit and smoked salmon paupiette are starters to dream of; Old Spot pork belly and a rhubarb trifle continue matters in a distinctly satisfactory fashion. The sommelier recommends a bottle of Valpolicella with hushed reverence. He is proved right; it’s an excellent match.
One glorious night’s sleep later, despite the well-behaved child discovering that she can get out of her bed and torment her parents first thing in the morning, and an excellent breakfast with some of the best scrambled eggs I can ever remember having, and then it’s time to bid a reluctant farewell to this splendid little town, and I’m feeling a trifle melancholy. ‘Cheer up, you foolish fellow’, quoth the missus. ‘We’ve got the GWR back to London to look forward to.’
She is right, and I do.
Advance single fares between Paddington and Oxford are available from £5 each way. For the best value tickets buy before you board at www.gwr.com.
The Feathers, Market Street, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1SX. For more information, including introductory videos, details of offers and wedding packages, visit www.feathers.co.uk.