When the newly married Jennie Churchill arrived at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, in 1874, she was overcome by its beauty. “As we passed through the entrance archway and the lovely scenery burst upon me, Randolph said with pardonable pride, ‘This is the finest view in England.’ Looking at the lake, the bridge, the miles of magnificent park studded with old oaks, I found no adequate words to express my admiration.”
Jennie’s son Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim a few months later. The view that entranced her is every bit as stunning today, and the finest vantage point from which to admire it is the tatty, overgrown lawn that runs to the side of Woodstock House, a crumbling Georgian relic that needs a new custodian — one with imagination, patience and pots and pots of money.
Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, sister of the recently installed 12th Duke of Marlborough, says Woodstock House is a “gem”, the jewel in the Blenheim estate’s glittering crown. It is arguably the most beautiful and romantic wreck to come on the market for a generation. It sits in 2½ acres of prime Oxfordshire land near Woodstock and has that wonderful view over one of Capability Brown’s great creations.
The catch is that the prospective tenant will have to stump up £3m to renovate the grade II listed mansion, which will take about two years to restore in accordance with Blenheim’s agreed plans, then shell out £25,000 a month in rent — for a 20-year lease. No wonder the Blenheim estate says it is looking for a “special” buyer. The profile is most likely to be someone international, with a base in London and perhaps beyond — New York or Singapore — who wants a taste of English country life.
Yet if the house, which will eventually have eight bedrooms and bathrooms, were to come on to the market for sale, it could command more than £10m: so is Woodstock House a rich man’s folly, or the bargain of the century?
What you get is the shabby shell of a house built for a wealthy Georgian goldsmith, which has been empty for several years and was most recently used as an old people’s home. Grab rails and “fire exit” signs give Woodstock House an institutional feel, and it has been subject to all the usual 1970s indignities of boarded-up fireplaces, lost cornicing and plasterboard partitions.
The floors are covered by dusty, stained carpets and the walls pockmarked with peeling plaster, but the high ceilings and tall, graceful windows with views over the garden and beyond make it easy to imagine how striking the house will be when it is brought back to life. Downstairs, there are two beautiful drawing rooms, a smaller room that could be a library or TV room, and a warren of yet smaller rooms, which will be opened out, that lead to the kitchen. At present, that is a dank, large but gloomy space with cracked tiles and an old Aga, but the proposed plan will double its size and create an orangery with a huge roof light.
Beyond that, there is permission to build a swimming pool and “leisure complex” by knocking down a gaggle of outhouses. The plans have been drawn up by Nick Cox, a local architect and restoration specialist who has previously worked on projects at Blenheim Palace, Calke Abbey and Belvoir Castle.
I walked around Woodstock House with Spencer-Churchill, an interior designer and author of Classic Georgian Style, with Bugsy, her glossy black labrador, trotting at our heels. When Spencer-Churchill looks across the lake to Blenheim Palace from the handsome room with floor-to-ceiling windows that will be Woodstock House’s master bedroom, what she sees is not a fabulously beautiful world heritage site, but her former home.
She moved into Blenheim when she was 12. Her father (the 11th Duke), who died last October, inherited the estate two years later, but he had already been managing it for a number of years, so she and her brother had the run of the house and grounds. They used to climb up on the roof and pretend to be ghosts, and there were “lots of staircases and turrets to explore”. The lake brings back memories of “fantastic parties — all our friends from school and uni used to come here.” Her father kept a boathouse on the far side of the bridge where they cooked barbecues. It was the set-off point for waterskiing every summer.
She would “love” to get her hands on Woodstock House, she says: “The new owner will have to be dedicated to the cause, but it really is unique. It’s a very typically Georgian house in that it has beautifully proportioned rooms and beautiful light.
“Previously, people built houses with much smaller windows, but the Georgians were the first to have the opportunity to travel, and took their inspiration from France and Italy. They admired Palladio. It was the age of elegance: they built their houses for entertaining and showing off their wealth.”
As well as running Woodstock Designs, Spencer-Churchill heads up the Blenheim Foundation, which raises money for the upkeep of the palace. Blenheim is the only world heritage site in private hands, so it has to maximise every opportunity for making money. For all Woodstock House’s beauty, its new owner will be next door to a tourist attraction that hosts 650,000 visitors a year. Wafting over the garden wall over the summer months will be the sounds of the Blenheim triathlon, the annual flower show, the Battle Proms picnic concert to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo — Beethoven’s Battle symphony complete with 193 live firing cannons, fireworks and a Spitfire display — and a joust with falconry, archery and knights on horseback.
Ah, that garden… a magical, neglected tangle of mature trees, weeds and wild flowers. Around the back of Woodstock House is a crumbling brick potting shed, with an empty hearth where the gardener once warmed his hands by the fire, its inner door covered in faded cards declaring a first or second prize for exhibits at the Woodstock Flower Show and Fete. The skeleton of the kitchen garden remains visible in the hedges and beds, and could soon flourish. A tiny adjoining orchard could be kept or turned into a tennis court.
Whoever buys the lease to Woodstock House will find themselves part of an already-cosmopolitan community. The Blenheim estate extends over 12,000 acres and has 210 properties. Over the past 10 years, the estate has built 60 new homes, so its stock ranges from one-bedroom flats to Georgian piles such as Woodstock. The grander houses tend to be occupied by wealthy families attracted by Oxford’s schools; Woodstock House is barely 10 minutes’ drive from the famed Dragon prep school. The current crop of tenants includes families from France, China, America and South Africa.
Woodstock House comes with two staff cottages, one with three bedrooms, the other with four. The living space totals about 20,000 sq ft. The rent will be negotiable according to the size of the initial investment — as everyone knows, most building jobs run both over schedule and over budget — and there may be a chance, down the line, to extend the lease for another 20 years. The fact that it’s being let on a lease makes it one of the only mansions in the country that will be exempt from the proposed mansion tax. Might that prove an inducement? The hunt begins for someone rich, brave or mad enough to take it on.
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