Macdonald Bear Hotel
Park Street, Woodstock , Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, OX20 1SZ
- Recommended for:
- Business travellers, Couples, Culture vultures, Mature travellers, History, Nature / wildlife, Romance, Sightseeing
Expert review of Macdonald Bear Hotel
We know that Woodstock was a clearing in the royal forest as long ago as 1066. Several English kings spent time hunting in Woodstock Manor and Queen Elizabeth I was imprisoned there by her sister for a year. In the 17th century the town was put firmly on the map when England’s great military hero, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough created Blenheim Palace on the site of the old manor. Unfortunately it was never made clear whether a grateful nation or the duke himself was paying for this vast baroque mansion so the Churchill family were financially crippled by its upkeep. It was only when Randolph Churchill married a wealthy American heiress that family fortunes improved. Woodstock’s most famous son, and its second most famous author, Winston Spencer Churchill was born in Blenheim Palace in 1874.
The Old Bear coaching inn witnessed many of these events, growing dramatically in size during the 17th century when Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough held court at Blenheim. Today it spreads over a number of buildings along Park Street, including an old glove factory which is now the hotel’s reception. Many famous guests have stayed in this rambling, ivy-clad inn including Elizabeth Taylor whose sojourn (with Richard Burton) is now commemorated in the Marlborough Suite.
The MacDonald Bear (as it is now known) dominates the south side of Park Street and sits virtually opposite the neo-classical town hall, which was built in 1766 to designs by Sir William Chambers. The public entrance to Blenheim lies further down Park Street and Chaucer's House is also nearby. Yes, it is believed that one of greatest poets in the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer, lived in Woodstock.
There are 54 bedrooms but the hotel's organic growth over the centuries has resulted in no two rooms being the same size or shape. All are named after people or places associated with Blenheim or the Churchills. Clementine is named for Winston Churchill's wife and Godolphin for one of John Churchill's political allies. There is even a sequence of rooms named after the battles in which the first Duke of Marlborough defeated the French. The top suites are the Marlborough, William Chambers and Sir Winston Churchill. Style varies hugely in the older rooms. If you like dark oak panelling go for the Chambers, named after the architect of Woodstock's town hall. The Marlborough commemorates Elizabeth Taylor with an ornately carved four-poster bed.
The more humble accommodation divides into Classic, Deluxe, Family and Feature categories but may still have original 13th-century beams, stone walls, wooden floors and stone fireplaces.
The cosy bar next to the front door has a log fire and old oak settles. The Churchill Lounge, above it, occupies a magnificent position but is decorated in a dull and dated way. The dining room is divided into the Gun Room (which can be curtained off for private dining) the Front Room (for Afternoon Teas) and the main dining area which is looking a little tired these days. It's a heritage hodgepodge of horse brasses, hunting prints, tapestries, real beams and "character" beams, internal bay windows and exposed stonework and very much in need of a major rethink. In a hotel dripping with history why fake it? The private dining rooms in the Old Glove Factory are new and much more attractive.
Breakfast is taken in the dining room. Lunch and dinner can be eaten in the dining room or the bar. The hotel prides itself on its Scottish beef which is hung for 21 days before being carved. Other main course staples include Norfolk pork, Highland lamb and smoked fish by John Ross. Two courses cost £25pp and three courses £32pp.
A dining room tradition is Winston, a stout teddy bear who sits at his own table but will happily be brought over to join children or adults who are dining on their own. Winston and his female companion Winnie were often kidnapped by over-enthusiastic guests but always returned. However, six months ago Winnie was stolen and has not been returned yet. The sadness on Winston's face is palpable.
There is no gym but do ask the concierge about boating, ballooning or go-karting nearby. Beauty treatments can be arranged with the Mimimi Boutique (15 Oxford St 01993 815967).
The senior staff dress in tailcoats, waiters in formal waistcoats and receptionists in suits. Everyone is cheerful, even eager. My last visit was when the hotel was enjoying its first quiet weekend in months. The service was excellent but we were the only people in the dining room.
Cultural tourists, especially from America. The hotel is very popular with Europeans and Japanese too. This is what the films tell you an English country hotel should look like.
As Woodstock has a lot of weddings quite a few wedding parties stay at the Bear. Sometimes the groom's family will stay at The Feathers and the bride's at The Bear, or vice versa.
As no two rooms are the same, prices vary a lot. Basic categories are Classic, Deluxe, Family and Feature. Breakfast is extra. £10 for Continental and £13.50 for Full English.
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- Park Street, Woodstock , Oxford, Oxfordshire, England, OX20 1SZ
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- Literary, Winston Churchill
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