A landlocked county residing South East England which is famed for its picture-perfect looks, villages filled with honey-coloured cottages, green-cloaked hills and chalk uplands, picturesque riverside towns, the world-famous university town, and for being Harry Potter’s favourite stomping ground. In a county filled with gorgeous treasures, it’s not easy to know where to start but after many years living nearby, I’ve chosen 2o of the best and most beautiful places to visit in Oxfordshire…
Oxford – one of the most famously beautiful cities in England
Oxford has a long and tumultuous past that dates back to the Stone Age but today the world knows the beautiful and elegant city as being home to the oldest English University, and it is primarily a university town, although larger than its rival Cambridge. As a visitor, many hours can be spent traversing the city, visiting spots of historical interest, starting with Main Street, and taking in the views from the Carfax Tower or the 13th century tower of St Mary the Virgin.
When your feet need a rest, there are plenty of green spaces and parks to relax in, such as the University Botanic Gardens, started in 1621. Be warned, there is too much to see and do in one day especially if you like shopping and excellent restaurants so plan your trip well.
Henley-on-Thames – a beautiful market town located on the River Thames which is famous for the regatta
Famed for the historic boat race, this is a lovely market town with much to offer in the way of sight-seeing, .As one would expect, settlement began early on the banks of the Thames, and Henley developed into a bustling market town. Today it is regarded as one of the most beautiful towns in England, with much to see and do. You can start at the Victorian Town Hall and wander through the streets, soaking up the history reflected in the Georgian and older buildings, but be warned, there are at least 300 buildings of special interest to be found.
The town has laid out the Henley Trail, which has a route you can take to experience its ambiance. For a break, spend some time in the undulating Chiltern landscape that surrounds the town with woods and fields. Even in the town, during spring and summer, enjoy Henley in Bloom, with hanging baskets and windowsills lined with colourful flowers. And even if there is no Regatta when you are there, you can indulge in a bit of nostalgia by visiting the River and Rowing Museum.
Blenheim Palace – a masterpiece of Baroque architecture, landscaped Parkland and stunning gardens
As the traditional country seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, this World Heritage Site is a proud reminder of two of Britain’s most famous sons. The site was originally given to the first Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, in recognition of his victory at the Battle of Blenheim. Later it was to be the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.
From an architectural standpoint, this is a prime example of an English Baroque building, designed by British architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, who also laid out the gardens, later redesigned by Capability Brown.
The Palace is open for viewing and is filled with magnificent tapestries, paintings, and furniture. The interior decor reminds you why Blenheim is described as a palace and not merely a mansion of the hall. Afterwards, there is the formal garden to be admired, surrounding the Palace, with features such as a rose garden, an Italian Garden and a Secret Garden. There is much to be seen, the estimated overall distance is 1,5 miles. Further afield the Park beckons. Originally a Royal forest, it contains ancient woodlands and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). For the energetic, there is a 4,6 mile walk around the perimeter of the Park.
Iffley Lock – a pretty lock on the River Thames near the lovely village of Iffley
Iffley lock is one of three locks constructed in the seventeenth century along the Thames, and is the historic starting point for the Oxford Boat Races. Technically, Iffley Lock controls the flow of the River Isis, the Roman name of the Thames, whose name changes to the modern name downstream of Iffley Lock. While the Lock is a pleasant place to while the time away, there is much else that Iffley has to offer. Iffley is recorded in the Domesday Book, although it has now been absorbed into the City of Oxford. It houses a beautiful Romanesque Church of St Mary the Virgin. that was built in the 12th century. It has not been changed much over the centuries, although it features 2 modern stained glass windows, one of the Birth of Christ by John Piper and a second one of the “Flowering Tree” by Roger Wagner.
Also worth a visit is Iffley Meadows Nature Reserve on Iffley Island. It is a favourite spot for the beautiful purple snake’s head fritillaries, a lily that grows in floodplains and has a distinctive chequerboard effect on its petals. Look out for the rare variant, which is white.
Chipping Norton – a classic Cotswold market town which is one of the best places to visit in Oxfordshire
Like other towns in Oxfordshire, Chipping Norton’s fame was based on the wool trade, so much so that the Church of St Mary in the town is what is known as a “wool church”, a church funded by farmers and merchants who became wealthy because of their involvement in wool. Donating to the church was believed to assist them in finding their way into heaven. Construction on St Mary started in the 12th century and it was gradually enhanced over the next few centuries to produce the impressive church today.
A further influence of wool over the town is the Bliss Tweed Mill. Designed in an Italianate style, it is hard to believe that this was a factory. The large factory chimney can be seen from afar but looks more like a tower. When the Mill closed in 1980, the five-story building was converted into apartments.
There are other buildings to admire and explore, but you should also visit the Rollright Stones, three megaliths from the Stone and Bronze Ages. There are various tales around the Stones, that they are petrified knights. There is a dolmen (ancient burial chamber) known as the Whispering Knights and a ring of 77 stones, the King’s Men. In a different county, but less than 100 metres away is the King Stone, which could be an astrological marker. Definitely one of the most beautiful places to visit in Oxfordshire
Broughton Castle – a magnificent old building with beautiful gardens which is one of the most stunning places to explore in Oxfordshire
Near Banbury, Broughton Castle was built in 1300 as a manor house by Sir John de Broughton, and was sold in 1377 to the Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, and has stayed in the same family ever since. The family name was changed to Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes in 1849, and some of the members of this family include Ranulph Fiennes the explorer, and Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
One of the remarkable features of this stunning manor house is that it is on an artificial island surrounded by a moat. Three streams join here, which made the creation of a moat viable. the moat is transversed by a small bridge, which leads to the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, which was built in 1300, with clerestories being added later. There is an attractive Ladies’ garden adjoining the Castle, which was designed in the 1890s by Lady Algernon Gordon-Lennox when she lived at Broughton. A great place to explore in Oxfordshire!
Thame – a charming and thriving market town and gateway to the Chiltern Hills
We have all heard of the River Thames, but chances are that the name of the Thame river, and the charming town of Thame, which sits on its banks, is new to you. If you are visiting Oxford-shire, do add this market town to your list. Dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, the town has architectural examples from every era, from medieval to Victorian. It also has several important ecclesiastical buildings, starting with Thame Park. The site originally was occupied by Thame Abbey, built by the Cistercian order, but it fell victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The only building that remained more or less intact was the Abbot’s Lodgings, which was incorporated into the new secular building as the South Wing.
While the church that formed part of the Abbey complex was destroyed, there is a lovely parish church of Mary the Virgin that was built during the 13th century. It features a stone font, the base of which dates back to the 12th century. Various additions and changes were made during the centuries, still resulting in a harmonious whole.
Another noteworthy house is the Prebendal House, with its origins in the 13th century, which fell into ruin but was restored in 1836. BeeGees member Robin Gibb stayed in the Prebendal until his death in 2012.
Ashdown House – a beautiful 17th-century country house to explore in Oxfordshire
This beautiful 17th-century house was commissioned by the First Earl of Craven as somewhere for Elizabeth of Bohemia to retire to while London was being ravaged by the Plague. Unfortunately, she died before it could be built. It was intended to be a hunting lodge rather than a grand mansion, and there are other cottages and lodges on the property. It was built in the Dutch style and sits in 100 acres of gardens and parkland, which offer evidence of natural and human history dating back to the Ice Age.
There is a field of sarsen stones that are part of the breakup of a huge cap of silcrete that broke up and scattered across southern England between 2,5 and 23,5 million years ago. This is the same stone used at Stonehenge and Avebury. Sheep are used to ensure the grass is kept short around these stones, as they are covered with ancient lichens.
A case of early human habitation is Alfred’s Castle, a hill fort constructed during the Iron age, with evidence of Bronze Age usage, while the woods are ancient, and originally were part of a deer park for Glastonbury Abbey.
Chilterns Area of Outstanding National Beauty – a famous beauty spot to explore in Oxfordshire
Many of the places I have mentioned here are to be found in or near the stunning Chilterns, over 300 square miles of hills and downs, underlaid with chalk. The hills have mixed-use, from farming to undisturbed woodlands and moorlands. Humans has inhabited the Chilterns for thousands of years, and evidence of this is found in hill forts, burial mounds, and other artifacts in the Chilterns. We have mentioned the Uffington White Horse elsewhere in this article (Ridgeway Trail).
There are many trails that allow one to explore the diversity of the beautiful Chilterns, especially habitats and ecosystems that are especially representative of the area. Chalk grassland is very specific in the flora and fauna it supports; the Chiltern Gentian is endemic to the area, and the Adonis Blue Butterfly is dependent on chalk grassland plants.
One success story to be found in the Chilterns is the reintroduction of the Red Kite, which was exterminated in Britain. It is estimated that there are up to 1000 breeding pairs in the Chilterns now, which makes it a great place to see them.
Chastleton House – a stunning Jacobean country house in Oxfordshire
Not all the grand homes we see today were built by lords and earls. Beautiful Chastleton House was built by Walter Jones, a wealthy lawyer of Welsh descent at the beginning of the 17th century and is a great place to visit in Oxfordshire. Near Chipping Norton, it is built of Cotswold stone, quarried in the vicinity, and stayed in the Jones family ownership, passing to the Clutton-Brocks by marriage. It was Walter Whitmore-Jones who is famous for turning the game of croquet into a competitive sport, which visitors can play on one of two croquet lawns when they visit in summer.
The garden design is believed to be the same layout that Walter Jones chose in 1612, based on the age of the garden walls, with a kitchen garden, an orchard, and a “best” garden, although other members of the family made alterations and adjustments, adding and removing beds and bedding plants and revisions to the kitchen garden.
Abingdon-on-Thames – proudly claims to be the oldest town in England
Humans have been settling in the Abingdon area since long before the Iron Age, because of its strategic positioning on the banks of the Thames. It became a Benedictine religious centre as early as the seventh century, when Abingdon Abbey was founded. The Abbey was destroyed by the Danes two hundred years later, although there were several attempts to restore it through the years. There are some notable buildings still standing, such as the Long Gallery, which was built around 1455.
While there are many points of historical interest, both old and new, pretty Abingdon has to be the town with some of the quaintest rituals, such as bun-throwing to mark a special Royal occasion, where the townsfolk are pelted with thousands of buns thrown down by councillors in full regalia from the top of the Council Hall. There is also the Runaway fair, which was a hiring fair, where employees of cruel masters could run away from their old job and find a new, kinder employer. If you want to witness a great display of Morris dancing, there is the Election of the Mayor of Ock Street, a representative of the commoner’s rights.
Wittenham Clumps – one of South Oxfordshire’s most iconic landmarks offering gorgeous views
While Oxfordshire does boast the Chiltern Hills, it is relatively flat, and this must be why the beautiful Wittenham Clumps are so popular with both the locals and visitors. Around 200 000 people a year explore these two chalk hills with clumps of beechwood planted in the mid-eighteenth century. Castle Hill is 10 metres lower than neighbouring Round Hill and has the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, giving it its name. There are many walks in the area, such as a longer walk from Dorchester, which you can see from the hilltops to shorter strolls to and from the village of Little Wittenham and Little Wittenham Wood. The Dorchester footpath takes you across Day’s Lock, built towards the end of the eighteenth century.
Like many of Britain’s landmarks, the use of LiDAR has revealed many secrets around the hills, including the remains of a Roman villa and its mosaic floors, as well as copious evidence of Iron Age occupation and the rubbish pits they left behind.
Burford – a beautiful old Cotswold town to explore in Oxfordshire
Burford was a natural place for early habitation, based next to a ford over the River Windrush, a tributary of the Thames. It is also known as the Gateway to the Cotswolds, and many of the houses are constructed of Cotswold stone, adding to the charm. The streets slope down to the river and many of the buildings date back to Tudor times. A medieval bridge crosses the river, its sturdy construction with three low arches, has helped it withstand floods through the centuries.
To the west of the town is Burford Priory, built in the 1580s and remodelled in the 1630s. It is reputed to be haunted by several ghosts and is currently under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elizabeth.
Witney – the largest of the market towns in the Oxfordshire Cotswold to explore and shop
Witney was famous for its production of woollen blankets from the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution. The .water from the River Windrush was reputed to be a major contributor to the quality and softness of these blankets. This thriving industry resulted in a Blanket Hall being built in 1721, which is where every blanket made in Witney was measured and weighed to ensure it met the agreed quality standards. In 1845, the opening of mills rendered the Blanket Hall obsolete and it underwent several changes, until in 2015 it was opened as a museum to the blanket industry in Witney and its surrounds.
The Buttercross is a 17th-century market structure from where butter, milk and eggs were sold.
Cogges Manor House was built in the 13th century and sits in a 15-acre garden, with aadjoining 17th-century buildings. It is one of the many locations used for the filming of “Downton Abbey”, as Yew Tree Farm in the fourth and fifth series, and briefly in the sixth. It has also been used a location in other film productions, notably “Arthur and George”.
Minster Lovell village – one of the prettiest villages to visit in Oxfordshire
Less than 3 miles from Witney lies the village (or villages) of Minster Lovell. The River Windrush runs through it, separating Old Minster and Little Minster on the north bank from New Minster south of the river. It is a charming thatch and stone hamlet, with the ruins of Lovell Minster Hall, built in the fifteenth century, but now partly in ruins.
There is reputed to be a ghost haunting the ruins, the owner, Francis Lovell, who sided with Richard III and was opposed to Henry VII. Eventually, he had to go into hiding in a secret chamber in the Minster. He had a servant who was looking after him, who either died or disappeared, leaving Lovell trapped in the chamber with a faithful dog. In 1708 workers found Francis and his dog when they unearthed the secret chamber.
Ridgeway Trail – a stunning ancient trackway which is one of Britain’s oldest road
The Ridgeway is England’s oldest route. It traverses the high points of the countryside from Wiltshire to East Anglia, and has been in use for at least 5 000 years, passing many iconic landmarks from Britain’s past. The National Ridgeway Trail does not extend along the complete old road, but one can walk 87 miles along it. It is not exclusive to Oxfordshire, but the section that can be walked through Oxfordshire passes important historical sites, like the Uffington White Horse.
There is a special 6 mile circular-walk in Oxfordshire for those of us who do not have the time or determination to conquer the full route, which takes one across the Chiltern Hills. It starts and ends at Uffington Castle, and offers great views of the Uffington Horse, a detour to Dragon’s Hill, where St George is reputed to have killed the Dragon and Wayland Smithy, a barrow that is linked to the Saxon God, Wayland.
This walk takes one to the high points of the gorgeous Chilterns, of which Uffington Castle, an Iron Age hill fort, is the highest. From there one can wonder at the White Horse, a massive 374-foot long hill sculpture. It was constructed by digging trenches and filling them with chalk. These are only some of the treasures revealed by exploring part or all of the Ridgeway, taking you back thousands of years.
Buscot Park – a late 18th-century house, set in enchanting landscaped grounds
A comparatively modern house, built in the late eighteenth century, pretty Buscot Park is the home of the Hendersons, the Lords of Faringdon, Although it was signed over to the National Trust in 1949, by Ernest Cook, who had bought the estate the previous year. A highlight of any visit to Buscot is the Faringdon Collection, an accumulation of important art works, including a Rembrandt, a Murillo, and a comprehensive collection of 19th-century English artists.
The park is an exhilarating mix of water features, shrubbery, and plantations executed in the 1780s and 90s by the original owner Edward Loveden Loveden., who also expanded the original acreage from 120 acres to nearly 230 acres by purchasing adjoining estates and other properties. The Park is typical of the English Landscape style. In the 1890s, further landscaping was undertaken by renowned landscaper Harold Peto, who added the water garden for which the estate is famous. Exploring the grounds offers treats such as walking around the 20-acre lake, and discovering the various streams, falls, and ponds of the beautiful water garden.
Port Meadow – the largest common land in Oxford
Port Meadow is an ancient flood plain adjoining Oxford that looks today pretty much the same as it has looked for aeons, probably because it has never been ploughed, or so we are led to believe. Bronze Age burial sites can still be identified here, and Iron Age man let his livestock graze here.
There have been various changes to the use of the meadows over the years, such as foundations built by the Roundheads when they were besieging Oxford. Later on, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was used for horse racing. During the wars of the last century it was used as an aerodrome for the Royal Flying Corps, and during the Second World War it was used to house evacuees from Dunkirk.
Horses and cattle graze freely in the meadow and this is an excellent spot for birdwatchers; waterfowl and waders are always to be seen and the occasional rarity or unusual avian turns up from time to time.
Shotover Country Park – a protected area made up of hidden valleys, scenic landscapes and diverse habitats
Take a walk on the wild side at Shotover Country Park. This 117-hectare reserve has a variety of habitats that support various flora and fauna. The woodlands support masses of celandines or bluebells, depending on the season, and many of the trees are hundreds of years old. There are also orchids along the woodland paths in summer to be identified. Birds such as willow warblers and blackcaps flit among the trees.
Leaving the woodlands for the open lands of the meadows, you will find different wildflowers, like Oxeye Daisy, and are likely to encounter deer and foxes. Apart from roe deer, there are muntjac which have been introduced here.
This park offers different ways to traverse it, you can walk, cycle or ride horses. There are some special paths for wheelchair access.
Wytham Woods – an ancient semi-natural woodland to visit in Oxfordshire
A few kilometres west of Oxford and Port Meadow, Wytham Woods is managed by the University of Oxford. This thousand-acre site is a mix of ancient woodlands, secondary woodland, and modern plantings. While the modern plantings were executed in the 1950s and 60s, even the secondary woodland contains trees that date back to the 1700s. The ancient woods date back to the Ice Age.
Access is limited and allowed only with a permit, which has to be applied for, because of the need to maintain its pristine habitat. The Woods have been intensively investigated and researched by university students and graduates, but citizen scientists are also encouraged to report what they have seen via a mobile app. To date, 500 species of plants and an amazing 800 species of butterflies and moths have been identified. These woods are known as a global hotspot for badgers, with the densest population of 200-250 adults being recorded, and there is ongoing research into the lives and habits of these mammals. A beautiful place to explore in Oxfordshire.