Friday, September 21, 2007

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO world heritage site located outside Oxford, really pulls in the punters. I almost turned the car around when I saw the queue on a mid-week morning in the off-season. I despaired as I waited in the restroom with the brigade of pensioners and their aging bladders who had just piled off the buses. I was shocked at the £16 admission price and the sheer commercialism of the place with its three gift shops. I was more than ready to advise NoCrowds readers to give this one a pass until the moment that I walked through the ceremonial East Gate, looked left across the Great Court at the monumental baroque palace and right across the infinitely sublime Capability Brown landscape and fell deeply and hopelessly in love with Blenheim.

Everything about Blenheim is over-the-top, from the story of its conception as a gift from Queen Anne to commemorate the first Duke of Marlborough’s crushing defeat of the French in the Battle of Blenheim, to its size where the buildings and courts cover more than seven acres and the roofs alone have been described as “a small town on another planet” to the park and gardens which are the loveliest I think I’ve ever seen. Blenheim describes itself as “Britain’s greatest palace” and for once, the marketing hype might be right.

Much effort has been made to offer visitors “value for money”. In the palace you can take a guided tour or guide yourself through the magnificent State Rooms as well as visit “Blenheim Palace: The Untold Story” which uses all the latest technology including videos and touch screens to provide a kind of “Upstairs/Downstairs meets Ghostbusters” experience. For my money, they could have dispensed with the politically correct information about the servants and focussed even more on the fascinating and sometimes outrageous family members such as the breathtakingly beautiful and miserable Consuelo Vanderbilt whose millions saved Blenheim through an arranged marriage to the 9th Duke.

Blenheim also was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and fans of the great wartime leader will enjoy the Churchill Exhibition which has extensive correspondence the most touching being Winston begging his father to come visit him at school which his father never did and lots of fun knickknacks such as Churchill’s honorary US citizenship proclamation and passport and a collection of Hallmark cards made from some of his paintings. You can visit the room where Winston was born and gaze upon a lock of his hair. If you are a serious student of Churchill, the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London has a far more comprehensive and scholarly collection but seeing the memorabilia at Blenheim gives you a very good understanding of the origins of Winston Chuchill’s sense of destiny.

On the day we were there, the Private Apartments of the 11th Duke and his family were open to the public. Based on the fact that the carpet covers were permanently installed and rather dirty, I suspect that the Private Apartments are open quite often although a good show is put on to convince you of your great good fortune to be allowed into the inner sanctum and oh, by the way, there was an additional £4 charge. Still there are enough “treats” scattered about to make the experience worthwhile and the guide was excellent. For me, the highlight was the painting of the pack of Marlboros on the mantel in the TV room (yes, even Dukes watch telly) painted by a someone having a laugh about the family title. Given the family’s connection to Winston Churchill, there was also a painting of a pack of Winston’s but I am happy to report that it was of infinitely inferior quality – like the cigarettes.

Having spent several hours in the palace, in the afternoon we turned our attention to the park and gardens. In the stables, there are two things to see: a film about the development of Capability Brown’s inspiring landscape which I really enjoyed and an exhibit entitled ‘Churchill’s Destiny which celebrates the lives and achievements of the two great Churchill, much of which is geared for a younger audience.

Finally, we took a walk by the lake and cascades and although we barely scratched the surface of the spectacular park, I began to feel completely divorced from the impact of tourism and the 21st century, so strong is Capability Brown’s vision of an 18th century arcadia. We did not have time to visit the Pleasure Gardens which contains the Marlborough Maze, a Butterfly House and an Adventure Playground although this would have had more appeal for Eloise than for me. The Pleasure Gardens are a 15 minute walk from the palace. There is also a little train that can take you there and parking is available.

By 4:30 it was time for us to get back in the car and pick up Eloise who was interviewing at a nearby school. Blenheim, for all the crowds, was as magnificent and inspiring as advertised. I left with a long to-do list: read Charles Spencer’s book Blenheim: Battle for Europe as well as Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s auto-biography, the Glitter and the Gold rent the 1969 BBC series the First Churchills from the library, and find a slot in the calendar to make the trek north to see Castle Howard, the other great historic house built by John Vanbrugh. My long list speaks to the power of Blenheim to stick in your head long after you’ve left. I loved it and I think you would too.

Useful Information

The Palace is open daily from 10:30 to 5:30 until 28 October and then Wednesday to Sunday from 31st of October to 9th of December.

The Park is open every day except Christmas from 9:00 to 4:45

Blenheim is close to the town of Woodstock eight miles northwest of Oxford. Train and bus service available.

Blenheim Palace
Woodstock, Oxfordshire
OX20 1PX
Tel: 0870 060 2080
Image of John Singer Sargent's Duke of Marlborough Family in the Blenheim Palace collection

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