Last year we rushed through Oxford in a day and missed out on visiting Blenheim Palace, so it’s our first port of call after an early lunch. I’m trying to wean us off a ham habit, so it’s salmon on rye for a change.
The Palace holds a number of distinctions – it’s the only non royal residence to be deemed a palace, it’s UNESCO World Heritage listed and it’s one of the largest private residences in England.
Home to the Dukes of Marlborough since the early 1700s, it was gifted by Queen Anne to John Churchill, who later became the first Duke of Marlborough, as a reward for triumphs on the battlefield against the French and Bavarians in the war of the Spanish succession. She also funded a good deal of the construction cost.
Most interestingly, and a complete surprise, it’s that this is also Winston Churchill’s bloodline – he was born at the Palace, albeit 2 months earlier than expected. He was in such a rush to arrive that his poor mother barely had time to leave a tea party and make it to another room. Later in the tour is an exhibition dedicated to his life.
Blenheim Palace is built in a short-lived English Baroque style, and much of it is quite reminiscent of Versailles. It’s interesting to hear later in the tour that extensive renovations in the late 19th century were in fact, based of the Versailles design. By that stage, extensive renovations and repairs were desperately required. The then 9th Duke, finding himself without money, sourced it the old fashioned way – he married one of the Vanderbilts, ensuring his and the Palace’s future. By all accounts it was not a happy match, the bride allegedly being kept locked in her room until she agreed to the match.
The tour commentary guides us through each of the formal rooms and entertaining areas, a stunning library, and eventually the chapel with its enormous monument to the 1st Duke.
Churchill’s exhibition is extremely well done and is rather illuminating. It covers all aspects of his life from that hasty arrival, through schooling, University, his military career and of course the war and latter years. Most touching are the personal photos and letters written to his beloved wife, Clementine.
He was a true romantic at heart and clearly adored her. I was also incredibly impressed by this speech, written by his hand, subtlely spaced and set out for cadence – to hit all the key points and words.
It’s quite a stroke of genius – taking away any need to think about where emphasis is needed during delivery. He was, it’s no secret, a magnificent orator. The scenes from his funeral are extremely moving. The world stopped to pay their respects and show their gratitude for a freedom hard won. Over a million people stood in the streets, another 85 million watched around the world. He was a truly great man.
Palace toured, the vast gardens beckon.
We trek to the formal rose garden, past two enormous lakes, water terraces and beautiful formal plantings that surround the palace. The grounds have some of the largest oak trees I’ve ever seen – I suspect they pre-date the house, when this was a deer reserve.
With a 5 mile perimeter, it’s truly a stunning estate. I’m so glad we came back and had the chance to experience it.
A quick (not really) stop at the gift shop sees a new gin come home. I picked up a sloe gin the other day which is quite fabulous. Today it’s a rhubarb flavoured one. Most delicious, with a good hit of sharpness on the palate. I’m also rather taken with these country gentleman, but resist.
By this time it’s late afternoon and we’re both exhausted – it’s been a beltingly hot day, so it’s off to the pub for a refreshing drink before we tackle the walk home. We spot this fabulous machine along the way and just to top off the day, a hot air balloon flies over us at dusk!
I’m quite over the heat. Bring on autumn, bring on the rain. I miss the green England I love.