Alan Wooding visits one of England's grandest houses and the birthplace of Winston Churchill
Just a 25-minute drive from the centre of Oxford is Blenheim Palace, one of Britain's truly great historic houses and home to the Dukes of Marlborough since the early 1700s. However it's perhaps better known today as the birthplace of unquestionably Great Britain's greatest statesman, orator and politician, Sir Winston Churchill.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1987, Blenheim Palace is absolutely enormous, its diverse 2000-plus acres of rural Oxfordshire parkland and huge lakes making for the perfect family day out.
Named after the Battle of Blenheim – which took place in 1704 – it was built by John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, following his military prowess against the French and Bavarians in the War of the Spanish Succession.
The house was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh while the land on the edge of the small Oxfordshire market town of Woodstock was a gift from Queen Anne. The massive Baroque-style building itself was constructed between 1705 and 1722 while its remarkable ornate gardens and rolling parkland were landscaped by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown.
Today it's home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough, James and Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, their family having lived at Blenheim uninterrupted for more than 300 years. However it was saved from ruin in the late 19th century thanks the 9th Duke who fortunately married billionaire American railway heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt. Together they made several big changes and improvements which are still in evidence today.
With so much space, car parking will never be an issue and with a steady stream of coaches packed with foreign tourists arriving every day, Blenheim has never been so popular. On arrival we headed straight for the house itself to explore the impressive State Rooms with their priceless collections of furniture, portraits and tapestries.
Armed with an all-important audio guide – programmable into nine languages – plus a pair of comfortable headphones, we made our way through the enormous Entrance Hall and continue through a series of rooms bursting with artefacts, portraits and irreplaceable furniture, then into the library, dining room and finally the chapel.
The tour took around an hour while you tend to linger a little longer in the adjoining Winston Churchill Exhibition where you learn that he had a particularly lonely childhood after which you pass through the bedroom where he was born on November 30 1874.
By this time a cup of coffee was beckoning so we made our way out onto the sun-drenched terrace overlooking the magnificent Water Terrace – constructed between 1925 and 1930 – for light refreshments, after which we took in the Formal Garden passing by the 'Temple of Diana' and the Church Memorial Garden which charts the dates of his rise to twice becoming Prime Minister together with his military history.
It was then onto the South Lawn and the Family Pleasure Gardens which houses the magnificent Butterfly House, the daunting Marlborough Hedge Maze (said to be the world's second largest symbolic yew hedge maze) and Blenheim's Bygones Exhibition.
Added to that there is the Children's Adventure Playground while a narrow gauge railway runs every 30 minutes from the Palace Station to the Pleasure Gardens. A single journey costs 50p for adults with under fives going free. A Lavender Garden is specifically set out to enhance native butterflies and there are plenty of nectar enriched plants there.
Anyone feeling adventurous can set off and walk around the Queen Pool (approximately 45 minutes) or the Park Perimeter – that's almost 5 miles and around 2 hours – while we opted for the Great Lake and Cascades waterfall walk which included viewing the enclosed Rose Garden which was perhaps a few weeks too early to see it in all its glory.
That was a little over a mile in total but it took around an hour after stops for pictures and to enjoy the parkland's wonderful arboretum where you discover fabulous Japanese Maples, giant cedars, huge English oaks and wonderful spreading horse chestnut trees.
En route there are several interesting sculptures and works of art, one in particular catching my eye was simply named 'Untitled'. It's by German artist Georg Baselitz and is made of huge black carved pieces of timber and is said to be inspired by the well-known neo-classical sculpture, 'The Three Graces' by Antonio Canova.
Also on our itinerary was a visit to the Duke's Private Italian Garden which is overlooked from the Orangery Restaurant plus the tranquil Secret Garden. And finally we saw various landmarks in the vast grounds such as the Column of Victory and the Grand Bridge which was also designed by Vanbrugh.
WHAT'S COMING TO BLENHEIM PALACE
The Blenheim Palace Flower Show takes place on Friday 21st June to Sunday 23rd June which this year is being opened by television presenter George Clarke, the star of shows like The Home Show, The Restoration Man and George Clarke's Amazing Spaces. An architect and writer, he be taking part in two question and answer sessions in the Garden Talks Theatre at 11am and 1.30pm.
Also coming to Blenheim in July is the Battle Proms plus Shakespeare's Rose Theatre productions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Richard III.
Meanwhile BBC's Countryfile Live takes place in August while the SsangYong Blenheim Palace Horse Trials take place in Sepember. In October it's the Festival of Literature, Film and Music while the Christmas themes kick in with various markets, light trails and a festive Palace experience through the latter months.
PRICES AND OPENING TIMES
The cost of admission to the Palace, Park and Gardens is £27 for adults (£25 concessions and students) while for children aged 5-16 it's £16 (under fives free). Family tickets (2 adults, 2 children) cost £67.50 however if you agree to donate your admission costs to the Blenheim Palace Heritage Foundation Charity on arrival, then you get an annual pass.
With a building of the age and magnitude of Blenheim Palace, naturally there is always ongoing building work and currently the restoration budget is expected to be around £40 million, hence the charity donation.
The Park itself is open daily between 9am and 6pm, the Formal Gardens from 10am to 6pm and the Palace from 10.30am to 5.30pm with the last admission at 4.45pm. For more information, visit www.blenheimpalace.com