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Blenheim Palace, ancestral home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, was originally, a gift from Queen Anne and the nation to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in recognition for his victory, against considerable odds, in the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. With its multitude of historical artifacts, rare art and sprawling, painterly grounds designed by 18th Century legend ‘Capability’ Brown, commissioned by the 4th Duke in 1764, this opulent Palace offers more visual delights than one could possibly savour in the course of a single day. How apt and, welcoming then, that the price of a one day ticket to the Palace, Park and Gardens in 2011 buys you another twelve months of free return visits!
From its lengthily drive, which one cannot help imagining horses and carriages thundering down, to its huge, ornate gold and black gates at the end, there is a nearly palpable air of excitement among the throngs heading towards the Palace on this grey Saturday morning, the first on which it will be decked out for A White Christmas. As we make our way, signposts to our left cite Pleasure Gardens and on the right, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, tops the tall Column of Victory pointing heavenward.
Before we’ve even entered the Palace itself, its 2,100 acres are already working their green, oxygenating spell, and a myriad of lit Christmas trees glimmering through the columns lining the Palace on either side of the main entrance, likewise, enchant. It is difficult if not impossible to say which is more impressive, the grounds, or the massive entranceway, flanked by huge columns and a lofty, painted ceiling featuring one large, blonde lashed blue eye and a huge, unblinking brown one. It is already becoming clear why Blenheim is regarded as one of the great Treasure Houses of England, as it is one of its most magnificent examples of English Baroque architecture. Notes cite the fact that UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site in 1987. To those new to it, the sheer scale of the place seems staggering. Within, white lights shine enticingly on the boughs of a great tree, as we enter, leaving the damp autumn day outside.
Inside, in the Great Hall, perspective gradually adjusts to this large scale, now at a closer range than outdoors, from its cathedral worthy ceiling above, to the sheer vastness of the surrounding space, and with it, comes the recognition that we are in a very grand place indeed. A gigantic Christmas tree towers over us, tastefully decorated in large snowflakes and icicles, momentarily inspiring a tendency to drift into Alice in Wonderland mode. Soon, they’ll be a tour of the State Rooms, but first, we’re directed down a long corridor, lined with snowy white wreathed, marble busts, bringing the enchanted palace of Couteau’s Le Belle et Bete to mind, towards a series of comparatively humbler rooms housing memorabilia relating to the late, great WWII leader and statesman, Sir Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim on November 30, 1874. The homey bedroom where he was born is part of the grand tour here.
Churchill’s historical trajectory is most impressive, and one is able to trace his path from birth to state funeral with many of the glories possible for one man in a single lifetime between, including a long and happy marriage to his beloved wife, Clementine. Photos, letters and quotes enlighten us, and some older visitors demonstrate signs of first hand remembrance. Once outside the Churchill rooms, we join the gathering crowd in the hallway below some of the Palace’s most valuable and informative portraits. An explanation from our tour guide confirms that Churchill’s mother, Jenny was not the only American to appear in the family lineage, as in the Red Drawing Room, Consuela Vanderbilt, who married the 9th Duke, Charles, inheritor of a severely depleted Dukedom, in an arranged marriage to elevate his family coffers, appears in a painting by John Singer Sargent, with her husband and two sons, then referred to as ‘the heir and the spare.’
Our tour continues through a number of rooms boasting rare porcelain and china, tapestries especially commissioned by the 1st Duke to display his bravery in battle, antique flowered rugs from France, furniture modeled on that of Versailles, and much more, with each invaluable artifact flowing into the next, until we find ourselves in the immense, but nonetheless, welcoming Saloon. Fires in two ornate fireplaces warm, as does the sight of fourteen red chairs at a long dining table decked in crystal and white for Christmas. Each of the main rooms has its own, beautifully tree, reflecting the snow theme, but the one here, though large, seems most home-like. Trompe l' oeil makes us think we are surrounded by real marble walls and the painting on the faraway ceiling is on a dish shaped curve. It is an illusion and the room itself is like a dream. I have wondered into a princely castle on a journey through a wood and invisible hands will now serve us beakers of mulled wine and platters stacked with cakes and fruit. After all we’ve taken in already, the high-backed, red padded dining chairs begin to look very inviting.
Moving on, we eventually find ourselves in what to me, is the most memorable room of all – The Long Library, second longest room of its kind outside of Castle Howard, aka ‘Brideshead’, the other masterwork of Blenheim’s architect, Sir John Vanbrugh. It is easy to visualize the ladies of the day walking the length of this room for exercise on rainy afternoons, their long gowns trailing behind them. The pipe organ at the north end of the room is the largest privately owned one in Europe and we’re told members of the family come here a couple of times a week at the least, to play it. Its pipes cover one wall from floor to high vaulted ceiling. The room also features photographs of family members and ancestors in gilded frames atop a variety of tables standing opposite two fireplaces offering warmth. Another pinnacle is the gown, and, two costumes worn in English National Ballet’s glittering production of The Snow Queen, which I had the pleasure of seeing and, writing about a few years ago. Each costume is liberally dotted with rainbow-throwing Swarovski crystals, which lend further beguiling capacities.
Down a small flight of rather grand stairs is the family chapel, with a manger display for Christmas which exudes its own history in that inexplicable way only such seasonal objects, brought out year upon year are capable of doing. Photo opts abound here, and throughout the Palace, as it seems to have been designed in such a way that there is no bad vantage point, no matter which way you look. Each window, turning and doorway reveals its own delights – the top portion of another section of the house, with its own distinctive features and reflective aspects, or a fountain or classical figure, forever poised among the ever evolving gardens surrounding it. The Palace is militaristic, in a fashion, that’s true, as much of its contents pay homage to the victories of its past warriors, but it is also sumptuous and to most of us living a kind of everyday life, something of a film set and museum rolled into one inexplicably fascinating package. The grounds, which are unbelievably vast and one imagines, perpetually tended, so skillfully that they appear to have ‘happened’, lend their own surreal air to being there, in the presence of so much history and splendour.
Intrigues, political and personal are explored through ‘Blenheim Palace: The Untold Story’ exhibition upstairs, as a virtual guide takes you on a tour of the Palace’s past three hundred years, leading up the present day, culminating with a welcoming video message from the present, 11th Duke. Doors open by themselves, seemingly, at the hand of this ghost of a former maid in the house who shares secrets onscreen which are not generally common knowledge, unless one is uncommonly keen on Blenheim research. The exhibition is a permanent addition to the Palace offering insight into the lives of its former inhabitants.
Autumn took precedence once more when we were outdoors again, enjoying a lengthily stroll along the lake that Capability Brown had widened, and a refreshing pause at the Cascade, the water of which flows into the great lake, crowned the day. As the entire Parklands and most of the Formal Gardens are still landscaped after the fashion of the esteemed Mr. Brown, when there you may almost feel as though you are moving across the landscape of an 18th Century painting, as the scene is riff with the naturalistic, slightly romanticized colours and textures akin to the works of Sir John Constable and company.
At the start of our day at Blenheim Palace, we’d thought it might be possible to take in all of the many facets of the place in one go, but we were wrong. Even a ride on the miniature railway, (included in the ticket price), didn’t allow time for us to see the Cinema with its documentaries, or, explore the splendid grounds as much as we’d have liked to. On our way out, we didn’t need to wonder where the time had gone, as we sighed at the lovely sight of The Grand Bridge reflected in the lake in the deepening twilight.
The shop we’d stopped in offered many take home treasures, pretty and unique and we’d opted for a glimmering white Christmas ornament to remind us of our journey to this singularly remarkable place. Though, in hindsight, nothing could quite recapture, to quote Browning, ‘the first, fine careless rapture.’
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