It wasn’t an auspicious start when we met the coach to travel to Woodstock on 27th November 2014. It was a misty morning, dismal and damp with drizzle. However as always the mood on the coach was sunny and light hearted; WI ladies are such good company. We were heading off to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire to see the house decorated in “Glitter and Gold” for Christmas. On the way we travelled through the lovely village of Bladon where most of the Spencer Churchill’s are buried at St Martin’s Church.
Blenheim palace is a Baroque masterpiece designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh, which took 17 years to complete. On our tour we were told that the house was so perfect that it has never been extended or redesigned. It was begun in 1704 thanks to Queen Anne who had just come to the throne. John Churchill had been given the title, Duke of Marlborough by the previous monarch, William of Orange. It was a particularly turbulent time in Europe and the Duke was recognised by most as a man of courage, stamina and will-power, as well as a brilliant military man. He was leading the allied forces in Europe when there was a bloody and decisive battle at Blindheim, in Bavaria. On August 13 1704, Marlborough and his men held back King Louis XIV’s troops and saved Vienna from a French attack. This changed the course of history in Europe, protecting British interests. The Queen was so pleased that she granted Marlborough the Manor and Honour of Woodstock and acres of gorgeous countryside as well as the promise of money to build a house as a fitting monument to his great victory. The name Blindheim was then anglicised and became Blenheim.
This is an extract from the famous poem called The Battle of Blenheim by Robert Southey;
“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they killed each other for
I could not well make out.
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory!
By the time we reached Blenheim via the long sweeping drive, the sun was shining and it was a perfect day to take in the impressive views of the grounds, the lakes, the bridge, and the breathtaking beauty and symmetry of the house itself.
We were doubly fortunate because, not only was the house decked out for Christmas, but there was a spectacular art exhibition by the Chinese conceptual artist, Ai Weihei. Being an outspoken social activist, Ai Weihei brings politics into his work and some of it was quite controversial. However there were some really beautiful and thought provoking pieces. I particularly liked the ‘Chandelier 2002’, which was made of glass crystals, lights, metal and scaffolding. Being over 5 metres tall it hung glittering from the ceiling in the grand entrance. I was not so keen on the piece called ‘He Xie, 2012’, in the red drawing room, which consisted of masses of porcelain crabs on the exquisite carpet.
We managed to see almost every room in the public parts of the house learning snippets as we dipped in and out of fascinating guided tours. Every room was different and had objects of beauty to see, sculptures, furniture, china, silverware, paintings and spectacular tapestries. We were amazed to see huge cases filled with small model soldiers complete with arms and vehicles displayed in battle formation from many wars. It seems that Blenheim holds the National Collection of the British Model Soldier Society.
On the first floor of the house we took a fascinating, if rather unnerving tour, called “Blenheim~the Untold Story”. This was narrated by the ‘ghost’ of Grace Ridley who was the favoured servant of the first duchess, Sarah. The voice of Grace led us from room to room mysteriously as she rattled through over 300 years of history and 11 Dukes of Marlborough. It was certainly entertaining and informative.
On a very sad note, we learned that the 11th Duke had died just a few weeks ago on the 16th October this year at the age of 88. He was a cousin of the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was also his godfather, and he was also distantly related to the late Princess Diana. He inherited Blenheim in 1972 and devoted his life to preserving the Palace for the benefit of future generations. His titles will now pass to his eldest son James, Marquess of Blandford, who was born in 1955. It is an enormous responsibility which I certainly would not relish. However there is a strong board of trustees to help him.
After exhausting the beauty of the house and enjoying a lovely lunch in the Water Terrace Café, one of several eating places at Blenheim, we ventured out into the open air to enjoy just some of the many formal gardens. We saw the water terraces, the Italian garden and the secret garden which were beautiful. We didn’t manage to visit the park with its cascades and the Temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill proposed to Clemmie. Nor did we walk to the huge Column of Victory or Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge. However we saw them in the distance and were thrilled by all we did see. We all agreed we would be going back in the Spring. And, we were amazed to learn that we could convert our day tickets into an annual pass which gives free entry for the next 12 months!
2015 marks many important anniversaries linked to Sir Winston Churchill, including the 50th Anniversary of his death, and the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain ~ ‘his finest hour’. There will be a special exhibition focussing on his life, from his birth at Blenheim Palace on 30th November 1874 to his days as our Prime Minister. The room where he was born has been preserved just as it was and there is a case with his baby vest in it. There are also 2 of his paintings and a lock of his hair. Winston Churchill was the son of a younger brother of the 8thDuke.
There are many reasons I would like to revisit Blenheim Palace. I would love to explore the gardens, lakes and the park. I would also like to see the Column of Victory up close. But I think we were very lucky to see the house decorated for Christmas with glitter and gold. It was a very special day out.