I have had the privilege to travel quite a bit during the short time I have been in the UK already and except for photos on Facebook I haven’t really been able to share my wonderful adventures yet. So the time has come for my first real travel post and what better way to kick off this series of posts than with the magical Blenheim Palace.
It was a Saturday and with half of our class off to Frankfurt Book Fair, a friend and I decided we had to go on our own adventure as well. Blenheim Palace was the perfect place. Only 20 minutes outside of Oxford this beautiful gem is situated right next to the historic town of Woodstock (but more on that later). If you are travelling from Oxford the easiest way to get to Blenheim is to take the S3 Stagecoach bus from Gloucester Green (don’t try the station like we did, the next stop is Gloucester Green and you easily wait 15 minutes for everyone to get on the bus there). Check the schedule before you go because the buses only run every 20 minutes (and sometimes longer) and you don’t want to miss it.
The nice thing about the bus is that you can buy the Palace entry ticket on the bus itself along with your return ticket. If you are a student like us it’s £18 but if not it’s £20. Before you pull up your nose, “gmpf, £20 for a castle”, this includes your bus ticket and as soon as you arrive at Blenheim you can opt to change your ticket to an annual pass. This means you can use your one ticket as many times as you want, for free, for a whole year! If that’s not enough, maybe the pretty card with a gold castle engraving will convince you.
Blenheim Palace is extremely big and there is way too much to do in just one day. We didn’t even have time (or the stamina against the icy cold day) to explore the gardens, but what we did see was breathtaking. Then there is the Park, which was all laid out by hand, the river dug out and landscaping done by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. A future post will definitely follow on these amazing gardens and park.
As the day was freezing cold we decided to spend as much time as we could inside the Palace, and what a treat. There are so many exhibitions and tours you can go on you could be busy for half a day just on that. I was astonished at the effort and creativity which had gone into putting together these tours. We started off with the “Blenheim Palace: The Untold Story” tour. This is an interactive tour where you are taken through the Palace by the first ladies maid of the first Duchess of Marlborough. The tour is made up of videos, projections, moving manikins (not the scary kind), sound and light. It is so much fun and has much more humour connected to the story that you would expect from a 300-year-old castle story.
Blenheim Palace is also the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and that was next on our list. There are not one, but two exhibitions dedicated to Churchill. The first is a comparative exhibition between Churchill and the first Duke of Marlborough. Both of them were great military men and won great battles for England. The first Duke was a great inspiration to Churchill and it was because of the first Duke’s defeat of the French at the Battle of Blenheim that the family was granted the land on which Blenheim stands today by Queen Anne. Till this day the family needs to “pay the rent” for the land by producing a replica of the fleur de lies banner which was won on that day by the Duke to the queen each year. This exhibition gives the opportunity for children to immerse themselves in the history with games on soldier clothing, dressing up like a soldier in the 1700’s and even a scale to see how many canon balls you weigh. It really turns a stiff palace into a very fun place for the younger ones.
The second exhibition is a more traditional look at Churchill’s life from childhood, through his political and military career, love and finally his death. I was astonished to learn that Churchill had received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his historical writings. This warmed my publisher heart a great deal to know the great statesman was such a unique author as well. This exhibition also included many interactive stop points where one can listen to speeches, see videos and even page through a digital version of one of Churchill’s handwritten books. You also get to see the room in which Churchill was born. It is now made up as a bedroom but was, in fact, a ladies cloakroom back then.
The last tour available inside the Palace is of the palace rooms themselves. Every hour a walking tour sets off through the rooms with a very friendly, informative guide. The rooms are beautiful and you are told very clearly that these rooms have in fact actually never been lived in and they were built (even in the 1700’s) only for reception and for when kings and queens and other royalty came to visit and that the family have always (and still do) lived in the East wing. The rooms are lavish with big tapestries hanging off all the walls. The most impressive room is the dining room of which the walls are painted from floor to ceiling. The first Duchess had it painted after her husband won the battle against the French to symbolise peace between all men. Each wall is decorated with people from another continent, however as always the Dutchess’ wish of peach was never very long lived. The dining room is still used today by the family on Christmas Day.
Other wonderful sights in the Palace is the Long Library which has an organ at the one end and a beautiful statue of Queen Anne as well as the chapel, which is very cold because of all the marble but beautiful in its extravagance. I was very impressed by the fact that the current Spenser-Churchill family (that is the full family name after the Churchill part was lost in the second generation already and later bought back by the 5th Duke) is so open to the public. There are photos of the family everywhere in the Palace and you feel very at home there. You get the sense that these people understand that they are greatly privileged to live in that home and have the title they have and they want to share it with the people. A lesson earlier monarchs and royalty could have benefitted from.
When we were done with the Palace we went in search of a hot drink (and rugby as South Africa was playing Wales in the World Cup quarter-finals) in the town of Woodstock. The town truly is worth the title of historic town. It is the quintessential English countryside town with the cutest houses, beautiful doors (I am fascinated by the doors in England), wide streets and narrow sidewalks and very nice people. My friend and I both considered moving there and commuting for the next year (the dream right).
Overall the day was wonderful! Blenheim Palace is an almost magical piece of history which has allowed itself to move so successfully into the 21st century that I believe it will be popular for many more years to come. Along with all of the history and nature the Palace can also be used for wedding or other functions, picknicks and there are even jousting tournaments (because you cannot live in England for a year and not see a jousting tournament). Christmas at Blenheim is apparently beautiful and I hope to see it as well.
In my opinion if you are going to spend your money on one palace, spend it on Blenheim, it is worth every penny and you will feel like royalty yourself with the amazing service, friendly staff and magical surroundings.