Another expedition, another castle

Oxfordshire, England. To be more accurate, two days ago we visited the home of the Dukes of Marlborough, the only non-royal country house in England able to be called a palace.

Blenheim Palace was built between 1705 and 1722, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Designed in the rare, and short-lived, English Baroque style, architectural appreciation of the palace is evidently as divided today as it was in the 1720’s. It is unique in its combined use as a family home, mausoleum and national monument. The palace is also notable as the birthplace and ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill. The building is massive and designed to impress. Nothing of the palace footprint has changed since John Churchill, the first Duke, built it after being given the land and monies by Queen Anne, in gratitude for him winning the Battle of Blenheim against the French.

At the end of the 19th century, it was saved from ruin by funds gained from the 9th Duke of Marlborough’s marriage to the American railroad heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt. She left him two sons and then she left him, but came back often once he had died. (He refused to use some of her money to put in a bathroom, and that was not endearing – among other things.) However, she is well-remembered, and her portraits, along with those of her predecessors and descendents, decorate the walls of this immense palace, starting from the Great Hall and marching through various state rooms, the library and then the chapel, along with other remembrances of the generations who have lived here.

The footprint of the palace has not changed since John Churchill, the first Duke, planned and built it.

Churchill is well and truly commemorated here, from the room in which he was born, to various mementos of his life and his marriage to Clemmie, to whom he proposed in the Diana the Huntress temple on the grounds. He is buried in the churchyard in the village nearby.

We had an elegant lunch celebrating our anniversary, with a drink and a garden view in the Orangery. Don had a salmon starter, and the smoked haddock toast from my cream of leek soup. My main was an Oxfordshire chicken and mushroom pie, and he had the braised lamb. Very nice, very elegant.

We then took a golf cart tour of the gardens and the grounds, which are, naturally, spectacular, with great views of the palace from different angles, all thanks to Capability Brown.

When the palace first opened to the public, the then-Duke just couldn’t take the crowds, so he had a secret garden built where he could retreat in complete privacy. This three-acre wonder must have been the perfect place to take a walk with the dogs or tuck away with a book.

But we managed to save the best for last. We bought tickets for a tour of the private apartments, and turned out to have the tour to ourselves. It was so magnificent, and a perfect ending to the visit. Frustratingly, no photos allowed of some of the private rooms of the Duke and Duchess, the nursery suite, and the bedroom suites that are rented out of the hunting parties that are an important revenue stream for the estate. What a lovely life that family lives!

They are generally here in the winter for hunting, but the place ticks along without them with the house staff in charge and hefty prices in place for four days of sleeping in rooms that once held Churchill and distinguished visitors such as the Queen and various of our presidents.

The palace is a bit over the top, but they do have a lovely gift shop and we had the perfect day to enjoy it all.

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