Blenheim Palace, one of the UK’s Grandest Country Houses

Liz Gill, is impressed with the spendour of the building, and enjoys the new exhibition about the most famous scion of the family it was constructed for, Sir Winston Churchill

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You can learn a lot about a place from its windows, our guide Antonia tells us as we stand before the vast splendour of Blenheim Palace. The grand windows speak for themselves, of course, but it is the little ones on the top floor that reveal the most telling detail. They were says Antonia large enough to let in daylight but so high up that the servants who lived there could not see out: the panoramic views were reserved for the duke, his family and chosen guests.

It seemed rather ironic then to hear that the first Duke of Marlborough only survived long enough to enjoy two summers in the palace that had been built to celebrate his great victory and financed by Queen Anne on behalf of a grateful nation. His widow Sarah, once the beloved ‘Favourite’, managed to combine falling out spectacularly with the queen with endless fund-raising for what had become the bottomless money-swallowing pit of the house and gardens.

The Duke’s triumph at the Bavarian village of Blenheim in 1704 in the war of the Spanish Succession was said to have changed the course of European history, a claim echoed more than two centuries later by his most famous descendent Winston Churchill.

Indeed, Churchill himself said that not only was he inspired by his ancestor throughout his life but that he used an updated version of some of his tactics and strategies in the D-Day invasion.

The palace, said the wartime leader, was where he took the two most important decisions of his life: to be born – when his mother went into labour during a grand ball held for his uncle the 8th duke – and to marry. And he added “I am content with the decisions I took on both occasions”.

A new Churchill exhibition at the re-opened Blenheim covers his life-long association with the place in fascinating but not overwhelming detail. So, we see not just his roles as soldier and politician but as author, historian, artist and horseman; not just his military uniforms and formal dress but his boy’s sailor suit and the large pink siren suit which made him look even more like a over-sized baby. The exhibition culminates in an unnervingly life like waxwork dressed by the hatters, shoe-makers and tailors he would have used.

Another new attraction, part of a £1.9m post Covid investment in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, celebrates the role of the horse there over the years. Set in the renovated stable block the interactive and immersive exhibition includes a tack room with vintage saddles, a recreation of a giant oak tree hung with bowler, top and dressage hats, all still worn by today’s riders and a life-size model of Churchill’s boyhood pony Rob Roy. Riding was a passion, not only recreationally but as a career. In his military days he took part in the British army’s last cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. My only disappointment was that it was only children who were allowed to try out the side saddle.

The palace has much to offer besides all the Churchill elements. The state rooms are packed with fabulous furniture, porcelain, paintings, sculpture, and the world-renowned Marlborough tapestries commissioned by the first duke to illustrate his battles.

Particularly dramatic is the Long Library running the complete length of the west front and said at 183 ft to be the second longest room in any house in England. At one end is a magnificent organ, at the other a statue of Queen Anne whose sceptre our guide says is now made of wood, the original marble one having been knocked off by schoolboys evacuated there during WWII.

It is always the small details in these places that intrigue me as much as the grand designs. In the Red Drawing Room, for instance, I ask why there is a one very small seat at the end of and separated from the main long sofa. That was the chaperone’s seat is the answer. Similarly I learn that the priceless Sevres and Meissen collection in the China Ante Room were given to the 4th duke by the King of Poland in exchange for a pack of staghounds.

Elsewhere the story of the family including both its sorrows and its joys is captured in portraits by such artists as Reynolds and Romney. Particularly striking is that of Consuelo Vanderbilt one of the ‘dollar princesses’, American heiresses who exchanged ‘cash for class’ in the late 1800s and saved numerous stately homes from ruin. Sadly though it was more a marriage for convenience than for love – Consuelo brought a dowry of $60m and an annual allowance of $100,000 – and the couple eventually parted.

A ticket to Blenheim which currently has to be bought and pre-booked online costs £29. 50 for the palace, park and gardens but it is good value for money. As well as the palace and the exhibitions there are formal gardens including a rose one, an Italian one and a secret one. There are lovely water terraces plus 2,000 acres of parkland to stroll through to discover a maze, an arboretum a ‘Temple of Health’, a Column of Victory and Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge across the lake.

And if you start to flag there are nice things to eat and drink. We had an excellent afternoon tea with such delicious savouries as smoked salmon and caviar muffin and cakes which included chocolate yuzu tart and passion fruit eclair plus a choice of seven loose teas. The cost was £29.75 but so generous was the spread that I had to ask for a take-away box for the goodies I couldn’t manage.

Blenheim, Woodstock, Oxfordshire

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