Our Travel blog
Tuesday 3 May
We elected to walk to Blenheim Palace today to take advantage of the discount our site receipt would grant us. Against the not inconsiderable entrance fees to this stately pile it was certainly worth it. Blenheim is impressive. It was built by the first Duke of Marlborough as a statement of his wealth and power and stands today in impressive formal grounds - thanks to the later work of Capability Brown. Look over the estate in any direction and the view is always framed by trees of different hues and shades, giving a rich (in every sense of the word) texture to every scene.
But first stop for us was the Palace so strolling down the stately gravel drive we duly presented ourselves at the entrance for a briefing, which consisted of being told we had two options, right to tour the formal house or left to see the 'interactive' history. We went right and straight into the Churchill exhibition. Old Winnie was born here two months prematurely, in fact so unexpected was his arrival that the family borrowed baby clothes from a local shopkeeper. Well, I say borrowed but as they've still got some in the display they obviously didn't give them all back the thieving sods.
But we digress; the exhibition was very interesting and humanised Churchill's life. Although privileged and possessing a clear sense that he was destined for greatness he still struggled at school, only scraping into Sandhurst at the third attempt. He was also an incurable romantic. In fact he was besotted by at least three separate women and proposed to them all, one rejected his advances for the pragmatic reason that she needed a fortune that Winston didn't possess, before the saintly Clementine came along. Maybe because he was so used to rejection he almost missed his chance with her. Her journal reveals she almost left for London in frustration because he took so long to get round to popping the question. Eventually he plucked up the courage and so they came to be married on the 12 September 1908. Coincidently the same date as us if a good few years earlier, which endeared the old Pug and his Kat to us enormously. Well, that and the fact that Churchill took to wearing one piece 'Romper Suits' of his own design, with capacious pockets and matching monogrammed slippers. Some of these were even available in pin stripes which he wore without apparent shame.
After the delights of the Churchill rooms the rest of the house was all a bit staid. Impressive though it is, and the ceilings in the entrance hall, the library room and the state rooms are very fine indeed, the place doesn't feel warm and vibrant in a way that, say Chatsworth does. Chatsworth continues to add art, modern as well as old, to its collections and benefits enormously from them. It feels like a continuous timeline runs through Chatsworth and although it's mostly a tourist destination it is still a living, breathing estate. By contrast Blenheim feels like a museum exhibit frozen in time. The building itself is spectacular but when you get down to it that's just a load of bricks stacked in a very pleasing fashion. They trade on Churchill, only ever a guest at Blenheim anyway, rather than the delightfully louche Marlborough's whose talents seemed to be for losing slightly less men than the French on the battlefield, gambling and philandering. Still, we had the interactive exhibit to look forward to.
The interactive exhibit tells the tale of Blemheim's building and some of its more colourful characters with animated mannequins and talking pictures in a fun and informative way. Or an ill conceived boring way if you're not under 10 or brain dead. It started promisingly enough but soon ran out of ideas, one room consisted of sitting down backstage in a replica of the Palace's theatre, listening to the servants acting as stage hands discussing...well we're not sure what but if we found it confusing the party of four Chinese tourists accompanying us looked positively bemused - there was nothing to divert your attention if you had the audacity to come here and spend your hard earned Yen and couldn't understand actors voicing generic rural accents. We felt like apologising profusely to them and suggesting they turn Blenheim into a hostel for the homeless when they inevitably invade. But we didn't. In fairness parts of it were diverting, especially the rooms where you could mill about looking at the exhibits; and the touch-screen campaign maps kept Ray busy for hours, although that may be because he thought it was a cash machine and was trying to check his bank balance. Anyway the lovely and much more generous of spirit Alison wishes it to be known that she enjoyed it and thinks Ray is being an old curmudgeon.
After our interactive experience we alighted at one of three eateries duly famished. We were confronted by a paltry selection of service station style pre-packed sandwiches, crisps and pies. The only difference between this and a motorway service station was the surroundings, and here clearly Blenheim saw an opportunity unavailable to Moto or Roadchef and hiked up the prices accordingly so you can enjoy a £1.95 bag of ordinary crisps and a £5.60 baguette in converted stables while reading advertisements for other overpriced crap. The only redeeming feature was that they called the chocolate brownie a Capability Brownie. Maybe we've been members of the caravan club too long but we found that amusing.
We are happy to report that the afternoon spent wandering the gardens completely entranced us. Maybe it was because we had lighter wallets but walking in the sunshine admiring Capability's, er...capabilities was most becoming. The garden was full of carefully thought out touches that appear completely natural. For example the waterfall he designed to drain one lake into another is hidden from its approach by trees so you hear it first and build a sense of expectation. When you do see it you probably wouldn't realise that this entirely man made construction has the rocks artfully placed to maximise the sound and drama of the cascading waters. The most impressive thing about all of this was that Capability was designing the gardens to look at their best long after he was gone. We saw a Grey Crane in flight, pheasants, a duck in a tree and another busy defending his mate against other drakes, of whom there seemed plenty, and all manor of small wildlife and bird song accompanied our meanderings.
Feeling in need of further sustenance we found an alternative cafe and paid £2.10 each for tea we had to dispense ourselves into a paper cup. Much grumbling in a quiet British way later we left for Woodstock to collect provisions. Woodstock was more becoming today; the Cotswold stone seemed radiant in the sunshine and brought the town to life. We were visiting our friend who lives nearby on a canal boat so we purchased some local beers - one flavoured with beetroot, the other a smoked beer, from the local deli. Happily they were both splendid, much appreciated and you even get 20p back on each bottle.
After Alison's amazing reverse parking in Mavis we spent a convivial evening aboard the boat with our friend and her dog, including a brief cruise to re-moor and Ray spilling beer because he tipped the bottle up to better read the label. We returned to Mavis in time to polish off the last of the Daal left over from Cosmic Puffin, which kept the bed nice and cosy.
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