Today with the sun shining we ventured forth and caught the S3 bus from the station. This bus normally goes all the way to Chippy, but that was not our destination today. We hopped off the bus a few miles short of Chippy at the gates of Blenheim Palace. Today was going to be an expensive one, Blenheim isn’t a National Trust House and costs quite a lot to get in. However a thorough look at the website meant that we knew about their Good Journey Offer. If you travel by bus or train to the house and present your ticket at the entrance kiosk when you buy your ticket then you will receive 30% off. If you also make this payment as a donation you will then be given a donation receipt to be able to convert your day ticket into a yearly pass. This we hope will be worth the queue to get such photo passes. I think this is a way for them to claim gift aid on your entrance, except we don’t pay tax so couldn’t tick the box, we still got our passes.
We’ve tried to time our visit before the house and garden get revamped for Christmas so that we could see the house rather than the Christmas displays. Yet everywhere was filled with Christmas trees, most groaning at the weight of all the decorations. Masses of Poinsettias crammed into dishes on tables would have made my father rush for numerous black plastic bags to give them the correct amount of sunlight a day that these Mexican weeds require (this once dominated one Christmas for him, trying to keep the red leaves attached to the stems for as long as possible by lowering a black plastic bag over the poor plant each night, he’d even rigged the bag up on a piece of string so it could be lowered and raised at the correct times).
Blenheim Palace was built as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, from Queen Anne in thanks for his victory at the Battle of Blenheim on 13th August 1704. It is the only non-royal house in the country to hold the title of Palace and was built between 1705 and 1722. The house became the subject of political infighting leading to Marlborough’s exile and damaging the reputation of it’s architect Sir John Vanbrugh. Funding for the building was never fully agreed upon, Marlborough put in £60,000, the government and Queen picked up much of the rest, but in 1712 after an argument between the Queen and Duchess funds were halted, £220,000 already spent, £45,000 still owed to workmen. The Marlboroughs were exiled to the continent until after the Queens death in 1714, when they took it upon themselves to finance the reminder of the build. Magnificence of such buildings was far more important than comfort or convenience.
Designed in the English Baroque style it became home to the Churchill family which has now spanned some 300 years. An act of parliament was passed when there were no sons to inherit the estate, so the amassed wealth could be passed down the female line. It’s most famous claim is that it was the birth place of Sir Winston Churchill. The generation that decided to open up the house to the public (helping to pay for it’s upkeep and almost certainly avoiding inheritance tax) were most probably very grateful that Winston was a premature baby. At the end of the 19th Century the palace was saved from ruin by the 9th Duke marrying the American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt.
Today you enter the building from the Great Court where colonnades flank either side of the house, each opening currently filled with a Christmas tree. The large hall follows with impressive Corinthian columns and vast amounts of carved stone. 20m above you is the ceiling painted by James Thornhill, where Marlborough kneels in front of Britannia with a map of the battle of Blenheim. This gives you just a small taste of the opulence that is to come in the State rooms.
A large cabinet is filled with model soldiers all standing in line and huge collections of china are displayed in all their grandeur along the hallways. Where ever there is space for a Christmas tree there is one, struggling hard to stay upright with their coverings of bows, baubles and the occasional pumpkin!
Drawing Rooms and Writing Rooms of various colours follow one after the other. Silk covered walls with matching upholstery. Furniture of every size and type. Courting couches where a couple could sit on a long stretch with space for a chaperone to sit at the end making sure nothing untoward occurred. Large lounging sofas, sprawling out as wide as Oleanna to narrow bolt upright sofas which were never intended to be comfortable.
After several such rooms we arrived at the first with the walls covered in tapestries. This was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit the house. Back in 1991 at the end of my second year at Croydon College (where I studied Theatre Design) we had to realise part of a theoretical design.
I chose to realise the masking from my design for the Benjamin Britten Opera Owen Wingrave based at the old Glyndebourne along with a large globe. The masking was based on the Marlborough tapestries which surrounded a large revolving skeletal house. Thanks to my old tutor Rob Muller for the photos of my work. I had given the tapestries a bluer hue than the originals and had painted into the more dramatic scenes with red highlights. These I planned would loom out of the tapestries when the lighting changed, a specific blue lighting gel did this for me, to add to Owen’s torturous nightmares of warfare.
Today was the first time I’d seen these tapestries in the flesh, the detailed border still very familiar to me (even though I’d simplified it somewhat). My painted versions must only have been a touch smaller than the originals and those on display in the state rooms are far calmer than those I’d chosen for the opera, these must be elsewhere in the Palace. Memories of hours drawing followed by painting them came back to me, along with the complaints from the computer department further along the corridor due to the aroma the blue pigments create once painted onto flameproof canvas. I was stood in front of old friends, the recorded guide burbling along in my ears about something or other.
The Saloon sits behind the Hall and is where guests would have been directed on their arrival. The tapestries had kept me for sometime but now the incredible painting by Louis Laguerre filled the walls and ceiling around us. Originally Thornhill was to paint this room giving a quote which in todays terms would have been around £84,000. Laguerre halved the quote, but certainly didn’t scrimp on the expertise. My photos do not do his trompe l’oeil justice. The painted balcony front is painted in such away you almost have to touch it to realise it is not three dimensional, putting my panto trompe l’oeil to shame. The mouldings on the walls and ceiling are wonderful, filled with portraits of people looking into the room (one of the artist himself). What a room to have your Christmas Dinner in, the Churchill family still do.
On through a few more rooms to the Library. Originally conceived as one long room it was divided up into five sections, suggesting different rooms. Like a long gallery it takes over one side of the house, filled with books and plenty of space to enjoy their words whilst maybe listening to a tune played on the organ! Queen Anne (a svelte version of her majesty) stands looking towards the far end of the library where the organ dominates. In WW1 the library was used as a hospital for returning injured service men and in WW2 it became a home for evacuated boys. Some of these stole three of the smaller pipes form the organ, which wasn’t noticed for some years. A few years ago a parcel arrived containing a note and the three pipes. The note was anonymous and was from the wife of one of the lads who’d stolen the pipes, saying that it was one of his last requests that they should be returned.
From here you can weave your way around a display all about Winston Churchill. This we did quite quickly, the crowds in the small rooms making it hard to read all the panels. Quotes and interesting facts had been put in larger print on panels around each room so we still got to learn a few details. One of Winston’s Siren Suits stands in a cabinet, velvet with matching monogrammed slippers. The bed he was born in and a small cotton top which had to borrowed from a local solicitors wife for him to wear as his arrival was unexpected.
Another look around the Library was needed and as we did so I spotted two very familiar people sat taking a well earned rest. Pearl and Rodney are the parents of my best friend from my college days, they became my other Mum and Dad whilst at Croydon and the following years. We’d last seen them at Kathy’s wedding in Lanzarote seven years ago. What a wonderful surprise and lovely to have a good catch up with them. Despite some health issues over the last four years they both looked great. As we sat chatting the organ started up with a very capable chap at the keys and stops, so we all stayed put for a while longer to listen.
Bigs hugs all round and we headed off ahead of them to visit the colonnade and chapel where a subordinate organ sat in the corner.
Past lunchtime we got ourselves a sausage roll and sandwich with a slice of cake each (good GF options even if nobody can make a GF sandwich look all that exciting!) at the Pantry before checking out the stalls in the Christmas craft fayre that surrounded the entrance. Here there were all sorts of yummy things to eat, some really good looking pies (from East Yorkshire, no wonder) and plenty of well made not standard craft fayre tat. One stall did nearly see me part with cash, but with Christmas coming up I just gave a very big hint to Mick.
0 locks, 0 miles, S3 bus, 7 bus, 1 very rich family, 1 car park almost full, 2000ish visitors, 30%off, 2 annual passes, 1 amazing house, 27 years later, 2nd parents, 7 years later, 2 slices cake, 1 sausage roll, 1 sandwich, 2 much to see, 0 tat bought, 1 lovely day out, 1 tension square and pattern done for the next pair of socks.