Andrea here, As you probably know, a number of the Wenches traveled through England, Scotland and Ireland in the last fortnight (and got to spend time together, both exploring and speaking at the RNA Conference, which was so much fun!) So here is the first of many “show and tell” blogs from our experiences. But as most of you love history as much as we do, I hope you’ll enjoy these vignettes of places that captured our fancy.
I’m a big fan of Winston Churchill, so Blenheim Palace, the family “pile” of his grandfather, the 7th Duke of Marlborough, has always been high on my To Visit list. (Winston was born at Blenheim and spent much of his childhood there.) As luck would have it, the Palace is close to where Nicola lives, and as I stayed with her for a night after the conference, she kindly agreed to serve as my guide. (There’s nothing more fun than exploring a historical place with someone as nerdy as I am about history . . . we tend to ooh and ahh over tiny details that leave most other visitors thinking we’re a little loopy.)
Blenheim Palace’s history begins with John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, who led his troops to victory in 1704 at the Battle of Blenheim, defeating Marshal Tallard’s French army in the War of Spanish Succession. As a royal thank you, a grateful Queen Anne gifted him with lands and the ruins of the Royal Manor of Woodstock, along with £240,000 with which to build a commemorative residence.
It was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh and finished around 1722—though the chapel wasn’t consecrated until 1733. The surrounding 2000 acres were designed by the legendary landscape artist Capability Brown in the decade following 1764. The grounds include Column of Victory, a 134-ft marble pillar topped with a lead statue of the Duke of Marlborough dressed as a Roman general (John Churchill had no lack of self-esteem, as numerous majestic paintings and tapestries illustrate inside the palace walls) and the romantic Temple of Diana, created in 1773, which is where Winston Churchill proposed to Clementine Hozier.
During WWI, the palace was used as a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers, and during WWII it served as the home for 400 Malvern College boys. It was in 1950 that the palace first opened to the public. In 1987 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As we arrived on the historic grounds, Nicola and I were treated to a rather bizarre scene. A Bollywood film crew was shooting a pop music video in the grand courtyard, complete with dancers in pseudo-Grenadier Guardsmen uniform and faux bearskin hats. We weren’t sure whether the John—and Winston—Churchill would be amused or appalled. But hey, the palace cost a king’s ransom to maintain, and I rather like the sense of creativity and sense of humor the National Trust showed in booking the event.
No modern hoopla could take away from the grandeur of history once we moved inside the palace’s venerable walls and entered the Long Library, which was originally designed as a picture gallery, but now holds a stately collections of books and the massive Willis organ, built in 1891. There are also period fashions on display. From there, we moved from one grand salon to another, each with soaring ceilings, ornate detailing, polished marble and magnificent murals. The highlight in that wing of the palace are the three interconnected state rooms, designed for entertaining—and impressing—the important visitors and dignitaries who have passed through the hallowed halls over the centuries.
All three have Hawksmoor ceilings, family portraits, sumptuous furniture and the famous tapestries celebrating the first Duke’s military victories. (One of the rooms also has his handwritten dispatch telling of his victory at Blenheim. It’s no surprise that Winston chose a military career as a young man, obtaining an commission in the 4th Hussars, a cavalry regiment that dates back to the 1600s.
There are special tours to the upstairs family quarters and downstairs servant areas, but we didn’t get a chance to do those—one visit is not nearly enough to take in the splendors of the place, as the palace holds some of the most important collections in Europe of furniture and decorative arts. After a visit to the special exhibit on Winston Churchill and his life at Blenheim and beyond, Nicola and I were very happy to find a spot in the garden café and enjoy a cup of tea and cakes as we tried to absorb all we had seen in just that small section of the main wing . . . and I am already noodling notes for my next visit!
So what about you? Do you have a special hero or heroine whose family home you are dreaming of visiting? Or what about a grand manor or palace that captures your fancy? Do share what’s on your wish list!