The first thing I notice when we turn into the grand drive of Blenheim Palace is a woman (or should I say a lady?) in a flowery dress and a big hat. A moment’s panic, while I wonder if I am suitably dressed for such august surroundings, but I relax when I see a group of students with backpacks. Clearly, everyone is welcome here.
This is the house that was built by Queen Anne for the 1st Duke of Marlborough, where Winston Churchill was born, and which is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also a popular location for a family day out, with extensive landscaped grounds and plenty of amusements for all ages.
In fact, people are arriving by the coachload. It is an unusually warm day, and the place is packed with Japanese, Americans and locals enjoying the summer sunshine. They are sunbathing, picnicking and walking leisurely through the grounds. I even see a man asleep on the grass, his dog beside him.
In Your Bucket Because…
- This was the birthplace of Winston Churchill
- The house and gardens are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- The grounds are packed with amusements for all the family
- Good for: families, and anyone who enjoys historic houses and gardens
The Churchill Connection
We walk up the tree-lined approach to the palace, the residence of the present Duke of Marlborough. It was given as a gift to the first Duke, John Churchill, as a reward for leading England to victory at the Battle of Blenheim, and it has remained in the Churchill family ever since. The Duke’s most illustrious descendent, Winston Churchill, belonged to a junior branch of the family, and was born here “by accident” in 1874, as his mother happened to be visiting at the time!
Churchill’s connection with Blenheim lasted throughout his life, and he was buried in nearby Bladon churchyard. Inside the palace there is an exhibition devoted to the former British prime minister.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The palace was the joint creation of the architects John Vanburgh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, and heralded the beginning of a new type of architecture – the English romantic movement. It was decorated in 18th century contemporary style, and is packed with paintings and furnishings from the period.
We wander around the main courtyard, and peek into the massive gift shop, which is extensively stocked with everything you might expect, and some that you might not (clothes pegs and gardening gloves, for instance). Some of the staff are dressed in period costume, possibly in anticipation of a family friendly entertainment later in the day.
Outside again, we go into the gardens and walk towards the lake and Vanburgh’s famous bridge. The palace has 2,100 acres of parkland, an artificial landscape created from marshland by the great landscape gardener Capability Brown. The palace and gardens have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a “perfect example of an 18th century princely dwelling”, and as a collaboration by some of the foremost designers of the time.
A little train is chugging along, taking visitors from the palace to the pleasure gardens. We decide to walk, passing old oak trees that are reputedly hundreds of years old. There is a whole host of family attractions here, from an adventure playground and putting green to a model village and giant board games. We walk through the lavender garden to the Butterfly House, where brightly coloured tropical butterflies fly freely and refuse to stay still for my photographs.
Our last stop is the Blenheim Maze, a large yew maze designed as a picture commemorating the victory at Blenheim. We muddle our way along the narrow paths – listening to shouts of “Left” and “No, we should be going right” through the high hedges – until we reach the first of two bridges within the maze. From here we can see the hedges cut to show the word “Blenheim”, and others in the shape of cannon balls, trumpets and banners. Now all we have to do is to find our way out again.
- Blenheim Palace is near the village of Woodstock, a few miles from Oxford.
- There are two large car parks. Regular buses run from Oxford, and it is also possible to book coach trips from London or Oxford.
- There is limited opening in winter, but it is otherwise open daily.
- There are several places to eat and drink at the Palace and in the grounds.