The first thing I noticed when I turned into the grand drive of Blenheim Palace was a woman (or should I say a lady?) in a flowery dress and a big hat. A moment’s panic, while I wondered if I was suitably dressed for such august surroundings, but I relaxed when I saw 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.
The Churchill Connection
I walked 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 Vanbrugh 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.
I wandered around the main courtyard, and peeked into the massive gift shop, which was extensively stocked with everything you might expect, and some that you might not (clothes pegs and gardening gloves, for instance). Some of the staff were dressed in period costume, possibly in anticipation of a family friendly entertainment later in the day.
Outside again, I went into the gardens and walk towards the lake and Vanbrugh’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.
Family Activities at Blenheim Palace
A little train was chugging along, taking visitors from the palace to the pleasure gardens. I preferred to walk, passing old oak trees that were reputedly hundreds of years old. There is a whole host of family attractions at Blenheim, from an adventure playground and putting green to a model village and giant board games. I passed through the lavender garden to the Butterfly House, where brightly coloured tropical butterflies were flying freely and refusing to stay still for my photographs.
My last stop was the Blenheim Maze, a large yew maze designed as a picture commemorating the victory at Blenheim. I muddled my way along the narrow paths – listening to shouts of “Left” and “No, we should be going right” through the high hedges – until I reached the first of two bridges within the maze. From here I could see the hedges cut to show the word “Blenheim”, and others in the shape of cannon balls, trumpets and banners. Now all I had to do was to find my way out again…
A Few Practicalities
- 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. You can explore the inside of the palace on your own or on a guided tour
- There are several places to eat and drink at the palace and in the grounds
- English Heritage members can get a 30% discount on online bookings by using discount code EH30 (not valid on special event days)