Lorraine Worsley-Carter takes a long-awaited trip to Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.
I’ve long wanted to visit to the Unesco World Heritage site that is Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire.
I did not choose to visit because the President of the USA visited this year, although I am very intrigued about its other visitors – like the fact that my hero, Coco Chanel, visited in 1929, or that Christian Dior held his 1954 collection show at Blenheim Palace, with the late Princess Margaret gracing the front row.
My husband and I wanted to visit the beautiful palace to see where the great Sir Winston Churchill was born on 30 November 1874 and to visit the churchyard in the neighbouring village of Bladon where he was buried in 1965. We didn’t expect to see the actual bed that he was born in, but there it was!
Blenheim Palace is built on royal land but is not a royal palace, and it is vast, imposing and magnificent. For me there was not the chill that seems present in many royal palaces where, in the past, our audio guide has recounted tales of gory murders and evil ego power struggles. Perhaps a strange balance when one muses that, whilst torture chambers and the like are not present, it is the birthplace of Sir Winston who, after all, saved our land from evil.
Built between 1705-1722, it was a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, from Queen Anne, in recognition of his victory at the battle of Blenheim in Bavaria in 1704. The budget was around £240,000 but, like most house builds, in reality it cost much more, and these excesses led to the family falling out of favour with the Queen. Now the home of the 12th Duke of Marlborough, Christmas Day family lunch is still served in the Baroque Banqueting Hall.
Blenheim Place is synonymous with fashion and all its passions – two landmark fashion shows by Christian Dior have been staged there, the aforementioned one in the 1950s, and the Dior Cruise collection in 2017.
On the way to the ‘Churchill Rooms’ there is currently a small, showstopping display! The centrepiece being the first British bridal gown to have been designed by Dolce & Gabbana. The historic dress was created for Camilla Thorp, now Lady Blandford, for her wedding in 2018 to childhood sweetheart Lord George Blandford, heir to the Duke of Marlborough. The dress features an off-the-shoulder lace bodice with tiny, pale pink and white appliqued flowers and seed pearls. The skirt is made up of layers of tulle for volume and topped with organza. Lace is also featured on the hem of the skirt and around the edge of the silk tulle veil.
I felt cocooned in an aura of romance at Blenheim Palace and, while the Churchill Rooms with interactive displays and letters and photographs hold much about the great man’s military and political career, for me his courtship of Clementine Hozier and subsequent proposal in the Rose Garden, is the true joy. Here I found an account of the proposal, in a letter Clementine sent to her daughter, Lady Soames, years later, where she recounts the event, believing that he was never actually going to ‘get on with it.’ We all know that the happy day of the betrothal to the love of his life did come, but it started badly due to him oversleeping and nearly missing the opportunity.
This eloquent politician showed his sensitivity in his paintings and, although he didn’t frequently appear to be a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, he made his feelings about his marriage very clear: “My most brilliant achievement was to persuade my wife to marry me,” he once said.
The Formal Gardens that surround the Palace are a delight, with certainly a nod to those of Versailles, and they include the majestic Water Terraces, the Duke’s Private Italian Garden, the tranquil Secret Garden with all its hidden treasures, the new Churchill Memorial Garden and the beautifully delicate Rose Garden. We quickly realised that there would need to be a future, longer visit to Blenheim Palace to explore these wonderous gardens.
The views from the grounds are just as breathtaking, and even though on the day we visited we were not bathed in sunshine, we had to agree with the statement once made by Lord Randolph Churchill that the view of the lakes and the Grade 1-listed Vanbrugh Bridge is “one of the finest in England”. At present, phase one of the removal of 400,000 tonnes of silt is under way, in an attempt to protect the bridge and, of course, the view!
There is a pathway through the grounds to St Martin’s Church in the nearby village of Bladon, and I believe there is free transport available, too. We felt blessed to be the only visitors to the church, knowing that it welcomes thousands of visitors from around the world every year. Sir Winston is buried with Clementine in the family plot; he refused to be buried at Westminster Abbey. There is a small exhibition of Sir Winston’s life, however there was no memorial of Sir Winston to be found within the church until the 50th anniversary of his death in 2015, when a beautiful stained-glass window was installed, featuring quotations from Sir Winston’s many speeches, writings and bons mots. It was unveiled by Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, the same year.
The unproposing Anglican church sits quietly, serving as a place of prayer for its parishioners; however, it is also the neighbour of another British institution of peace and love. This year is the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Folk Festival, which changed the staging of live music forever. But the first outdoor pop concert of that name, our very own Woodstock in Oxfordshire, was hosted in 1967 in the grounds of Blenheim Palace and organised by Oxford man Adrian Hopkins. Star acts like Manfred Mann, Jeff Beck and PP Arnold played on the same stage as local groups for a charity ‘gig’ for St John Ambulance.
We decided to make a visit to Woodstock and we instinctively knew it would not be our last. The ivy-covered facades of the 12th century buildings guarantee the incomparable charm of Woodstock. The choice of eateries is almost overwhelming. There are lots of individual shops with diverse offerings, and a lovely Town Hall sits on the Town Hall Square, often the backdrop of music events, and no doubt much more. History, romance, music and culture sum up our whole visit to this part of Oxfordshire quite nicely.