No wonder that people say it looks like something from a movie, because Blenheim Palace has been in twenty six of them – from the new James Bond film Spectre to Cinderella and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It has been in pop videos, held rock concerts and been the dramatic backdrop in romantic fiction. But truth is stranger than fiction at this spectacular location, because it is also the home of one of the world’s great political dynasties – the Churchills.
Set in 2,000 acres of glorious greenery, it is grander even than Buckingham Palace where The Queen resides. When King George III saw it for the first time in 1786, he gasped to Queen Charlotte that, “we have nothing to equal this”. Indeed, it is the only non-religious or non-royal building in Britain that is called a ‘palace’; so grand that it would be ridiculous to call it anything else. Back in World War II Hitler decided to make it his home after his planned invasion of England, so ordered the German airforce never to bomb it!
It was given to the first Duke of Marlborough three centuries ago, on behalf of “a grateful nation”, after a major military victory against the French at Blenheim, in the Bavarian region of Germany. Parliament voted to fund its construction and work began in 1705. Unsurprisingly when you look at it, it cost six times as much to build as was planned, and took years as the project stopped and started due to funding problems and arguments with architects. Ever since it was completed in 1733, Blenheim Palace has been a fight to maintain for each generation of Duke. This has even meant marrying for money – certainly the Dukes have married often and well!
Blenheim Palace has long been open to the public; by the late eighteenth century crowds were marvelling at the 19 metre high Great Hall, the 55 metre Long Library. But it remains a living family house, and Jamie Spencer-Churchill lives with his wife and two children in the East Wing in a 46-room block with 12 bedrooms and a staff of around 150 people. The highest traditions are upheld, with overnight guests enjoying full butler service – their luggage is unpacked, their clothes pressed and hung in their wardrobes, or neatly folded in drawers by the under-butler, and their shoes shined to a mirror polish. After breakfast, at 8.30am, male guests are invited to join the 12th Duke in the dining room where copies of the daily newspapers and the Racing Post (horse racing newspaper) are placed.
Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim in 1874, son of the 8th Duke’s younger brother. He was never custodian, much to the relief of one family member who famously said, “it would be intolerable to have that little upstart Winston become Duke”! Instead, Winston went on to better things, but when taking a break from his Prime Ministerial responsibilities, frequently came back to the palace. He loved spending an evening in the Long Library, where there are over 10,000 books, all of which have to be individually cleaned by hand. These days, there is also a Churchill Memorial Garden which opens at the beginning of June every year.
Indeed, this is just one of the many things you can do at Blenheim Palace. Visitors can see the elegant family portraits, beautiful murals and stunning ceiling paintings, or examine Baroque period architecture, ceramics, furniture, interior decoration and garden design. You can find out about what it’s like to run such a huge estate, and discover the small army of people who help restore, preserve and maintain the Palace, Parkland and Formal Gardens. You can learn about everyone who has lived here – and their loves and hates, marriages and divorces. Then there are the Blenheim tapestries to see, with their beautiful composition and magnificent decorative borders, and the rare Chinese porcelain and Japanese Imari.
Because there is so much to do, visitors are advised to come early in the day. There are many tours of the palace to be taken, the stunning formal and pleasure gardens to stroll around and 2,000 acres of breathtaking countryside in the landscaped park to explore. “There is nothing finer in Europe… than the lake at Blenheim”, said one famous art critic. After all this frenzied activity, you might want to take Champagne Afternoon Tea in the Champagne Bar for a touch of sophisticated glamour. Those wanting to stay off the fizz should try the Winston Churchill Premier Tea. There are six cafes, restaurants and bars with a wide variety of dining experiences, from snacks at the Water Terrace Cafe to three-course lunches at the Orangery. Here, you’ll be able to look at the breathtaking photographs you will have taken, from one of the most grand and beautiful palaces in Europe.