12 June 2016

England Day Four: Blenheim Palace

Today was reserved entirely for Blenheim Palace.  Blenheim has lived in my memory as an ostentatious vomit of extravagance.  I remember endless tapestries, gold gilding, and a huge collection of dishes.  I think we must have had a slightly abridged tour today because, compared to what it was like before, I didn't feel nearly as overwhelmed by the grandeur of Blenheim.  Public tours now include the main floor, which consists primarily of sitting rooms and a dining room.  To access other areas of the house, you need to buy an extra ticket.

Blenheim Palace is the home of the Duke of Marlborough and has been since the land was gifted in the early 1700s to John Churchill, the first Duke, who had a military success so impressive in the War of Spanish Succession that the Queen (Anne) granted him rights to build the home.  (He was nothing before this - just a military leader who managed to weasel his way into favor of three successive monarchs until he finally earned this distinction.) The following 300 years led to a bit of drama that looked to lead to doom for the palace, but one of the Dukes (the 9th) married Consuelo Vanderbilt, and her fortune was able to save the house.  (It was, apparently, an incredibly unhappy marriage, but it did save the house.  Win some, lose some?). In honor of the "gift" of this property, the current Duke has to present a flag to the Queen each year.  This flag goes on display in various places for two years, then is stored.  All of these flags are stored and kept.  Not reused, not burned or otherwise destroyed.  Long live tradition!

We took a tour to the private upstairs apartments so we can see where current guests of the house stay.  They are much more modern than any chambers I've seen in other estate homes.  We roamed through rooms that the Queen, Prince of Wales, President Clinton and others have stayed in before.  We also learned some interesting trivia. (You get out on the "wrong side of the bed" because tall beds would have stairs to help you up and getting out on the side opposite the stairs could be unpleasant.)

Our guide was excited to point out a currently under construction "power shower", which is code for "shower" - the first in the house.  Everyone else has to take a bath.  Truthfully, they are lucky they get baths.  There was a bathroom installed in the 1800s, but one of the Dukes came in and thought having a bathroom was completely unnecessary and had it taken out.  The first permanent bathroom was installed in 1880 when a potential Duchess (American) refused to marry the Duke until he agreed to install a bathroom.  More were later installed in 1934.  This brings me to today's installment of Britain vs. America, today with a "nobility" twist:

What would make me want to be a Duchess:

I like to dress up, and having a stylist would be fantastic.  You were deemed worthy of a ladies maid as early as 12 or 13, and it would be excellent to have had some help getting through my horrible fashion years as a teenager.

You'd eat really well and wouldn't have to clean up or cook anything.

Having someone pack and unpack for me (and haul my luggage around) would be great.

It would be awesome to have an estate big enough that you could run five miles and still be on your own land (that you don't have to mow).

Sock slide competition.

What keeps me from really wanting to living Blenheim Palace:

My house is much more convenient.  Fully functioning bathroom right next door.  (There seems to be a bit of a bathroom theme for keeping me in the US. . .)

I have a bigger TV in my bedroom than any of the guest rooms in Blenheim.  (True story!)

I have a better reading selection than any of the guest rooms we saw.

Truthfully, the private section of the house is beautiful and it would be delightful to be a guest, but the home wasn't nearly as intimidatingly extravagant as I remember it being.  I'm wondering if I saw more of the house last time.  The main floor of the palace is certainly grand.  What fascinated me most on this trip, though, was the information on Winston Churchill.  Winston was born in Blenheim (accidentally - he was two months early).  His birth bed (and curly locks of five year old hair) are on display in the palace, along with a short but detailed exhibit on his life and accomplishments.  He began as a bit of a rascal - he loved to get into mischief and had an early interest in the military.  (One story is that he would play "England vs. France" with his cousin, the future Duke of Marlborough, and had two rules to the game: 1st, he was the General of the English.  2nd, that he was ALWAYS the General of the English.)

His educational years were also rough and non-distinguished.  One plaque had his exam scores posted.  Out of a possible score of 2000, Winston only earned about 350 on his Latin exam.  The rest of his scores were round 1200.  He didn't really begin to excel until military school.  From there he apparently gained all the skills he needed to become one of the best leaders and orators the world has ever seen.  Winston is proof to me that everyone can become great if they are given the chance to pursue the things they love.  He went on to become a Nobel prize winning writer and the first person to become an honorary American.  Oh - and he did that little thing of saving the United Kingdom during the war. I'm anxious to learn more about him - I think I'll get a biography when I get home.

After wandering through the palace we went in for lunch at The Orangery (foooooood!) and went for a walk around the grounds.  The grounds are vast and beautiful, built around an enormous lake.  Or, more accurately, built to include a lake.  The lake is entirely man made.  Would that I had that kind of money!  We saw a beautiful rose garden, just on the edge of bursting into full bloom.  The roses that were out were gorgeous and huge.  My favorite was a "Troika" rose - the petals had a perfect mix of orange, yellow, and pink coloring that made it look like a sunset.  We also wandered around a few areas that have been featured in films, including a bridge used in the most recent Cinderella, and a tree featured in one of Snape's memories in Harry Potter.  (It was a pretty fantastic tree.)

Overall, we had a wonderful day at Blenheim.  In addition to all the history, there were celebrations going on to honor the Queen's unofficial birthday.  Her literal birthday is in April, but it is celebrated in June.  There was a big television in the main grounds of the palace showcasing the celebrations in London (so glad I'm not there!), and bands were there to play music.  It really was quite festive and fun.  I haven't the faintest idea when President Obama's birthday is, so the idea of celebrating the birthday of a leader is unique to me.  I bought an ornament of a corgi wearing a crown in honor of the day.  Tomorrow we are going to make use of our National Trust pass and visit several off the beaten path homes, then we'll head to Stratford to catch a showing of Faustus.  We'll be home late enough that I'm not sure I'll end up writing tomorrow, but I'll do my best.  Cheers!

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