With his long silky mane and gleaming chestnut coat, the pint-sized pony standing quietly in his stall at Blenheim Palace is the stuff of my childhood dreams. So I can’t resist the sign that invites me to pop a bridle over his cute little ears. What a treasure!
But this is no ordinary equine. The life-size wooden model depicts Rob Roy, the favourite mount of 7-year-old Winston Churchill who was born here at the Oxfordshire home of his grandfather, the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Today, the replica pony is one of many highlights of a new interactive Stables experience that opened at the Palace in May.
Across the courtyard, Winston Churchill takes centre stage in a second new permanent exhibition, both part of a £1.9 million investment programme at this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The great statesman was born unexpectedly here in 1874 whilst his parents were attending a family party, and he returned to Blenheim throughout his life, proposing to his wife Clementine in the grounds, attending parties, and spending time with his cousin and close friend ‘Sunny’, the 9th Duke.
I have visited Blenheim many times and always found plenty to fill a day with the sumptuous Palace interior, the formal gardens, and vast Capability Brown park. But the Palace has wisely opened these two new attractions this year to pull in much-needed visitors. With overseas tourists still off the agenda due to Covid, it was good to see a steady flow of British visitors enjoying them on a damp Monday in June.
Most of us suffer from house envy at one time or another, but I suffered an acute pang of stables envy as I toured the spacious wooden stalls beneath high ceilings and admired the spotless green ironwork hung with saddles. Originally designed by Sir John Vanbrugh with stalls for over 60 horses, the layout has changed several times over the last 300 years to meet changing needs, but horses have always played a huge role at Blenheim for pulling carriages, recreational riding, and working the land. The wicker Shire horse close to Rob Roy is another wow-moment of the exhibition.
Today, the Blenheim horses are stabled at Park Farm elsewhere on the estate, but their spirit lives on in this lovely exhibition which mixes archive film and photographs with interactive exhibits to absorb all ages. Try sitting in a side-saddle; putting the bridle on Rob Roy; or relaxing in one of the estate carriages. Visit the wood-panelled office lined with leather boots, tweed jackets, and shelves of neatly rolled leg bandages; and hear recordings of staff talking about their favourite corners of the estate.
One of my favourite items was the office blackboard listing which horses were required at what time and by whom. Master Churchill, for instance, was riding out on Rob Roy at 2 pm, and the Duke needed Punch and Woodstock for an evening trip to Oxford. A time capsule from a bygone age.
Head back into the vast open space in front of the main house to access the new Churchill exhibition that replaces archive displays once housed off the main entrance hall. Entrance to this – and the stables – is included in the ticket price, but one word of warning. At the time of writing, you need to book an entrance time for the Palace itself, but not for the exhibitions. But Covid-precautions only allow 20 people at a time into the Churchill exhibition, so keep an eye on the open-air queue and consider visiting this first or later on in the day when queues are shorter.
Sir Winston’s associations with Blenheim are the focus of the exhibition, an excellent introduction to the writer, artist and politician, as well as the perfect refresher for those of us who have forgotten chunks of our history. Blenheim owns some unique Churchill artefacts, including Winston’s childhood curls and sailor suit, and his school reports and letters home, as well as the leather chair saddle he used on Rob Roy.
Many visitors will be surprised to learn that Winston was distinctly average at school and took three attempts to pass the entrance exam for Sandhurst at 18. A glimmer of hope for all late developers! A ‘tent’ from the Boer War highlights Churchill’s work as a reporter whilst other themed sections showcase key moments from his political career through archive film and artefacts. You certainly won’t forget the velour ‘siren suit’ that he designed to be pulled on quickly over civilian clothes in an air raid.
Finally, there’s a photo opportunity beside an uncannily realistic waxwork of the great man in his finest hour and a chance to visit to the Indian Room where he liked to take breakfast (with a cigar!) beside the formal garden.
Once you are in a Winston mood, there’s no nicer way to relax than with a Churchill Afternoon Tea in the elegant Orangery restaurant, served by attentive, friendly staff. The selection of savoury goodies, traditional scones and dainty patisseries takes inspiration from Georgina Landmare, Churchill’s personal cook for many years.
Sitting down to a ‘late lunch’ tea at 13.30, I started on the bottom tier of the cake stand with a mini Swiss rarebit, followed by a bite-sized smoked salmon and caviar muffin, a dainty cucumber and cream cheese sandwich, and a tiny chicken and mushroom pie. Move up a tier and there are two scones per person with clotted cream and jam. And don’t worry about not making it to those cakes on the top tier – just ask for a box to take any surplus home.
I munched my way blissfully through a dinky passion fruit éclair and a delicious caramel craquelin, but Winston Churchill’s fruit cake just clinched my top vote, a dome of spiced cake – shared between two – on a thin layer of marzipan and biscuit, topped with whipped cream. No wonder the man wore capacious velour suits! To go with it, guests can choose from an extensive selection of loose-leaf teas. Or do as we did and splash out on the champagne option, in keeping with your regal surroundings.
Then walk it off in the great man’s footsteps – or maybe his hoof prints – with a tour of the house, a stroll through the formal gardens, or a walk on one of the marked circular routes through the park. A glorious day out in anyone’s book.
Adult admission to Blenheim Palace, Park and Gardens (including Churchill and Stables exhibitions), £29.50 (Over 65s, £28); Park and Gardens only, £18.50 (£17.50). Upgrade your day ticket to an annual pass free of charge. Churchill Afternoon tea costs £72 per two adults sharing, or £100 with two glasses of Pol Roger champagne.