Capability Brown and much, much more
You never forget your first visit to Blenheim Palace, UNESCO World Heritage Site and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. Designed by Jon Vanbrugh in the early 18th century, the grandiose mansion set in rolling Oxfordshire parkland makes a dramatic statement from any angle.
And this year, visitors are being encouraged to look at the parkland of Blenheim Palace from 12 very specific angles, all marked with information panels as part of the new ‘Capability’ Brown discovery trail. Brown spent 11 years working at Blenheim Palace and this year it is one of the showpiece estates across England celebrating the 300th anniversary of his birth.
Blenheim Palace was built for military commander John Churchill by his sovereign Queen Anne, a thank-you for saving Europe from the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Even Churchill didn’t get that kind of thank-you.
I can still clearly remember the impact of my first visit in the early ‘60s with my parents. To a young schoolgirl like me, Sir Winston Churchill was a rotund and revered gentleman who had won World War II for Britain. So to come here and see the room where he had been born in 1874 and a lock of his baby curls was something that sparked in me a lifelong love of history. Suddenly the man seen only in B&W became a colourful human being.
So it is with Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Follow the information panels around Blenheim Palace and you soon start to understand the man and his ideas on landscape design. As I stand at the viewpoint for the Great Lake Vista, for instance, and study the information panel, I appreciate how Brown created curiosity by having the lake meander away out of sight and also the illusion of never-ending water. I look across the lake with his eyes and admire the woodland of nearly 1000 ancient oaks, some of them up to 900 years old.
There are so many things to enjoy at Blenheim Palace that it’s almost impossible to do everything in a single day. Buy a single day ticket to the Park, Palace and Gardens however (Adult: £23.90, Concession £19.90 Mon to Fri only), and you can convert it to an annual pass for unlimited free entry for 12 months. You can also buy a Park & Gardens ticket only ((£14.90/£10.90 concessions). Blenheim Palace is open daily all year from February 13th to December 31st, except for Christmas Day, and there’s something to enjoy in every season.
If this is your first visit, my Must-See sights would be the magnificent State Rooms (free tours depart regularly) with their tapestries, sumptuous furnishings, and colourful family stories; the exhibition of Churchill memorabilia including childhood letters written from boarding school; and the ornate formal gardens close to the Palace. If time permits, walk along the Great Lake past the Temple of Diana, where Winston proposed to his beloved Clementine, and up to the Grand Cascade or follow the avenue to the Column of Victory for a panoramic view back to the Palace.
The free general information leaflet details four colour-coded walks from 1 to 4.6 miles in length. A separate leaflet marks the 12 Capability Brown viewpoints including the panorama of Palace, bridge and lake dubbed ‘The Finest View in England’, whilst another self-guided trail reveals Churchill stories around the Park and Formal Gardens.
For those with limited mobility – or just tired legs – a 20-minute buggy tour will show you the highlights of the park (small charge). Wheelchairs and mobility scooters can be hired free of charge at the Flagstaff Visitor Information Point with a refundable deposit (best to phone ahead, especially in peak season). Just allow a little extra time for your visit. Even top 18th century architects didn’t have the foresight to build for today’s wheelchair users, so be prepared to sometimes take a longer way round.
The Blenheim Palace website is packed with inspiration and information. Among new experiences on offer for 2016 are the 30-minute Private Apartment Tours which now include the Master Bedroom and the Duke’s Dressing Room (£6 per adult; £5 concessions, Feb to Sep), and the 40-minutes ‘Upstairs’ and ‘Downstairs’ Tours (£6/£5, Feb to Sep). Go Upstairs to see where illustrious guests have stayed and Downstairs to visit areas used by household staff both past and present.
And of course no country house visit would be complete without appropriate refreshments. Blenheim Palace offers a variety of eating options, but I can personally vouch for the tiny sandwiches and savoury tarts, the miniature cakes and scrumptious scones included on the Traditional Afternoon Tea served in the new Orangery restaurant. After all, we all know there are no calories in cake eaten at heritage properties!!