Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Blenheim Palace and Oxford

Blenheim (the home of the Duke of Marlborough) was another place high on the list of things I thought of seeing when I first considered travelling to the UK - it's rather a legendary place and was also used in filming Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet. It's also not terribly far away from Oxford, which meant not a great deal of effort involved in getting there.

I set out fairly early - the palace tours didn't begin until 10.30 - and had a leisurely drive around Woodstock, the small town nearby; it's quite pretty as well. And then I found my way to Blenheim, parked the car and made my way towards the buildings.


I really wasn't prepared for what I found there. I knew it would be big and impressive; I had no idea it was *this* big and *this* impressive. There's a vast amount of amazing artworks and antique furniture and that sort of thing, and the grounds alone are stunning.

You can read about the history of the place here, but I'll just give the basics: it was the gift of Queen Anne to John Churchill (yes, he was ancestor of Winston Churchill, who was born there - they have a section about him and the current Duke is his cousin) for winning a battle - the battle of Blenheim, funnily enough; she allowed him use of the land (it still belongs to the Crown) and gave him money to build a residence.

Since then it's remained with the Marlborough family - or Spencer-Churchill, which is their actual name - and it's currently home to the 11th Duke. The 9th Duke married a Vanderbilt in what appears to have been an unashamed grab by both parties; he needed their money and she (well, her parents at least) wanted a Duke in the family.

Needless to say it didn't go all that well, and they separated after not all that many years. But he got the cash he needed to maintain the place, and we can all be glad of it. The gentleman in the first picture is the 7th Duke, whose picture I liked because he has awesome sideburns.

Yes, they have a wee train, wee cannon, and wee birds that aren't grouse (it's a ring-necked pheasant).

Once I'd seen all of that (and that's not even touching on what they have there; it's literally mindboggling - paintings and furniture and huge 300 year old tapestries) and wandered around the gardens a while, it was time to go back to town - I wanted to go on the 2pm walking tour - one that would hopefully take me to different places than the ghost tour did.

And it certainly did. The guy leading it was very eccentric, and had one of the strangest accents I'd ever heard - he might have been from New York originally, but has been living in the UK long enough to pick up a lot of the local accent; it was a kind of manic, trans-Atlantic mix of vowels unlike any other. But he certainly knew his stuff, and we had all kinds of things pointed out to us as we wandered around.

We spent quite a lot of time wandering around Balliol college, which is both pretty and interesting. While sitting in its chapel (and later its dining room) we got quite a good rundown on the history of the town and the colleges. We then wandered around some more and saw the Radcliffe Camera (the interesting round building), the outsides of some other colleges (don't ask me to remember which is which, though the one with the bridge is Hertford) and some other significant buildings.

I was a bit annoyed to find out we'd only be going around the courtyard of the legendary Bodleian library - they do their own tours. If I'd known this I'd have gone there and done that beforehand; as it was I now couldn't go because it was too late in the afternoon and I was leaving the next morning.

But I put that aside as we went inside the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where there'd once been a famous trial for heresy where two churchmen had been found guilty and later burned at the stake (I'd seen the site; it's in middle of one of the main roads and marked with a cross) we were told some interesting people had preached over the years, including John Wesley, who was responsible for founding the sect/denomination of Christianity called Methodism.

Once that was done I wandered around some more, finding some other interesting places/buildings to gawk at, like Oxford Castle and the Roman wall they'd excavated near it.

More photos!

And then it was time to go home; I wanted an early start for the next leg of my journey, which was to Bath; I'd only have the one day there so I wanted to make sure I had enough time to fit everything in.

Oh, and it just occurred to me that I was wearing the show shirt from Lords & Ladies - significant because not only did Terry Pratchett base the Unseen University on the English university system, he also created a character ('Bloody Stupid' Johnson) as a parallel1 to 'Capability' Brown, who was responsible for the landscaping at Blenheim.

1Parallel! Parallel universe2!
2That's a reference to a line in Lords & Ladies, which Tracey Shepard in particular should appreciate.