Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day 39 - Blenheim and flight out.

Friday 4th May 2012
So this is our last day.  Our flight departs London Heathrow Terminal 3 at 9:30 pm.  We have indicated that we’ll drop the car off at the Heathrow depot of Enterprise Car Rentals at 5:30 pm but I am not too fussed if we cop an extra payment for being late.
Hubby’s not been well overnight and stays in bed as long as he can. He skips breakfast. Seriously. You know he’s really ill if he skips brekky.  I run down and just grab a simple breakfast of cereal and fruit and a little bit of grapefruit juice.  Wolfgang is lovely and offers chamomile tea for the patient.  The juice is worth commenting on… it was really good and really red.
Athole House has been splendid and absolutely deserving of every good review.  Like many of the properties we’ve stayed in we are sorry to leave.  In this case it really feels like a privilege to stay. I actually think that Athole house would be as much a reason for my return to Bath as anything we’ve seen in the town.
I’ve been doing some research for outlets for tea pigs tea.  I want more white tea and I can get it Bath no doubt, but I’d rather find a smaller centre.  This I do and I scribble some addresses in my notebook.  We’re quite late leaving Athole House.  We’ve left the room about 11 am and are driving away at about 11:30. Hubby’s feeling a bit better and insists he’s fine to drive though I do offer to take the controls very happily.
So, what today?  The weather is rainy and we’re not up for more around town. OK. I’ll confess it now. I have a burning desire to go to Blenheim or die trying.  This may be my only chance to see it.  I want this badly enough that I’m prepared to risk not seeing anything but rear bumper bars all day and then hop on a flight.  I’d also rather go via backroads to get there.  Am I sounding crazy?  It’s perhaps as well no one tried to dissuade me.  I have palace fever.
We have luckily missed the worst traffic around town by this time though we do strike a warning of peak hour queues as we head down Brassknocker Hill.  We’re heading for Bradford on Avon and a little shop listed on the tea pigs website called Growing Needs.  The threatened queue is nothing much. The views from Brassknocker Hill are glorious and I wish in vain that the queue was longer and slower!  Tomtom is doing a stirling job. She’s been a good girl since she recovered from her tantie, but hubby misses a turn.  Nice work, that’s quite handy, just pause here for a mo while I get a photograph of Brassknocker Hill.  Done.
Brassknocker Hill
Bradford on Avon is busy but so lovely and it is packed with shops that would be lovely to poke around in.  We’ve got no room for additional souvenirs though so palace fever is unabated.  Growing Needs is a store for pregnancy and childrens things. What the?  I gingerly wander in and say “ah.. this feels like a really stupid question but do you stock tea pigs tea?”  The young man seems lost for words.  I go on. “You are listed on the tea pigs website as selling it?”  Turns out his wife runs some sort of side shoot to the shop, but no, no… definitely no white tea in stock..  Oh well.  Gee they have good toys in here.  Oh I like those magnetic wooden letters.. I pick up the pack and bounce it up and down testing the weight.  Shall I risk it?.. hmm. Oh what the heck. I take a chance, quickly pay with some of my remaining cash and I’m back out the door as hubby pulls up and I hop back in the car.
Right. I’m not wasting any more time on royal goose chases for white tea.  Lets go. We’re heading for Blenheim now. It’s not like we’re making an early departure.  Tomtom is duly instructed.  Oh tomtom…. Have I told you lately.. I love you.. do do do do do.  ..and I mean it from the bottom of my heart… shut up Lionel!
Tomtom takes us across country, down a few one lane roads which these days cause us no angst whatever, through green fields and rain swept landscapes to join the larger roads which are happily congestion free.  The M4 impresses with it’s chevron markings and signs for drivers to keep apart two chevrons.  What a great idea.  Our route is a perfect compromise of large roads and small.  Just what we want today… and another reason why I decided that a start from Bradford on Avon would work best. .. yeah.. I checked it on google maps first. . :o)
We arrive at Blenheim without incident at about 2 oclock.  No need to factor in lunch neither of us is looking for it. We just need to see the house.  Clearly not time enough to see everything, but so long as I see enough of the historic stuff and formal gardens I’ll be happy. We pay our £20 entry and park. It’s a long walk up to the archway into the inner courtyard and I occupy myself with wondering what the go is for people with mobility issues. No doubt there is some sort of system.  The walk is also nice as we can look out across the park to the column of victory which stands proudly a mile or so in the distance across the Capability Brown landscape.  They describe this park as a “naturalistic Versaille”. It LOOKS like nature just conceived this beautiful outlook. Nope. The lake is constructed, mature trees were carted in and placed carefully for maximum effect.  It is magnificent and much more to my taste than the gardens at Versailles.
The Gates of Blenheim
We pass through the elaborate gates and pause again in the courtyard where you enter and admire the view.  Hubby instructs me to take a video because a still photograph simply can’t capture this place.  We’re dragging our feet. Best get on with it.  As we enter the palace – through the front door into the main hall mind you.. we are assisted by a trio of ladies who having ascertained that we have not visited before, and who are keen to give us some advice about our visit.
The coutyard of Blenheim Palace
We decide that we will start with the exhibition on Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill and follow up with the tour of the State Apartments as has been suggested.  Throughout our time in the Churchill exhibition there is an audio recording loop of excerpts of famous speeches and statements of the great war time leader. The exhibition gives a run down on his life and displays artifacts relating to it. Mostly these are letters between interested persons. Winston to his parents; his nanny to his mother;  that sort of thing.  Naturally it also covers his service in South Africa, his marriage and roles in public life. It also covers his relationship with his paternal grandmother and his relationship with Blenheim.  Eventually we come to the room where Sir Winston was born.  It’s all interesting enough, but it’s largely not new information for me and it’s not blowing my socks off… yet…
We’re not quite through this exhibition when a lady comes through indicating that the tour of the house is about to begin.. we loiter.. then hurry to the start place.  Some preliminaries are undertaken which involve introductions to portraits hanging around us and some background information on the palace and the Dukes of Marlborough and we are handed over to a dapper little man who is clearly expert on the things we are about to see.   Like the Chateau de Versailles, Blenheim Palace is a world heritage site.  We had a superb guide for our tour at Versailles and we get another today.
Everything about Blenheim reflects the context of it’s creation.  John and Sarah Churchill were already well established and close friends of Queen Ann when the Duke was responsible for achieving victory at the battle of Blenheim.  This battle was fought against Louis XIV – the sun king, builder of the Chateau de Versaille – and we are here told that this critical victory put paid once and for all to France’s ambition to dominate Europe, paving the way for the following growth of the British Empire.  It was huge basically.  It’s huge for me today too. The pennies don’t drop, they cascade in my mind as I can now slide the Sun King into place within my existing knowledge of English history.
So back to Blenheim.. the Queen and parliament were duly grateful. But how to reward John Churchill? He’s already a Duke. That’s the highest rung in the ladder.  The reward?  These lands which had been royal hunting grounds, and money, lots of money, to build a wonderful palace.  The lands aren’t owned though. They are subject to a nominal rent. Every year the Duke of Marlborough must present a flag covered with the fleur de lys of France to the sovereign or the land reverts to the crown.  We see such a flag at Blenheim. We’ve seen them at Windsor Castle too, nicely closing the circle.
The architecture also betrays the purpose of this palace. It is a victory palace.  Atop the clock tower archway, sculptures of the lion of England assaulting the cockerel of France speak of England’s triumph.  No grand staircases as would ordinarily be found in the reception hall, you enter through a triumphal archway into the main reception rooms. .  The column of Victory is not so subtle either, though it was erected after the 1st Duke’s death by his grieving widow. Theirs was a true love match.
The tower of Victory under magnification 
The art work in the State Apartments is primarily portraits of the family.  We meet pretty much all of them and they are all interesting paintings and people.  In later history one of the Dukes managed to trade a position in the aristocracy for the hand in marriage of young Consuela Vanderbilt. Not a love match. Not a happy match. They ended up divorcing, but no doubt it was also not a match that was regretted from a financial point of view by the Marlboroughs. 17 year old Consuela came absolutely overflowing with dowry money. Millions upon millions of lovely dowry money.  The Marlboroughs were good at the selection of rich American brides. Winston’s mother was Jenny Jerome and she too came equipped with a handsome dowry.. enough to buy the hand of the second son of the Duke. First sons are more expensive.
The first Duke and his wife were well known for having simple tastes in decorations.  There is for example, existing correspondence about how the Duke did not like the gold and silver thread in a tapestry they were given.  The current gilded decoration of several Hawkesmoor ceilings would most definitely not have met with their approval. 
There’s no point me writing a thesis on the tour and it’s content, but it is very well done. The route is taken in a way that makes each new room more amazing than the last.  The main reception hall which is now used for a long banquet table and used once a year at Christmas is set to show that for our visit. It is an awesome space and simply fabulous to see. It does it’s job of impressing the visitors with the might and wealth of the house very well.  The whole palace is tasteful. This is somewhere that I will return to if I am lucky enough to get back to England. This is a fabulous place.  Perhaps best of all is that I did see it in the same trip as Versailles and each property has informed the other, representing as they do a grand tussle between great houses and great nations. 
Everywhere one looks in Blenheim Palace there are references to the legacy of the first Duke.  It’s pretty much a place of worship to his achievements and his position as one of the great men in British history.  There are the 10 tapestries he had created to show accurate details of the various battles leading ultimately to success at Blenheim for example.  Our guide describes them as the glory of Blenheim.  Even historians come here to study them to learn about the battles, being as they are the record created with great care by the Field Marshall himself.  I can’t help but chuckle at the items the agents of the Duke picked up in the fire sales after the French revolution.  The only portrait in the house not of family – a huge one placed centrally over a fire place – the sun king himself. One of several copies of the same portrait made for the French King. In another room… see all this furniture. It’s French.. Originally in Versailles. This furniture in this bit here.. more from Versaille.  And here.. look… over at this side of the room a bust of Louis XIV. Opposite side of the room bust of John Spencer 1st Duke of Marlborough. Not looking at eachother. They seem perhaps to be looking at the tapestries.
Blenheim being what it is, it is not hard to see why Winston Spencer-Churchill grew up with an unshakeable conviction that it was his destiny to save his country. How could you not?
Our tour brings us out of the palace via a look at the grave of the 1st Duke in the chapel.  To do the next aspect of the interiors you need to re-enter, but we have a priority on having a look around the gardens before we have to leave.  
The lake is man made and part of the landscaping

Another view of the water gardens
Enticing avenues lead from the water gardens
The Water Gardens and palace
We stroll through the water terraces and wander around the side of the palace passing acres of grass that is manicured to glow like velvet.  We peer over into the Italian garden which is still a private space.  The Duke and Duchess still live in the wing of the palace that the Duke and Duchess always have. State Apartments have always been the public spaces and places where guests are accommodated and impressed. It’s not a case of the Duke having had to “vacate” as it were.  We take a truncated stroll through the area where the secret garden is located.  Then our time here at Blenheim must draw to a close.  Just the gift shop to navigate now. I look for a DVD but they don’t do one. It will have to be the book. At least they have made it quite light, while still covering what we’ve seen today.
Returning from the secret garden
Blenheim Palace is fantastic.  Absolutely a must do.  We’ve loved it.  As we explore the palace and grounds I am struck quite forcibly by the outcome of the competition between the house of Marlborough and the Sun King.  Blenheim Palace is the ultimate tangible evidence of who was victorious.  Blenheim is no dusty relic. Blenheim is immaculate. Absolutely immaculate.  The first Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah formerly Jennings, was famously frugal with her money.  When they moved into the palace and were decorating she was chuffed to have scored the painting of the main reception space for a bargain.  They were the antithesis of the Sun King in the level of extravagance.  They certainly have had the last laugh.
By now it’s 4:30 and we tear ourselves away.  There is a lot to see we haven’t had time for but our visit was more than worth while. Considering our over all trip Blenheim has been a perfect ending.  We’re ending on a high note.  I got far more out of our visit here even than I expected.  Everything we’ve done has informed other things on the itinerary. It’s been fantastic.
We have an uneventful drive in to Heathrow.  About 10 minutes out from our destination we hit a bank of traffic at a stand still. "Here we go" I think.  Just as well we’ve got plenty of time… but it turns out (luckily) that this was only a short term problem and the delays are on other junctions, not ours.  It is a long weekend and I guess people don’t travel long haul for a holiday weekend.  We have no difficulty finding Enterprise. They have a very efficient service for drop off and at 6pm on the nose we are happily settled in the shuttle to take us over to terminal 3.  Some weighing and simple rearranging of our luggage ensues.  No major drama but we are over in our weight allowance, by several kilos overall.  It is nothing that cannot be dealt by slight of hand with within our hand luggage.
Bags now dropped, what about something to eat. Hubby is still fasting but improving. In a fit of desperation I just head in to Pret a Manger.  A chain.  We’ve seen these freakin’ everywhere and it’s put us off.  I bought a chicken and bacon sandwich with salad on dark bread. They look fresh. They look popular.  Reasonable price too. I’ll give it a go.   I say what the?  That sandwich was absolutely sensational! Talk about yummy. Why didn’t we try this stuff sooner?  Why don’t we have this chain in Australia.  Hey. You there… Pret a Manger people… get yourselves down under for goodness sake…  I’ve since read something about them not being as healthy as they look.  Sheesh. Who cares. Bet they’re no worse than Maccas or KFC. Probably better.  Definitely twenty times yummier.
And so we end a fantastic day. A fantastic trip. The trip of a lifetime. No regrets. We have met wonderful people, experienced wonderful hospitality. We have seen some of the world’s great wonders.  We have visited the home towns of some ancestors and found them more delightful than we could have imagined. How privileged we are.  How very very privileged we are. 

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