Blenheim Palace (Oxon): disappointing (but excellent maze)

With a grand name comes big expectations.

I tell myself that having expectations will only lead to disappointment and that is why I don’t like to host my own birthday and New Year parties – far too often the expectation is not met.  The best times are had with no watch on and suddenly it’s 3am.

Reason to visit: if you’re interested in Winston Churchill and can’t get to Chartwell, Blenheim has lots of exhibitions.

Blenheim is indeed a big name.  Baroque in design, associated with the Duke of Marlborough, Queen Anne, Churchill, Hawksmoor, Capability Brown and Vanbrugh (the original ‘architect’ who fell out with the Duke circa 1716) and built between 1705 and 1720 following the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, architecturally Blenheim has many components that should tickle the fancy of a building-spotter.

No matter what I tell you, I know you’ll visit – it’s on the same list as Stonehenge and the leaning tower of Pisa: somewhere people want to go but are left wondering why they made all the effort when they get there.

It may be one of England’s best-known country houses and the birth place of Winston Churchill, but Blenheim is really just a tourist attraction and suffers the same problems as Oxford, Venice and Buckingham Palace.

Blenheim is somewhere I only frequent with visitors who ‘don’t really do’ country houses.

I can’t blame the Dukes of Marlborough – with a house this big, in the absence of a successful banking career in the city to finance the upkeep, there’s little option but to host weddings and make the house ‘one size fits all’.  However, perhaps the managers should visit Hampton Court (not a dissimilar scale) and take note from the Royal Palaces about how to host a jolly good day out for all and sundry (including the architecture lover).  Less of the ‘maid and her feather duster’ in the courtyard, more ‘the Duke of Marlborough himself welcomes you’ if they are going to use actors – surely most visitors want to feel like a guest of Duke rather than someone who’s popping up to Blenheim to chat to their friend the cleaner?

Blenheim is (intentionally) too big (like Castle Howard): 187 rooms (46 of which remain the private apartments) covering seven acres.  The “experience” includes the obligatory children-friendly entertainment of a full-scale tourist attraction and charges too many ‘extra costs’ (e.g. after the £19 entry fee – which during 2011 one could convert into an annual ticket on the day – there is an additional cost for the extremely attractive golf buggy trip around the lake.  For me this was a cost too far, especially as most people won’t have the energy to do the lake trip on foot if they do everything else Blenheim has on offer (and I don’t like being held to ransom)).

If you thought I was cruel when I said I wouldn’t have Castle Howard given, well I definitely prefer the latter to Blenheim as at least it has the kudos of being the first house Vanbrugh designed, a good farm shop, a garden centre, a handy (free) tractor to take you from the visitor centre to the house and makes the guest feel welcomed individually, rather than just a walking-talking £19.

Here’s what you got for £19 at Blenheim during 2011 (less if you get a gardens-only ticket, free if you go with HHA cards):

  • the house (tour of private apartments at certain times of the year, extra cost);
  • part of the formal gardens;
  • the wider landscaped gardens (designed by Capability Brown in the 1760s, some 40 years after the house was first occupied), with walks around the lake;
  • minature railway linking the house with the ‘pleasure gardens’;
  • Marlborough Maze (the best aspect of Blenheim – I had to try it twice);
  • playground;
  • butterfly house;
  • cafes (one in the pleasure gardens and one near the house); and
  • 2 shops (one at the house and one near the butterfly house)

My advice: if you want something to do around Oxford, go to Broughton Castle (near Banbury) or Cliveden (Bucks – 20 mins away) for a much better experience.

I’ve been to Blenheim many times: when I was a student at Oxford we went for the gardens to have picnics (you can get in free via the public rights of way paths from Woodstock); with family who wanted a day out and to be ‘entertained’; for a wedding (getting into the Orangery and formal gardens, which are usually off-limits); and to actually look around the house.

The latter should have been the best trip but it wasn’t.

Inside the house

Entrance is via the stable courtyard – look out for the wood sets under the arches to dampen the noise of hooves – giving you the experience of coming in from work rather than as a grand visitor.  However, the visitor entrance is still through the main door.  Very well done – Simon Jenkins will be pleased.

I failed to spot anything awe-inspiring.  Even the stone-clad, double-height entrance hall through which visitors enter is disappointing because visitors can’t get into the centre and look up and around – they’re hurried off to the right behind a rope, into rooms full of a Winston Churchill exhibition.  Word of advice Blenheim: keep the stables for the exhibitions and return the house to a party venue please – how about some sofas and a video playing as one enters?  How about making more of a fuss about Churchill’s mother and putting some of her dresses on show to give a taste of pre-war glamour? What about including an audio guide in the price and not charging another extra cost?

Inside, the tour is confined to the ground floor in the centre of the building and along the right hand wing: there’s a cabinet of Meissen and some Sevres (nothing to write home about) but no other pots of significant merit, some Charles Boulles cabinetry (worth a look at but hard to see as the curtains are closed) and some French (Louis XIV) furniture.

Faded tapestries cover the walls so the rooms start to merge into one behind the gloom of closed curtains.  The saloon boasts the Christmas day table and one finishes with the famous long library.

Behind closed-doors, the private quarters may be open to you (in the opposite wing) if the family are away during the summer.

Whereas Woburn (no less a tourist attraction) tells a magnificent story of family and royal visitors, is stuffed of amazing pictures, has the curtains open (really, D would be a much happier person if at least at weekends the curtains were opened at country houses) and is as clean and warm as a family home, Blenheim feels like the family have stripped the public rooms of all but the necessary items, popped some family photos in the library (but failed to update them since 1984) and pulled down the curtains to preserve everything.  Where is all the magnificent art?  Sold?  In other (private) residences?

Perhaps Blenheim entertains if one visits a country house once a year or so, but after 200+ houses in the last few years I was not impressed.  It leaves me glad that the Duke of Wellington left Stratfield Saye in tact and didn’t build Wellington Palace.

Where does this leave me?

I really want to like Blenheim.  But, I have a nasty taste in my mouth because I know the first Duchess of Marlborough was quite ‘difficult’, the Marlboroughs fell out with Queen Anne (for whom Blenheim was equally meant to be a palace of celebration), and I know how Churchill’s mother was a little bit too cruel to her son, favouring a good party instead.

Guess I’ll have to go back again next year and try to get into those private apartments to see if they offer a warmer side to Blenheim.

If you’d like a more romantic approach to Blenheim see here.

When visited: August 2011

House * out of 5: ***

Gardens * out of 5: ***

Website: click here (and more info here)

Theme tune: Blur’s Country House “He lives in a very big house in the country

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10 thoughts on “Blenheim Palace (Oxon): disappointing (but excellent maze)

    1. Thanks Stephen. Excellent spot. Think I might have to make Vanity Fair my optional 2012 magazine subscription (I always pick an extra ‘additional’ one each year because if I subscribed to all the obvious candidates I’d never have chance to read them all!). I’ll be trying to get back to Blenheim and inside the inner sanctum next year, so watch this space.

  1. Thanks for pointing us to the David Dimbleby film segment and its fantastic photography.

    I don’t recall that Blenheim or Castle Howard were too greatly compromised by the crush of tourists, but it’s been more than 20 years since those visits. It was Chatsworth and Longleat that were overly commercialized and run like an amusement park.

    Despite it’s many shortcomings as a house and home it is a superlative piece of architecture. Particularly the side wings, the colonnades and the composition of the triumphal arches, amaze me. They are so beautifully composed and each architectural element seems so well modeled and proportioned; achievements I’m inclined to attribute to Hawksmoor. But the Palace is simply too large and too strung out. In the interior “quality” is spread too thin and all is secondary to Vanbrugh’s seductive composition of the whole as perceived from the great forecourt.

    It’s my opinion (not corroborated by the experts as far as I can tell) that Easton Neston is the source of many bits of both Blenheim and Castle Howard. One shared element in the planning of all three houses is the idea of a grand staircases as a switchback stair in a discrete volume (more or less.) This great space at comparatively tiny Easton Neston is exquisite. At Castle Howard and Blenheim it may be that the magnitude of both building projects was just too large to give these spaces the attention Hawksmoor lavished on that at Easton Neston.

  2. Considering the author’s dislike for the house, I’m surprised so many visits were paid. Or perhaps one could consider themselves a bit superior if they were to look down their nose at it.

    1. I was at university in oxford, hence visiting often for the gardens and summer picnics. I dislike the presentation and architecture of the house. It’s Madame taussauds approach to heritage is not my bag. That’s what I find with some houses that have ben open since the 50s. Gardens are good. I hope to visit the private apartments. Blenheim is a house that should be liked but I can’t help it if I don’t. And I’m not a fan of Vanbrugh. I try not to criticise until I’ve seen somewhere. I will visit again because we have a new duke and potential for a new approach. However, I wouldn’t ever visit if it were not for hha or rhs free member entry as I think the £25 entrance fee is outrageous, esp. Given the presentation of the state rooms. What is your experience and connection with Blenheim?

      Robin

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