Ten privately owned stately homes in England have formed themselves into a consortium to promote their properties. We’ve visited many of them, but today we’ve got our sights on Blenheim Palace – the only non-royal, non-ecclesiastical private country house in Britain called a ‘palace’ – and it has one special feature we’re keen to see.

With movies about either Winston Churchill, his darkest hour, or his response to the critical evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Europe on our screens recently – Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk respectively – a pilgrimage to his English birthplace is in order.

Blenheim Palace is staggering in size, truly palatial. A few miles outside Oxford, nestled in a deer park on the outskirts of the cosy little village of Woodstock, the estate is easy to find. The signs start a dozen miles away. Through what are presumably the back gates and into a vast acreage of cars, the walk in a spring drizzle to the entrance of the palace proper is almost exhausting. But then the sun comes out and lights up the landscape and the extravagantly gilded gates. The Dukes of Marlborough are certainly going to put visitors in their place with an awe-inspiring display of wealth from the outset. The incumbent Duke, 12th in a long line, has inherited quite a pile, and the entrance fee is needed to help with the upkeep. Paying visitors aren’t allowed through the actual gates, which admit to the spectacular courtyard, but are shepherded in through the gift shop, just in case they escape later without having purchased anything.

Our wartime Prime Minister’s ancestor, John Churchill, was already the first Duke of Marlborough when he was rewarded with land and cash by a grateful sovereign for his military triumph at the 1704 Battle of Blenheim. However, not all the promised cash arrived, and he ended up nearly bankrupting himself building the monument the nation expected. Later members of the family had to marry into wealth to keep the place going, culminating in a healthy infusion of funds when the 9th Duke married the American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt. Winston’s own father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a direct descendant of the Dukes, married the wealthy American Jennie Jerome, and it was at Blenheim where he was born unexpectedly and several weeks prematurely. A permanent exhibition of Churchill’s life is set up in the very room where he arrived, and several rooms on either side. The exhibits are well curated and accompanied by interesting photos and artefacts from his life, as well as documentary film and audio clips of some of his most famous speeches. While the tourists dash by, English gentlemen of a certain age can be found listening nostalgically to their wartime hero, remembering when the British Empire still ruled the world.

Staff uniform

Rule the world these Empire builders certainly did, and they loved to show off their wealth. Every step of the way, the visitor is expected to be in awe. The huge courtyard is impressive. The great stone staircase to the front door immense. A looted bust of the defeated French king stands atop the pediment. Pillars and statues abound in every direction. On either side of the entrance a matching set of state rooms were set aside for royal visitors, though none ever came. The family lived in a wing of their own. All these rooms were on the main floor, which is why there was no need for a grand staircase. One of the American heiresses insisted on moving the bedrooms to the second floor, leaving a rather pointless enfilade of various drawing rooms along each wing. It is through these rooms that tourists move in an endless procession, marvelling at the wealth and excess on display. Here, a spectacular dining service; there, a set of velvet staff uniforms covered in gilt brocade; over there, cabinet after cabinet of priceless Victorian bric-à-brac.

Although many of the best paintings collected by early Dukes were sold off to pay debts, enough were bought back, or otherwise rescued, for there to be a splendid collection of ancestors on display. Some are memorialized in custom tapestries, propaganda for battles won abroad. Others in trompe l’oeil ceiling paintings, such as a splendid one in the immense saloon showing the first Duke in a chariot handing a peace treaty to Britannia. One famous family portrait shows Consuelo and the Duke she despised, with their children, one of them Winston’s ancestor.

Another huge room is the 10,000-book library, intended as a gallery, which is the longest such room in Britain. At one end stands a huge pipe organ, again the largest in private hands in England, installed by a Duchess who liked music. It is off the library that the permanent Churchill exhibition is to be found.

Film-makers haven’t been able to ignore the palatial aspects of the site, which has been used in dozens of movies from Young Victoria (where it subs for Buckingham Palace) to thrillers such as Spectre and Mission Impossible. Stills from various scenes are scattered about so you get the connection.

The self-guided State Rooms tour doesn’t take long and seems curiously short for the price, and for a price there is plenty more to be explored on the site. The extensive terraces of gardens leading away from the house are worth a walk and are free, but the amusement park, miniature railway and other touristy things are eminently miss-able. Add-on tours of the private rooms, both upstairs and downstairs and reasonably priced, would be essential to fully understand this vast and impressive building.

NOTE: Treasure Houses of England is a heritage consortium founded by some the foremost stately homes in England still in private ownership, with the aim of marketing and promoting themselves as tourist venues:

  • Beaulieu (home of the Dukes of Montagu, now owned by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu)
  • Blenheim Palace (Dukes of Marlborough)
  • Burghley House (The Cecil family, now owned by Burghley House Preservation Trust)
  • Castle Howard (Earls of Carlisle, now owned by The Hon. Simon Howard)
  • Chatsworth (Dukes of Devonshire)
  • Harewood House (Earls of Harewood)
  • Hatfield House (Marquesses of Salisbury)
  • Holkham Hall (Earls of Leicester)
  • Leeds Castle (Olive, Lady Baillie, now owned by Leeds Castle Foundation)
  • Woburn Abbey (Dukes of Bedford)

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