Moving in to Blenheim

Thought I slept in till 8:30 but my watch was lying. I actually woke at 9:45! Down for a late breaky then back to the room to try and book a two Michelin starred restaurant for dinner.

Mirinda rang and was asked to supply her name, address, date of birth, marriage status and mobile phone number. At this point she handed the phone to me as she didn’t know the number. This was obviously insane, as I have NO idea what my mobile phone number is and I told the girl at the other end this. So for expediency’s sake I told the girl our home number instead. But wait, it gets even more pointless. She then wanted my credit/debit card number. I mean, come on! It’s just a restaurant after all. They reckon they get a high class of clientèle and their prices indicate that’s all that can really afford them, but can they really imagine, say, the Beckhams giving out their card number to them? I told the girl to forget it, we’d eat somewhere else. I told her I’d be writing a stern letter but actually forgot.

We have since heard (from Mirinda’s boss, who regularly eats at expensive restaurants) that the food was crap anyway so we were very lucky. In order to avoid them, the restaurant is: Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. Raymond Blanc is the head chef and for some obscure reason he was voted the Chef’s Chef of the year last year. Maybe it’s for his collection of credit card numbers.

Well, having vented our spleens, we eventually drove out to Blenheim Palace on a day that was drizzly though not enough to warrant wet weather gear.

Blenheim Palace is not far (8 miles) from Oxford so it was only natural that we should pop over for tea. Plus the fact that it’s yet another World Heritage site to mark off the list which appears to grow daily.

As you pass through the huge gates you are immediately presented with a grand scale of building. As you pay the girl in the little booth halfway up the driveway, you have to remember that the person who still lives up there in the big house is not 16 feet tall with a golden goose on his lap.

It really is a massive big ‘ouse! There’s normally a (narrow gauge) train to the front door but as it was in for repairs, we had to make do with the Portuguese version of Le Petit Train with cling-wrap windows. The car-park has been put so far from the palace so as not to be too obvious from the drive…I assume. I mean it’s bad enough having the plebs wandering one’s halls without having to look at their vehicles as well! Actually it’s a very nice walk beside seemingly random trees dotted sparsely all over. Or it would be if it wasn’t raining.

The landscaping was created by our old chum Capability Brown and is on a truly grand scale. Started by the great gardener Henry Wise, it is a growing, changing canvas. The day being so miserable we skipped a lot of the outside sights. Actually we skipped everything outside except for the water terraces.

As usual we purchased a guide book and settled back for a coffee/tea and a short history lesson. John Churchill (yes, a long dead relative of Winnie’s), 1st Duke of Marlborough defended Holland from the French from 1702-3 and in 1704 whooped their asses at a place on the Danube called Blindheim (or Blenheim to the illiterate fools who wrote it down). For this great victory, Queen Anne smiled and gave John the Royal Manor of Woodstock (not where the concert was in 1969) adding that she would build a house for him there. She insisted she’d pay and it should be called ‘Blenheim’. There were lots of smiles and good cheer as the victorious aristos patted each other’s backs and masons, carpenters and gardeners were employed. Vanbrugh, one of the great architects of his time, was brought in to design it.

Portrait of Sir John Vanbrugh

Naturally a lot of cash was needed but come pay day and guess what. Queen Anne conveniently forgot about it, John refused to pay for a gift from someone else and the poor workers didn’t get paid! How To Remain Very Wealthy by Lord I.M.A Rich-Bastard was one of the volumes I noticed in the extensive library.

Anyway, fast forward a few centuries and the present Lord found he couldn’t manage the taxes and the upkeep so had to open the place to the descendants of the ripped off workers. So, basically not only did the original workers not get paid but their descendants are now paying the Lord!

Mirinda told one of the volunteers that my great, great grandfather was a mason and we’d come to collect his owed wages…or take up residence in one of the rooms as recompense. She said the present Lord was not in today but that they’d laid the red carpet on for my arrival. I had a hard time getting everyone else off it.

The rooms are very impressive, each different to the next except for the paintings. Rather than the usual assorted famous artworks, the walls are adorned with massive family portraits, staring down with haughty disapproval.

There’s a great display on Winnie as he was born in one of the rooms and above the bed is a little framed box containing his curls from when he was 5 years old. I assume someone in the Conservative Party considered cloning him. Sir Winston also proposed to his beloved Clementine in the garden. He didn’t fancy living at Blenheim, instead choosing to merely start and end his life there.

One of the most impressive rooms is the Saloon. The volunteer showed us the distinctive tromp l’oliel edging and various other impressive optical illusions in the walls and ceilings. He also bemoaned the fact that the guidebook did not give it enough room to do it proper justice.

Mirinda was very enthusiastic about the wood effect gas-fires built into the fire places. She intends to order one “the same as they have at Blenheim Palace“.

We finally made our way into the Long Library. This room is as long as our entire property and at one end stands a rather sexy statue of Queen Anne facing the magnificent Willis organ at the other end. This was installed by the 8th Duke in 1891 and was being played today by the under butler at various times throughout the day. We’d timed our visit to be there for his 2:30 recital but, alas, it did not happen so we stepped outside and into the chapel.

As you step through the door of the chapel a massive tomb greets you. It is Rysbrack’s monument to the 1st Duke, Duchess and their two sons. The family are at the top with History and Fame at their feet (presumptuous bastards) and their sarcophagus is crushing the dragon of Envy. I gave them a hand by strangling it a bit. The couple who walked in while Mirinda took my photo were a tad surprised.

We took our leave of the impressive marble and went to wander round the water terraces which are truly fantastic. Statues and hedges, fountains and paths; the whole thing finishing off the back of the palace beautifully. They are, apparently, reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the Parterre d’Eau at Versailles.

Back of Blenheim Palace from the water terrace

It took five years of planning and building from 1925. The 9th Duke worked closely with Archille Duchêne (he was an arts and crafts designer and, in 1935, decided that massive aristocratic gardens were a thing of the past and went into small, functional gardens instead) to create the perfect combination of obelisks and sphinxes, fountains and giant marble statues. Above all, this part of Blenheim is worth the visit. On a sunny day, they must be magnificent.

After the water terrace, Mirinda did a short humorous commentary as I filmed a pan shot of the palace. Then we popped into the gift shop for a few postcards (etc) before walking back to Sidney (stopping off to snap a pic of me and a tree – naturally) and driving back to the hotel.

Our return trip, however, was not without incident! Sitting at a roundabout, preparing to join the mild traffic, a young guy drove his car into a lamp post. He emerged unscathed with a look on his face which seemed to say “My God! Why does this keep happening to me?” We couldn’t work out what had happened as he wasn’t driving fast, there was little traffic, the conditions were fine and there was no squeal of brakes. Maybe he was talking on a mobile phone and just lost control after his girlfriend dumped him. Weird.

Back at the Four Pillars, avoiding all lamp posts, Mirinda snoozed while I watched more winter Olympics. At 7pm we watched Desperate Housewives (God I love Bree! What a scary woman!) then took ourselves down to the restaurant in the hotel (Deacons).

Apparently Zoltan (who Mirinda insisted was actually called Zog) was to be our waiter though Mechanical Edward took our order and our meal was delivered by a girl whose name I missed owing to it being pinned rather obviously to her breast and my not wanting to get busted staring for all the wrong reasons. Eventually Zoltan did serve us, but as we weren’t dressed very well, we were hidden away, around a corner and promptly forgotten. This meant that Zoltan didn’t bother asking for a dessert order. Hey ho! Saved some money both on a course AND a tip.

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