Palace prowling

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Palace prowling

“And everybody praised the Duke/ Who this great fight did win/ But what good came of it at last?/ Quoth little Peterkin/ Why that I cannot tell, said he/ But ‘twas a famous victory.”

The answer to little Peterkin’s question is Blenheim Palace, a vast, imposing, magnificent structure set amidst vast, imposing, magnificent grounds that increase the palace’s beauty, and sometimes even upstage it.

After the Duke of Marlborough’s forces defeated King Louis IV’s army at Blenheim in 1704, a battle in the War of Spanish Succession, Queen Anne granted money and land for the duke to build a structure that was to be both a country home and war memorial.

As with all great buildings, the story of the construction of the palace is also remarkable. John Vanbrugh, the architect, tended towards the monumental, whereas the Duchess of Marlborough preferred a comfortable country home. The duke was always fighting overseas, and the architect and duchess were fighting at home.

During the years of construction, the duke’s fortunes rose and fell, Vanbrugh resigned as architect, the duke tried to complete the palace with his own funds and died, and the duchess finally finished the palace as a tribute to her husband.

The 20-pound fee to enter Blenheim Palace from the Hensington Gate might seem stiff at first, but you soon realise that there’s enough to do here for an entire day. You can start off at The Great Court, the ideal place from where one can take in the vastness of the palace. Even a visitor from Karnataka, who stands in front of Buckingham Palace and declares that Mysore Palace is much more impressive, has to admit that Blenheim Palace is not bad. Blenheim Palace features regularly in movies, and was an impressive backdrop for much of the action in the 1998 movie, The Avengers, starring Sean Connery, Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman. (Some might say Blenheim Palace was the only thing impressive in that movie.)

From the Great Court, one enters the palace, and stops first at the Great Hall,
a space of paintings, light, sculpture  and columns that leads to the Churchill Exhibition.

Winston Churchill was a descendant of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, and was born in Blenheim Palace in 1874. The room where he was born is a highlight of the exhibition. You can easily spend an hour wandering past the displays of photos taken when he was young, letters to his father about his experiences at Sandhurst, and paintings that he made of Blenheim Palace and its grounds. It’s only fitting that a man who went on to be a soldier, politician, statesman, historian, Nobel Prize winner and painter all at the same time, a man who lived his life with a sense of history and purpose and grandeur, was born in Blenheim Palace. If only he had been less petty-minded about India.

The State Rooms at the palace, a succession of drawing rooms stuffed with ornate furniture, landscapes, portraits and tapestries, are also worth visiting. Highlights are the note on the back of a tavern bill that the Duke of Marlborough wrote to his wife after the battle, where he declared the ‘Glorious Victory’, and The State Dining Room, with its massive centrepiece of the Duke of Marlborough on horseback.

You exit the palace via the Long Library, stacked from end to end and floor to ceiling with books nobody will ever read, and go off to have a scone with clotted cream at the café overlooking the water terraces. Fortified, you are now ready for some serious walking in the 2,000-acre garden.

There are formal gardens with fountains, hedges and small temples. There’s even a maze. However, what everyone comes to see and enjoy are the ‘natural gardens’ designed by Capability Brown. Meant to mimic nature, they are a grand achievement of landscaping — gentle grassy slopes going down to clumps of trees, lakes formed by damming small streams, and tiny beautiful islands surrounded by water.

You walk up to Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge, which is a story in itself, and take in the gardens. You can see the palace in the distance, and the Column of Victory. An Indian wedding has just taken place in the Orangery at the palace. Ladies in bright sarees have streamed out to take photos, and their laughter can be heard over the breeze.
Everywhere, it’s grass and water and trees. Peace has come from war.

At least some good came out of the Famous Victory.

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