Towns / Cities Visited: 110
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 17,315
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,999,049
Another day dawned and we arose for our next adventure. A quick breakfast and we were in the car, shuttling off to a destination which would be the one and only source of our entertainment and education for the day; Blenheim Palace. Now its always good to start with a little background so let me give you the brief version. Blenheim Palace, despite its name, is not owned by the royal family, but is rather the ancestral property of the Duke of Marlborough. It was constructed between 1705 and 1722 on a parcel of land gifted to John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, after his military success in the 1704 Battle of Blenheim, where the British fought against the French and the Bavarians during the War of the Spanish Succession. The construction was funded by Queen Anne until she had a falling out with the Duchess of Marlborough, the wife of the 1st Duke, who was once her closest confidant. After their quarrel the Queen withdrew her funding, and the Duke and Duchess went into exile on mainland Europe, not returning until the day after the Queen’s death. It was only then that the palace was completed at the expense of the Duke himself. One of the most interesting facts about this Dukedom, is that when the 1st Duke died, his two sons had already passed away childless, leaving the succession of the title up in the air. However before his death, he had instigated an act in parliament to allow the Dukedom to be passed down to his eldest daughter; something that had previously been forbidden, and quite frankly a rather revolutionary act considering the era in which it occurred.
The interiors have been updated over the centuries but the exterior remains largely unaltered, and despite its grandiose appearance it was only saved from complete ruin when the family gained money to restore it thanks to the wholly loveless marriage of 9th Duke of Malborough’s to the American Railroad heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt. Amusingly, despite the property being a gift, the family must pay rent to the crown for the land. Naturally though, it isn’t your average monetary rent, but rather involves the family having to tender a French flag to the royal family each year on the anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim. Whether or not it would actually happen is uncertain, but if they were to fail to provide this flag, it would be possible for them to be evicted. Ahh antiquated aristocracy, you really are absurd.
With the history out of the way, let me continue. With the entrance finally located, no thanks to the GPS; the car parked; and ticket in hand, we made our way towards the palace. Now the fist thing that hits you about this place is its sheer size. It is easily one of the largest manor houses in the country, and it is rather imposing as you near it. Ducking in through the gates we were delivered to the main courtyard, and turned to face the front facade. With its towering pillars and romanesque stone statues it looked more like a pantheon than a palace. As we made our way up the front steps, we looked upwards to be faced with one of the more striking features of the building; two giant painted eyes looking down over the front door. We would later discover that they were modelled off of the eyes of the first Duke and Duchess, but despite their high born origins, they are more than a little creepy if I’m completely honest.
Stepping through the massive front door, and out of sight of the all seeing eyes, we found ourselves in the entrance hall. With the roof soaring high above, painted with a stunning mural, and surrounded by large windows, the room is airy and full of light. More pillars and a plethora of delicately carved stonework and statues adorns the interior, and when coupled with the collection of family portraits positioned on the second floor gallery, it truly oozes grandeur.
Grabbing a couple of the audioguides on offer, we soon began out exploration of the palace. With a little help from one of the staff, we soon found ourselves on the right track, and as we wandered the perimeter of the entrance all, we soon discovered that, at the behest of Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill, the brother of the current Duke, there is a modern art installation on display here. Unlike most temporary art installations, this one is not simply contained to a single dedicated room, but rather sprinkled amongst the centuries old furniture and decor. Now those who know me, will know that I am not the biggest fan of modern art at the best of times, but I can honestly say that I detested the placement of it here. I just couldn’t find anything pleasant about the stark juxtaposition of antique elegance, and Yves Klein’s monstrous blue additions. You see, its not just a few abstract paintings dotted around, but rather a selection of items coloured the artist’s patented ‘International Klein Blue’. Think of the brightest electric blue you’ve ever seen and thats still not as bright as this. In fact, as I’m sure you will see in the photos, the colour almost makes the items look photoshopped in, it is so unnatural in its hue. In the end though, I am just one person with an opinion, and I am sure there are plenty of people who would wholeheartedly disagree with me; I simply found the additions took away from the old world charm of the place and made me feel disconnected from its immense history. You win some, you lose some, I guess.
Moving on, we continued traversing through the rooms, which are laid out much like all palaces of the time, from the huge central dining hall, radiating out through the state rooms to eventually reach the bed chambers. The dining hall is easily the most impressively decorated of them all though, with its heavenly ceiling mural, and its walls painted cleverly to appear as though you are surrounded by a colonnaded cloister. Upon the walls are painted the likenesses of many foreign dignitaries of the time, from all corners of the known world at the time; Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia all have representatives immortalised here.
Eventually the tour leads you to one of my favourite of all rooms; the library. But, again, I was disappointed to find that many of the bookcases were hidden from view thanks to the modern art gracing the room. Even the statue of Queen Anne is shamelessly flanked by two unnaturally blue male figures. Despite the distraction, it was saddening to learn even a brief snippet of the life of Queen Anne, a woman who fell pregnant seventeen times, and yet only gave birth to five breathing offspring, none of whom survived past the age of two. Two of her children died within minutes or hours of birth, and her two longest living daughters died of smallpox after her husband came down with the disease. The remaining twelve pregnancies ended in miscarriages or still births. The memoirs of the 1st Duchess paint the queen as ignorant, fearful, and judgemental, but whether this is a truthful representation of the Queen, or a biased opinion of a slighted friend, is hard to tell. True or not, when you consider the huge amount of loss she faced, it would be hard to blame her for being somewhat disagreeable in her dealing with others.
At the far end of the library sits a most striking organ. It is the largest privately owned organ in Europe with its 2300 pipes, and is quite a sight to behold. At this point the audio guide explains that during World War II the palace played host to Malvern College evacuees. Apparently, during their stay a couple of the smaller organ pipes were stolen, and only recently were they anonymously returned to the palace by the family of the now deceased student. I must say sometimes the best part of visiting these grand old places is to learn the small amusing stories which are so often forgotten.
The final rooms of the palace hold an exhibition about the person most associated with the Churchill name in modern times; Sir Winston Churchill. In fact this former Prime Minister of Britain, and the man who saw the country through the majority of World War II, was born in this very palace. You see he was the cousin, and closest friend, of Charles Spencer-Churchill, who would grow up to become the 9th Duke of Marlborough, and a direct descendent of John Churchill. The exhibition is spread across a few rooms and goes from his birth and the history of his parents; through his education and training as a soldier; to the wooing and engagement to the love of his life Clementine Hozier, much of which occurred on the grounds of the palace; and of course across his years as leader of the country, including copies of the notable orators most famous speeches. There are also quite a number of his personal effects dotted around, including the saddle he had as a child, and a cigar box; the shadow of a vice so often associated with him.
Although he had many successes during his military service, escpecially during both World Wars, it is often failed to be mentioned that he was part of the brains behind the hugely disastrous assault at Gallipoli, which saw the death of most of the allied forces involved in it. Like all people, and politicians in particular, he was, of course, a flawed man, but it must be noted that it is never easy to rule a country, and tenfold harder to do so during times of war. As such, regardless of his mistakes, he must be commended for his strength and diplomacy during such troubled times and his important contributions to the Potsdam conference at the conclusion of the war, which saw the allied forces try and wrangle Stalin, although unsuccessfully, into an agreement regarding what to do with newly defeated Germany. It was also fascinating to learn that for his leadership he was offered the honour of becoming a Knight of the Order of the Garter as well as a Dukedom, but he turned down both. He later agreed to accept the knighthood, and added it to the long list of honours under his belt, including a Nobel prize in literature.
At the end of the exhibition you are directed through the room in which he was born. There are so many mentions of him being born unexpectedly at a dinner party at the palace, and being bought into the world in a ‘small room’, but as we walked through it was hard not to laugh at the fact that I have seen smaller apartments. The majority of the population are born in tiny hospital rooms, and its almost eye roll inducing to think that the aristocracy would consider this a small space in which to birth a child.
With the palace interiors complete, as we did not wish to pay for the rather pricey extra tours of the upstairs and downstairs areas, and with our stomachs rumbling, we ventured back out to try and source some food from the onsite catering facilities. At first we were set to eat at the Orangerie, but after seeing the exhobitant prices we swiftly decided to move on. The café gave us little inspiration, as they has sold out of hot options, and even the cafeteria food was anything but inspiring. With only one option left, decided to take our chances on the casual dining restaurant located in the pleasure gardens. Now going by the map it seemed as though we would be able to progress there from the formal gardens at the rear of the palace. However, as we made our way along the path we found that the two areas were not connected and we would have to go back out and around to reach it. Given that the land the palace sits on is some 2000 acres, it was easily a good kilometre or two walk to get over there. Deciding to make the most of our predicament, we settled on finishing our exploration of the gardens we were in before heading out. This area has quite a number of noteworthy areas, from a secret garden built for the Duke to enjoy some privacy and quiet, which was both picturesque and peaceful; to the Temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill proposed to his wife; to the stunning rose garden, still in full bloom from the country’s uncommonly warm summer; all the way to the path which runs along past a quaint little waterfall with a bridge spanning across the river that it feeds.
By now the day was slipping away and our stomachs were protesting virulently, thus we scurried off to the pleasure gardens. The upside of such a late lunch, coupled with the rather out of the way location of the restaurant, meant that we were the only ones there when we arrived. We were surprised to see that they had a wood fired pizza oven, and so happily ordered two. Pleased that we had forgone the lack lustre food options of the main dining facilities, we chatted over our freshly made slices and revelled in their unexpectedly high quality.
Satiated, we popped outside to continue our adventure. Now the pleasure gardens are obviously more angled towards families, considering the child friendly additions, but we are never a couple to shy away from a good hedge maze, and we were pleased to find that this palace has a well laid out, and impeccably maintained example to enjoy. After solving the labyrinth we decided to pop into the small butterfly house that they have there also. It may not have been quite as impressive as the one we stumbled across at Malahide Castle in Ireland, but it did have the addition of some fascinating plants, as well as a small collection of twittering little finches.
The afternoon was marching on, but before retiring back to our accommodation we decided to take a walk around the picture perfect lake with sits amongst the beautifully landscaped grounds, designed by none other than Capability Brown. It seems that as you walk around there is no bad angle from which to view the palace, and there is so many subtle features which highlight the luxury of such a property. From the sheep grazing lazily in the fields; to the small island in the centre of the lake, peppered with a stunning jumble of trees; and from the small copses bunched on the undulating hills; to the gorgeous bridge the reaches across the water, I could have wandered around here for hours just to bask in the tranquility.
The sun was sinking low, and thus we bundled back into our car and drove away from this stunning slice of English history. As our day wound down I thought about the family who called Blenheim Palace home and, of course, my thoughts ended up with Sir Winston once more, and drifted across to the topic of politics in modern democracy. The foundation of democracy is based on the idea that the power is given to the people; as such, it would seem only appropriate that the leader of a democratic country should be a representation of the majority of people who reside within that nation. Despite this though, more often than not, we see the leaders of these countries coming solely from the upper class, regardless of the fact that the majority of the population falls into the classes below. This is not just an eventuality in countries like Britain, who have always had, and continue to have, a titled aristocracy. Take Australia for example, who does not have a tradition of titled lords, despite our connection to Britain. The majority of our Prime ministers come from wealthy families with connections within big business and the major political parties. In fact, out of the last ten Prime Ministers we’ve had, only three of them have undertaken their secondary education at a government funded public school. They are rich men, from wealthy families, who went to prestigious and expensive schools, and yet we wonder why these very same private educational institutions end up with so much government funding. If power is about who you know, it should not be surprising to see that those who end up as our leaders are often the sons of men who were also in politics. In fact, I have no recollection of ever being educated about politics in school at all, let alone how to join a political party, or what steps to take to try and instigate policy changes in my electorate. What hope do the little people have of entering the game if we are never even taught how the game works? It all just leaves me wondering if this is a little less democracy and a lot more aristocracy than it is truly meant to be.
Thats not to say that there are no Average Joe’s that make it into the realm of parliament, but usually they are single issue candidates and are just as poor of a representation of the masses as those in charge. Individuals like Pauline Hanson, who peddles intolerance and xenophobia against immigrants, may have been a middle class, fish and chip shop owner, but she is a poor representative of the needs and beliefs of the majority of the country’s citizens; a country which prides itself on multiculturalism and giving everyone ‘a fair go’. She would see us stop immigration, despite the fact that without it our population would actually begin to drop given Australia’s low birth rate. Considering that the government keeps putting up the age of retirement, to the point it almost matches the average life expectancy, in order to reduce the pension strain on the national budget, you think that they would want more tax payers coming to our shores to help pay for some of these long serving ministers ridiculous retirement packages. The fact that they would see pensioners do it tough, and an entire generation not only struggle to buy a house, but also have to work well into their seventies, while they retire early to six figure pensions says so much about the state of our government nowadays. Tony Abbott, a man who was literally voted out of the top position by his own party because they had lost faith in him, will retire from politics with an annual pension of over $300k per year, while the average pensioner is given less than 25k; an amount which often leaves them having choose between paying for food or paying for other expenses like medication.
These same privileged few are wondering why people are choosing to have less or no children, or are having children so much later in life, but to be honest, for most people its not a choice, they simply can’t afford it; what with inflation increasing exponentially faster than wages. For others, like me, I don’t want children because the world simply doesn’t need any more people in it, nor would I desire to bring someone into the mess we’ve created for ourselves on this planet. Hell just look at the world-wide climate change strikes and you’ll see that even the children who are here are discontented with the state of things. It has often been asserted that perhaps the best person to rule would in fact be someone who does not wish to do so at all, someone with no lust for greed or power, and I am wont to believe this. Then, and only then, would we have a leader who would not be so easily bought and manipulated by the church or big business; a leader who might finally affect change solely for the good of the people, rather than the good of themselves.