Our public footpath to Woodstock includes Stonesfield Steps, a stairway over the nine-mile dry-stone wall surrounding Blenheim Estate. Ambling through shaded woodlands and pastures, we spot silver pheasants strutting under some gnarly oaks. In the distance stands the lofty Column of Victory amid 2,000 plus acres of Blenheim's parkland. Eventually arriving at the column, we study its lofty statue of John Churchill and read about this first Duke of Marlborough's military triumphs.
Sheep graze on hillsides sloping downward to lakes spanned by a Romanesque bridge. Beyond stretches World Heritage Blenheim Palace and Woodstock. Descending through groves of maples, we come to a large green door opening into this village.
Locals prove friendly. One gent tells us about former Woodstock Palace, where Queen Mary imprisoned her sister Elizabeth. Another gushes about Blenheim's many events, "Tonight, I'll leave my window open to hear Van Morrison!"
At a pub, we enjoy cold brews and steak-and-ale pies. We soon discover our B&B is an 18th century townhouse off market square. Leading us up a steep stairway to our room, the chatty host presents Palace highlights and touts a fish-and-chip shop. Its haddock proves delicious!
Next morning we pass through Blenheim's eastern gate toward Lord Marborough's English baroque palace. Square castle-like towers border the immense, honey-stone structure. Entering the west wing, we pass through Kitchen Courtyard into the Grand Courtyard, still set up from last night's concert.
The palace reflects Britain's 18th century power. Six massive pillars support the portico; a statue of Britannia stands atop in front of two chained French captives. Sculpted swords and shields flank the main entrance.
Inside the foyer, we ascend a stairway and enter a chamber, where through multi-media a 17th-century maid leads us into palace history. She first recounts John Churchill's early escapades, military successes and marriage to Sarah, Queen Anne's beloved lady-in-waiting. Another room features Lady Sarah pushing for completion of an underfunded Palace. Further chambers introduce other noble descendants, including the 4th Duke known for scientific endeavors and 9th Duke, who married Consuelo Vanderbilt and used her huge dowry to restore the Palace.
Dukes and Duchesses are interred in the Palace Chapel. The white marble tomb's statues of the 1st Duke and Duchess Sarah portrays them as Caesar and Caesarina. Less noble descendants, including Winston Churchill, are buried in St. Martin's churchyard in nearby Bladon.
Joining a group, we tour state apartments filled with exquisite furniture, family portraits and further reminders of the 1st Duke's triumphs. The Great Hall's ceiling pictures him in Roman garb showing Britannia his battle plan for Blenheim.
"When the last Habsburg King of Spain died, the War of Spanish Succession ensued to prevent a French heir from dominating Europe. England, Austria and Dutch Republic united to fight France and Bavaria," our guide explains. "Queen Anne's parliament recognized Churchill's triumph, bestowing on him the Duke of Marborough title and this 12,500 acre estate, including funds to build a palace.
The dining room table's silver centerpiece shows him mounted at Blenheim, dispatching his famed message to Sarah "...tell the Queen that her army has had a glorious victory!"
Three staterooms' walls display tapestries representing his earlier victories against France. In the second, two illustrate his siege of Bouchain. These flank a portrait of King Louis XIV, recalling Churchill's service in the French army's Royal English Regiment, when he valiantly campaigned for King Louis against Holland.
Christopher Wren designed the adjacent 155-meter long picture gallery. Becoming a library, many of the 1st Duke's artifacts, given and taken as spoils of war, are displayed. Portraits of Queen Anne and her husband King William III hang on its east wall. Queen Anne's larger-than-life statue stands in the center. On its pedestal, Sarah recounts their special friendship. Among the huge book collection, we see a signed first edition biography of the 1st Duke written by Winston Churchill, esteemed statesman and descendent.
We also visit the 1874 furnished room where Winston was born. Adjoining rooms exhibit items regarding his shy childhood, visits with his cousin the 10th Duke and his work in the Palace's MI5 wartime offices.
Outside, two sphinxes flank the symmetrical Water Terraces. These interestingly sport sculpted heads of the 9th Duke's second wife Gladys. A pathway takes us past the ‘Temple of Diana' where Winston proposed in 1908 to his darling Clementine. Stopping at the beautiful lakeside Rose Garden, we consider how today's Blenheim Palace honors two distinguished Churchills and their beloved wives.
IF YOU GO
• BritRail Passes must be purchased in Canada from ACP Rail International. These are unavailable in the UK. See: www.acprail.com • Blenheim Palace: www.blenheimpalace.com
• Oxfordshire is a fascinating area. See: www.visitoxfordandoxfordshire.com
• Woodstock can be checked out at www.cotswolds.info/places/woodstock/
1. Bleheim's Main Entrance well reflects Britain's power in the 18th century.
2. Bleheim's Terrace Gardens were built by the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
3. Blenheim 1st Duke & Duchess Tomb celebrates this dynamic couple as timeless Romans.
4. Blenheim Victory Memorial Column is topped by the statue of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough.
5. Blenheim-Churchill's Birthroom is on the palace's main floor.Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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