A Day in the Country

By Rob Packer

It’s a rare occasion, but every so often whenever I’ve been outside the UK for a while, an uncontrollable and inexplicable desire comes over me and I want to see some of “England’s green and pleasant land”. It normally doesn’t last long, nor is very frequent (my last craving was more than five years ago), but for one day, Cotswolds, North Downs, South Downs—it doesn’t matter which—I arrive back in London and force the family into a day out in the country.

This time we chose Blenheim Palace—not House as they will correct you at the gates—mainly because none of us had been before, it’s a World Heritage Site and if Capability Brown didn’t get this out of me, no-one would.

For those who don’t know, Blenheim is an enormous English Baroque stately pile in Oxfordshire and is yet another English place with funny pronunciation (Blennim). Between the family, we (or mainly, my mum) managed to piece together that it was awarded to the Duke of Marlborough after an English or British victory at the Battle of Blenheim around 1700. But then the parlour game of guessing which of which post-Glorious Revolution war it was: there were, after all, so many! Was it the Nine Years’ War or War of the Spanish Succession? Maybe it was the Anglo-Dutch War or even the War of Jenkins’ Ear? With smartphones, parlour games don’t last too long, though: Wikipedia came to the rescue and we were instructed that it was indeed the War of Spanish Succession.

Blenheim Palace. You need to be a long way away to get it all in frame.

The house palace really is something special. Overlooking the not-so-rolling but carefully landscaped countryside and made of (a lot of) amazing yellow sandstone, it and the nearby town of Woodstock (built in the same stone) are what a Victorian might call handsome. The gardens were pretty even in winter in unseasonably bright February sun. But the interiors and the accoutrements, on the other hand, well, weren’t exactly to my taste.

Maybe it was the Churchill exhibition/shrine, which taught me that he was a surprisingly good painter, but skirted handily around his (at best) dubious exploits in India and offended anti-Great Man theory sensibilities. Maybe I was distracted by an unfortunately placed porcelain Laughing Buddha in a cabinet of blanc de Chine that made me do a double take as I walked out of the room where Winston Churchill was born. It could have been the library filled with four-volume histories of Kent, multi-volume agricultural encyclopaedias and other faux-erudite hardback books that looked bought by the yard and have likely never been read. It could have been the aristocracy’s repackaging their homes as “our history”, when most of our—or at least some of my—ancestors either didn’t live in Britain or would only have been into a stately home to build or clean it. But it was probably was just room after room of conspicuous consumption that made me think of the acerbic poet Alexander Pope and his ‘Epistle to Burlington’:

At Timon’s Villa let us pass a day,
Where all cry out, ‘What sums are thrown away!’
So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,
Soft and Agreeable come never there.

His Study! with what Authors is it stor’d?
In Books, not Authors, curious is my Lord;

Lo some are Vellom, and the rest as good
For all his Lordship knows, but they are Wood.
For Locke or Milton ‘tis in vain to look,
These shelves admit not any modern book.

Pope, never a man to mince his words, was just as cutting about the place when he visited, writing in one of his letters:

I think the architect built it entirely in complaisance to the taste of its owners; for it is the most inhospitable thing imaginable, and the most selfish: it has, like their own hearts, no room for strangers, and no reception for any person of superior quality to themselves.

Since Pope died in 1744, things have gone downhill with “Trees cut to Statues, Statues thick as trees” and they reach an absolute nadir in two bronze sphinxes recast with a female family member’s face and—spookily—hands. Frankly, being a sphinx has never been in fashion.

But despite all the bombast, I could well be back at Blenheim sometime soon: in what sounds like a scam, but actually isn’t, you can convert a day ticket to an annual pass and go back as many times to your heart’s content. Just don’t count on it being that many times though.

The Blenheim sphinx by Chris Guise (1967geezer) on Flickr.

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