Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Day Three: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Palace

This is the latest entry in a series of posts on my vacation trip last month. The prior posts were:
Prologue: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Day One: The City of Dreaming Spires
Day Two: Eccentric Ramblings

Sunday May 22

Sunday was the day we’d intended to visit Blenheim Palace, a journey that turned out to be filled with delays minor and major. The plan was to rent bicycles and ride to the palace, which is a modest 8 miles or so from Oxford.

Our first setback came when we got up to find rain showers passing overhead. It wasn’t much, but riding in the wet isn’t fun, and we had some time before we expected the bike rental (‘cycle hire’ in English English) establishment to be open, so we hung out at the B&B until it passed.

We only needed one bike, because we had the one our friend Gary had arranged for us to borrow, so we walked up to the Broad, to the cycle rental place outside the tourist information center. There we discovered that it being Sunday, there was no one in sight. We never ascertained whether they weren’t open on Sunday or if they opened later, because we decided to walk to Walton St. Cycles, another cycle shop we’d spotted in Jericho, which we knew had Sunday hours. We arrived in good time, but they weren’t open until 10 AM, so we did have to wait. In the meantime the skies continued to clear.

Finally with wheels, we set out for Blenheim in the small village of Woodstock. JT had brought excellent maps of the cycle route, and it proved to be well marked- partially following surface roads, and partly on dedicated cycle paths:

We were still 2-3 miles short of our goal when the loaner bike got a flat tire.

Now, three miles isn’t a particularly long walk by our standards, but the real issue was time. Walking takes longer than bicycling. And we’d started later than we wanted. After some discussion, we decided that returning to Oxford to get another bicycle or fix the flat would take so long we wouldn’t get to Blenheim in time to see anything. So we continued with JT walking and me riding very slowly. On the plus side, it gave me ample opportunity to enjoy the wildflowers, which were quite delightful.

By the time we reached Blenheim it was time for lunch. Fortunately no self-respecting major tourist attraction in the UK fails to have a café, so we were able to enjoy hearty chicken curry sandwiches and a nice cold drink before proceeding on to view the Palace.

Blenheim Palace was originally a gift of the crown to John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, to recognize his military triumph at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. It was intentionally designed to be monumental- well, see for yourself:
Blenheim from the bridge

I think they succeeded.

In addition to being a rare surviving example of English Baroque architecture, Blenheim is also known as the birthplace of the most famous of the Churchill clan, Winston Churchill. They had a modest exhibit on Winston, focused mainly on his years at Blenheim palace (for a much more in depth look at this fascinating character, the Churchill Museum adjacent to the Cabinet War Rooms in London is the place to go).

Only a small section of the main house was open to the public-which still gave us quite a lengthy tour of the extremely handsome public rooms, filled with priceless antiques, china, tapestry and of course magnificent decor. A second section of the house had a multimedia presentation on the history of the house and its owners. When the house was originally conceived, it was to be a gift of the nation—which was fine as long as John Churchill and his wife remained on good terms with the queen. Following a falling out, funding became much more irregular, and the house was not completed until years after Churchill’s death. The up and down finances of the subsequent owners make it quite remarkable that the house has continued to remain in the hands of the same family (the present owner is the 11th Duke). Today, while still a residence, it is the site of a variety of business and tourist activities. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

After the tours, we took a brief stroll down toward the monument-
Marlborough's victory column

And also finally found a site where I could get most of the house in the frame for a photo (that’s the one above). The grounds are famous in and of themselves, landscaped by Capability Brown. He dammed a stream to form the picturesque lake and rearranged the terrain on a scale as vast as the palace itself to sculpt a fitting setting. With gorgeous results, in a slightly-too-cultivated-to-be-true sort of way:
Ornamental lake at Blenheim

We would have liked to explore further, but all the morning’s delays had finally caught up with us. JT went off to see if he could find a better place to leave his defunct wheels than the palace bike park (he couldn’t) and a bus back to Oxford (he could). I hopped on my rental bike and retraced our route of the morning at the best speed I could, so as to get the bike back to the rental shop before they closed. The ride was very enjoyable despite being a little rushed, and not much to my surprise, I was back in Oxford with time to spare. JT’s journey was equally efficient- we had planned to meet back at the bed and breakfast, but in fact found each other at an intersection a couple of blocks away.

We then conducted a quick international logistical discussion via Skype with our friend Gary to determine the best way to get his bike back to him, and arranged to mail the keys to the bike lock to his friends in Oxford so either he or they could retrieve it.

Dinner was an interesting pizza at Fire and Stone, and afterward we walked up the east side of the Cherwell, admiring the scenery and finding St. Clement’s church, glowing in the soft evening light—
St. Clement's Church

—and a family of ducks, out for their own evening constitutional:
Evening on the Cherwell

With the light fading on our last day in Oxford, we reluctantly headed back, with a brief stop at a pub for cider, and er, other bodily needs.

This was our second visit to Oxford, and it remains on the list of cities I’d love to go back to. In a country full of beautiful walks, Oxford still shines.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful, beautiful. Though I do wonder what a British version of a pizza would be like.