The historic home of the Churchill dynasty
There is a huge amount to see at Blenheim: in the grounds there are the Pleasure Gardens, Butterfly House, Marlborough Maze, Blenheim Bygones Exhibition and Secret Garden. There are also shops and a Blenheim train to get you around. And then there is the house itself.
This huge baroque palace was built by the Churchill family in the early 18th century to honour John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, who repeatedly beat the French during the wars of the Spanish Succession.
On 13th August 1704 at Blindheim in Bavaria, Marlborough led an allied attack that defeated Marshall Talland, leader of the French forces. When a grateful nation offered its thanks, "Blenheim" was the name that Churchill gave to the palace he would build. The resultant structure was as much a piece of propaganda as a private home. It almost entirely exterior, like some theatrical set awaiting its actors. Blenheim was intended as a statement of England's greatness under Queen Anne.
Unfortunately the wording of the nation's gift didn't make it clear who would pay for the bills once Blenheim began to outstrip its initial budget. When the Churchills fell from royal favour they were left with a huge bill.
Over the centuries the Spencer-Churchill family proved adept at spending rather than consolidating its inheritance. The "Wicked" seventh duke caused a scandal when he sold off two hundred paintings to pay for his scientific experiments. In truth, John Winston Spencer-Churchill (MP and Governor General of Ireland) was one of the few genuinely intelligent Churchills but he left the estate impoverished. It was only with the marriage of the eight and ninth dukes to wealthy Americans that the money was found to complete and to refurbish Blenheim.
Winston Churchill's father Lord Randolph, second son of the eighth duke, followed suit, marrying the American heiress Jennie Jerome. She it was who gave birth to the future prime minister in 1874, in a ground floor room in the palace that can be visited today.
There is a self-guided Winston Churchill exhibition occupying a section of the main block which records the great man in black and white photos and colour reproductions of his paintings. It also records the very sentimental attachment that Sir Winston and his wife maintained for each other during their long marriage (something rarely achieved by the oft-divorced Dukes of Marlborough).
The main tour of the drawing rooms, state rooms and library is guided and full of so much fascinating detail you'll wish you'd read the guide book beforehand.
Upstairs running along the south facade there is a new exhibition called Blenheim Palace: the Untold Story. This is a rather twee mix or animatronics and audio visuals that might appeal to those who enjoy their history diluted by amateur dramatics. The highpoint is the animatronic waxwork of Charles II's mistress Barbara Villiers caught in flagrante with John Churchill in the days before he was made 1st Duke of Marlborough.
Across a sturdy bridge, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, there is a pleasant walk out to the Column of Victory with its extensive - and gloriously tactless anti-French - inscription. There is also a good walk along the lake to the Grand Cascades designed by Capability Brown.
All in all, Blenheim will certainly keep you occupied you for a day.