Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which take a bus, a subway, a train, and another bus to see a big house; and then do it all in reverse.
11: First Day-Out from London
Wednesday was our first day-trip out from London. Our target: Oxford and Blenheim Palace.
This being our third trip to England, we wanted to see some more of the country and the countryside. To get around, we’d purchased a pair of BritRail passes that give us 7 days of free train travel within our two-week stay. I’ve never traveled much by rail, so I can’t compare London with New York or other metropolitan areas where trains are prevalent, but as far as I can tell, it’s a really good system that moves reliably and pretty quickly. They’re not high-speed trains (like the 180+mph Eurostar) but they’re quick enough.
In heading out, I realized that we’d goofed in estimating how much we’d use our Oyster cards. We went with a pay-as-you-go Oyster card, as opposed to a weekly pass. My thinking had been that we wouldn’t be riding the Tube on the days we were taking the train. Mistake, stupid rookie-rail-rider mistake. Sure, we weren’t going to be taking the Tube to sights within London, but we absolutely needed to take the Tube (and the bus) to and from the train stations. Duh! It wasn’t a disaster; it just meant we were going to burn through a little more money on bus/Tube fares than expected. For folks staying in town a couple of days, pay-as-you-go is the right mix of convenience and economy, but for a week or longer, a pass is probably better.
Oh, and another thing about Tube stations: they are NOT all created equal. I mean, just because you’re hotel or flat is near a Tube stop, that does not mean it’s just as convenient as any other stop. Our nearest tube stop is Ladbroke Grove, a ten-minute walk from our flat. First, that ten minute walk is a LONG walk at the end of a day of sightseeing. This means we often end up taking a bus at the start and end of each day, to save our feet that extra mile. Second, Ladbroke Grove is only on one line, and that one doesn’t connect with a whole lot of other stations. Example: in order for us to get from here to Hyde Park Corner, we have to take a minimum of two, and sometimes three different tube trains (Hammersmith & City line to Circle line, then Circle to Piccadilly line). Our last stay our tube stop was South Kensington, from which we could choose any one of three lines, each of which made many useful connections.
What this all boils down to is, in order to get on our way, we had to take a bus to Ladbroke Grove, a Tube train to Paddington Station, and then a national train up to Oxford. The BritRail passes were pretty cool, in a retro sort of way. Everyone else was tapping passes against sensors and zipping magnetic tickets through readers while we took our printed tickets and showed them to a real person (!) who read them (!!) and manually opened a gate for us (!!!) Low-tech, yay! The train left spot on time and we headed out of London, bound for Oxfordshire via Slough (rhymes with “plow”) and Reading (rhymes with “bedding”).
The British countryside was pretty much as I described it before—a bit rough around the edges, and somewhat careworn. One thing you notice right off, though: all the brick. Outside of the city, brick is the predominant construction material for almost all types of buildings. Even large commercial buildings, which must be concrete/rebar internally, are faced with brick, but especially for residential use, Brick is King. Brown brick, red brick, pale, sandy, limestone-colored brick. Whether it was built in the 18th century, the 19th, or the 20th, it’s brick, brick, brick. This gives a subtle uniformity to what is otherwise a patchwork of architectural styles. Brick, in techie terms, sets the “look and feel” of the British countryside.
We passed through cropland (more rapeseed), high-tech corridors (Oracle has a main base in Reading), and small towns, following the River Thames. The fruit trees were all in bloom, and the sun dodged the clouds. Our plan, upon arrival in Oxford, was to leave it, taking a local bus out to Blenheim Palace.
A word about regional bus service in Britain: it’s spotty and confusing. In some areas it’s virtually non-existent (more on that later), while in places like Oxford, it’s been privatized to a ridiculous extent. There are three separate companies in Oxford that provide bus service. Naturally, they compete in some areas (like the railroad station) and fan out into their specific, proprietary areas. It’s like if you want to buy a novel, you go to Amazon, but if you want non-fiction, you have to go to Barnes and Noble, unless it’s a periodical, in which case you need to go to Waldenbooks, but they all sell newspapers. For the locals, this is probably an annoyance, but for the tourist who isn’t being handled by a coach tour (a “coach” is a long-range bus, a “bus” is a local bus), it’s a byzantine nightmare to figure it out. It took me about 45 minutes sifting through a dozen cheerful websites before I finally figured out that the Stagecoach Bus Company runs the S3 route that would take us from Oxford to the town of Woodstock and Blenheim Palace (and back…not always a given).
We caught the S3 at the Oxford rail station, bought our single-day return tickets, and clambered up the stairs to snag the front seats in the upper deck for our 30 minute trip out to the palace. It wasn’t really worth the trouble. Despite all the pastoral scenes you see on motoring shows like “Top Gear,” backroads in England aren’t that remarkable. Or pretty. A short while later, the driver sang out “Blenheim Palace Gates,” and we hopped off.
Blenheim (pronounced BLEN-em) is the family seat of the Duke of Marlborough, and (more famously) the birthplace of Winston Churchill (not himself a Duke of Marlborough). Due to a matrilineal side-tour, the family lost the use of the Churchill name for a while, and was only known as the Spenser family (yes, THOSE Spensers, like Diana), but eventually cajoled the Crown into letting them use Churchill again, so now they’re all Spenser-Churchills. The land (and dukedom) was given to the 1st Duke of Marlborough as a reward for his victory in the Battle of Bleynheim, back in the early 1700s. Construction took a couple of decades to complete. The ducal fortunes lasted a little bit longer, but not much.
We walked over the road and through the wrought-iron gates onto the long straight drive that led up to the side entrance of the palace. The guide books all said it was a quick ¼- (or ½-, depending on the book) mile walk, but I tell you, as we trudged down that long, tree-lined lane toward the ornate gate at the end, it was like one of those long-focal shots in a Hitchcock or Spielberg film, where the hallway gets longer and longer. The far gate just never got any closer! About halfway down the drive is a booth where two men handled the traffic. I didn’t know if they sold the tickets or just told people where to park, so (when we finally reached it) I walked up and asked. The guy acted like he didn’t know I was there—how could he miss me? We’d been walking down the lane for a quarter-hour, like something out of a bad Western, and now he’s surprised to find me there?—until I said “Pardon me?” and he turned his attention to us.
The entrance fee to Blenheim Palace is a stiff £19 per (about $30 each) for access to the grounds, gardens, and palace. Since the Duke was away, we could pay an additional £4.50 to view the private apartments, but we decided against that. Then we walked the rest of the way to the palace’s side entrance.
The palace is set up like one large square (the palace and main courtyard) with two (somewhat) smaller square courtyards attached on either side. Gardens flank the courtyards, a lake is stretched out in front of the palace, and down the path, over the bridge that crosses the lake, and up a hill, is a tall Victory Column, that celebrates the first Duke’s signal achievement. We came in through one of the square courtyards and then into the main area in front of the palace. The palace is built of a pale yellow limestone, and its architectural style is rather, well, heavy-handed: boxy, ponderous, very square and columnar. It was built to impress—and it does—but it does better at a distance than it does up close. In short, it isn’t a pretty place, and the best views available to you at Blenheim are found when you have your back to the palace and you’re looking out over the grounds designed by Capability Brown. The grounds—that literally stretch as far as the eye can see—are lovely. I especially liked the view across the lake, with sheep grazing at the foot of the Victory Column.
The inside is a different story. Unfortunately, this is Britain, and indoor photography is almost universally banned (otherwise, why would you buy picture postcards and guidebooks in the gift shops?), so I can’t share it with you. Suffice it to say that the palace is much more refined within than without.
The entrance hall rises a dizzying 65’ above you as you walk inside. Ornate moldings surround a ceiling painting reminiscent of Tiepolo’s work, and the broad marble staircase rises through a lovely mix of natural and artificial light, flanked by statues and busts. At Blenheim, the guides recommend taking in the downstairs and gardens first, before going upstairs. There’s also a guided tour, free of charge. We waited for the tour to start in an anteroom that tells much of the personal history of Winston Churchill and which includes several of his paintings (not bad, either). It’s very informative and interesting, so we spent a few minutes there while enough people gathered for the tour. The tour started, and the guide was knowledgeable and entertaining, able to fill us in on all the history of the family that still lives in this grand house. We stayed with the tour for the first few rooms, as he gave the history of the family’s rise, and of the various dukes and duchesses whose portraits hung in the reception hall (my personal favorite is Consuelo; how can you not fall for a dark-haired duchess named Consuelo, especially when she’s a Vanderbilt, and gets her portrait painted by John Singer-Sargent?), but we branched off once he got into the history of who gave whom a pair of hounds in gratitude for a set of Prussian porcelain (or was it the other way ‘round?)
The rooms on the ground floor are filled with both pieces of historic value and pieces that are just plain stunning, so both the historian and decorative arts aficionado in us were appeased. Placards describe the rooms and objects within, making the guided tour unnecessary. It’s a grand old house, but to be honest, the ground floor was the high point of our visit.
We stopped in at the café for a bite before taking in the gardens and the upper floor. Museum food is always overpriced and usually bad; Blenheim has the special distinction of having food that looks much better than it is. And that’s not my snobby palate talking. We bought two “Ploughman sandwiches: ham, Cheshire cheddar, rocket, and a spread of pickled onions on artisan whole grain bread,” a bag of crisps, and a piece of cake. The crisps were good, neither of us finished our sandwich, and the bland, dried-out cake was only finished because we were still hungry.
We’d taken a table outside alongside the water gardens, not because it was pretty, but because the inside was full, the cold breeze that swirled around the limestone walls driving in everyone who could find a place to sit. The water gardens are studded with copies of statues; including some we had just seen at the Louvre the previous week (e.g., the Venus de Milo). After tossing our sandwiches, we walked around the grounds. I really can’t imagine what the work of Capability Brown would have looked like when it was first completed—new trees, lawns just seeded—but after a couple hundred years, it’s amazing. He manages to create a landscape that is both manicured and natural-looking. The formal gardens, on the other hand—the water garden, the Italian garden—are where plants are gardened into submission. My wife likes the latter, I like the former; I’m sure she’d describe them a bit differently than I just have.
The Italian garden, however, is not open to the public. You can view it from over the top of the thick hedge, but that’s all. I don’t see the point in opening the grounds to the public, putting “The Italian Garden” on the visitors map, and then not letting the public view it, so I walked away from it a bit perturbed. More perturbing was the fact that you couldn’t walk all the way around the palace. At a certain point the fences and hedges walled you off, and in order to get back to the front entrance you had to completely re-circumnavigate the palace—not a small journey.
But the real disappointment came when we went to view the upper floor. We were asked to please wait in the ante-room for the tour to start, and frankly we expected something quite similar to what they had for us downstairs. Unfortunately, no; what the upstairs “tour” consists of is a series of rooms with automated doors to control the flow of visitors and, in each room, you are subjected to a collection of audio-visual/audio-animatronic performances designed to tell the story you’d just learned about downstairs, but with more cheese than we’d found on our ploughman sandwiches. If I’d been 11 years old, it might have held my interest. I suppose we could have pushed our way through all the automatic doors, but we kept hoping it would either get better or get more informative. At least in the last few rooms they put some usable chairs in among the bad replica furniture.
In the end, we were both disappointed. If it’d been less expensive, we would have been fine with it all. If we’d had a better idea of what was upstairs, we would have been fine with it all. Maybe even if the £4.50 sandwich had been a real treat, we would have been fine with it all. But put it all together as a package, and it’s too much for too little, and the upstairs had wasted over an hour’s time that we could have used in Oxford itself.
We left, footsore and petulant, walking back up the long, long drive. Since it was already 4PM, we decided to leave Oxford proper for another trip, and took the bus to the train to the tube to the bus, arriving home at “half-six” (aka 6:30), with just enough energy left to cook a quick meal, and plan our outings for the next day.