WOODSTOCK Oxfordshire England — Even at midafternoon in Northern latitudes night’s tentacles were beginning a slow embrace around opulent Blenheim Palace Sir Winston Churchill’s 300-year-old gargantuan birthplace.
Blenheim is a perfect day trip an hour by train from London to Oxford then the local bus to Woodstock. About 55000 tourists visit annually. www.blenheimpalace.com.
The palace was financially ”rescued” by Charles the ninth Duke of Marlborough’s 1892 arranged marriage to American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt.
After Consuelo’s 1921 divorce from him Charles married Gladys Deacon another American heiress whose fortune continued financing Blenheim’s exorbitant maintenance and restoration.
We had toured the museum chronicling Churchill’s extraordinary life viewed the palace’s elegant first floor rooms wandered beautiful themed gardens and lunched in the cheery caf.
”The sign says the front gate is locked at 2:30 but it’s locked early” my cousin Richard said screaming breathlessly. ”We can’t get to our bus stop.”
Through the narrow apertures of the massive iron gate the shelter for the bus to the train station loomed tantalizingly close but unreachable through 20-foot-plus high Blenheim stone walls.
Facing the long road back for help the World Heritage Site seemed a distant speck through quickening dark.
In late November there were scant visitors. It was getting colder by the minute. The wind strengthened seizing unfettered control across the capacious treeless lawn of the 2000 acre estate where we were mere ants.
As the veteran traveler among my cousin his wife Joyce and my husband I became uneasy about potential dangers of our plight. I began walking very fast ahead running down a ravine to the parking lot where headlights of a lone car appeared.
”We’re stranded inside. Could you please drive us out to the bus stop?”
The young man looked surprised at my entourage appearing over the hill but gallantly packed us in to the small cars typical in Europe.
”Were you going to the palace?”
”No. I live in Woodstock. I come to walk almost every night on the estate.”
Our eyes widened in alarm as he drove for at least 15 minutes making turn after turn down winding unlighted roads through woods. ”Wow This is several miles to the bus stop. We could have gotten lost.”
”Yes. When the main gate is closed.”
Stuart a friendly charmer who said he is an environmental consultant refused payment. We left money on the seat for him.
Our rescue paled in comparison to high drama unfolding during the centuries at Blenheim — political and personal intrigue making television’s ”Desperate Housewives” look tepid.
Yet Blenheim’s displays seem to detour the electrifying ”juicy stuff.” The second floor features animated historic figures of staff with recorded voices explaining their opinions and duties. I thought each playlet went on too long.
Except for the friendly caf workers many palace staffers seemed uninformed about amenities. At first no one could tell us times the small train ran around the property. After they voiced a schedule we discovered the train does not even run in winter months. Staffers suggested substituting a buggy ride. We learned that is not offered in winter either. Staffers generally seemed unenthusiastic burned out. Maybe regular job exchanges or retraining would regain vibrancy.
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