Blenheim is the triumphantly exhibitionist monument to the Battle of Blenheim (1704), the spectacular British defeat of Louis XIV’s army in southern Germany.
The palace was a gift from Queen Anne to the battle’s military commander, the first Duke of Marlborough, and when architect Sir John Vanbrugh came to design the building, his brief was to create something loud and proud.
Blenheim is not subtle: it is big and it is clever. So gigantic is the scale of the palace that, to visit is to spend a day feeling distinctly short – and also fairly slim.
The highlight of this English Baroque megabuilding is the approach – through Capability Brown-landscaped grounds, added in the 1760s – to the great colonnaded and finialled façade, its roofline crowded with stone-carved statues and trophies.
Once inside, The Great Hall, a cavernous space with a ceiling painted by Sir James Thornhill and stone carving by Grinling Gibbons, fulfills all expectations aroused by the exterior.
For the visitor arriving on a summer’s day, the real glory of Blenheim is the grounds. So, after a sharpish scoot around the interior, head outdoors again.
The formal gardens to the east and west of the palace are unbeatable. Don’t miss the water terraces, with spectacular fountains (a Bernini river god and a mermaid by Waldo Story).
These were the brainchild of the 9th Duke, created in the 1920s with the help of French landscape architect Achille Duchene: personal touches include lead sphinxes with the features of the Duke’s second Duchess.
The recently restored Secret Gardens, to the east of the South Lawns, offer a striking contrast, and the perfect place for peace and quiet. Here, Blenheim takes a break from grand vistas and formal terraces. Tiny paths wind between secluded ponds and streams, and benches and seats are arranged among the informal planting.
The weighty history of the palace should not deter families who need to divert young children. On the contrary, Blenheim has perfected the art of amusing every generation and, for youngsters, offers a maze, a butterfly house, a narrow-gauge railway and an adventure playground.
Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1PX; 0870 060 2080; www.blenheimpalace.com.
By car from London it takes about an hour-and-a-half. Eight miles north-west of Oxford on the Evesham Road (A44), Blenheim is signed from Junction 9 of the M40. By rail, trains depart regularly from Paddington to Oxford, from where there is a half-hourly bus service to Woodstock for Blenheim.
Blenheim is open daily. Admission to the palace, park and gardens is £16.50 for adults, £10 for children or £44 for a family.