We were leaving London today and heading northwest for a stay in the Cotswolds. There was some talk early in the planning stages of the trip of renting a few cars and driving ourselves around the sceptered isle. However, the whole everything-on-the-other-side aspect of traffic and steering wheels would have undoubtedly resulted in getting lost/separated, damaged vehicles and property, possible injuries, and harsh accusations of incompetence from local drivers and pedestrians. So we decided the safest bet was to rent a van that could transport the eleven of us and hire a local driver. Pricey as it may seem on the surface, we figured we were saving money on foreign lawsuits in the long run.
Our driver, Sebastian, sported a look best described as “Russian mob,” but seemed friendly enough as he loaded our approximately 11,000 pieces of luggage while dragging on his ever-present cigarette.
There were two sightseeing stops on the way, and the first one came after traveling west for less than an hour: Windsor Castle, which had been much in the news due to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle taking place there about four weeks previously.
Windsor is the largest occupied castle in the world, and the oldest in continual use. Like the Tower of London, Windsor Castle was begun by William the Conqueror in the late 1000s as one of a series of defensive forts ringing London and its environs. It was a wooden keep at first, replaced with stone by William’s immediate successors. The reign of Henry II (1154-89) saw extensive upgrades. Work was continued by Henry’s bumbling youngest son, King John, who holed up in Windsor Castle when his own nobles revolted against him. This resulted in him signing the Magna Carta in 1215, which, in theory, was the first set of limitations placed on monarchical power by a monarch’s subjects. (Future monarchs felt free to ignore it for the next several centuries.)
The reign of Edward III (1327-77), who was born at Windsor, saw the most notable expansions and improvements to Windsor Castle since its original construction, although it didn’t go smoothly. The Black Plague wiped out much of the labor force, and the series of dynastic conflicts known as the Hundred Years’ War diverted funds and manpower. The result, however, was impressive — Windsor became the largest and most comfortable of the royal residences, and was “the most expensive secular building project of the entire Middle Ages in England.”
Later in Windsor history, King George III went famously insane, as portrayed on stage and film, and spent the last twenty years of his life raving away deep within the castle, sporting a Howard Hughesian long white beard. Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert, died in the castle’s Blue Room in 1861, and the grieving royal widow insisted on the room being kept just as it was when he was alive, right down to the servants changing the linens and keeping the water pitcher full.
Windsor had become a popular royal “second residence” away from London for its heavy defenses when needed, its luxurious apartments, and its extensive grounds stretching through a beautiful woodland setting. The rambling expansiveness and general footprint of the castle was established at this point, but the towering battlements and turrets now visible for miles around date from extensive rebuilding during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The day was mostly clear, with a refreshingly crisp breeze blowing away memories of humid London. As we walked up the path toward the castle, we spotted the Queen’s royal standard fluttering above the Round Tower, meaning the monarch was in residence, although it was highly unlikely we would bump into her. Everyone knows about her preference for Windsor over Buckingham, and she was still lingering there a month after her grandson’s big wedding.
We made our way around the Round Tower to the north terrace and entrance to the State Apartments, which were open to the public, but no photography was allowed. The State Apartments are mostly Georgian/Victorian in origin, and were severely damaged in a 1992 fire. Most of the furniture and artwork was saved, but the rooms themselves required extensive restoration, which was mostly completed within a year. (One of Windsor’s most popular features, Queen Mary’s Doll House, was closed the day we were there, along with St. George’s Hall and Waterloo Chamber.)
The State Apartments are entered through the arched Grand Staircase, overlooked by a marble statue of George VI, the current monarch’s father and the stammering hero of The King’s Speech. The statue was flanked by an impressive collection of weapons and armor. The Grand Vestibule beyond is also kind of a military mini-museum. On display is the fatal bullet dug out of Admiral Nelson. (The coat it passed through is in the National Maritime Museum, remember?) We then passed through suites of rooms dedicated for the use of the king, and a separate suite for the queen.
Every room in the State Apartments has a different architectural style — Classical, Gothic, Rococo, etc. — although they are so lavishly wallpapered or damasked and hung with dozens of works of art I couldn’t really notice the differing details of the actual construction. As the name implies, these rooms were once living quarters, but living quarters designed for use during state business, so they retained an element of “publicness.” People were coming and going all the time, even in the “King’s Bedchamber.” (In the time of Henry VIII, visitors were warned against leaving their dirty dishes “upon the King’s bed, for fear of hurting the King’s rich counterpoints.”) The royal family’s truly private living quarters were — and still are — elsewhere in the castle.
We then headed down the path into the Lower Ward to St. George’s Chapel, the primary burial place for the royal family once Westminster Abbey was full to bursting. The late-Gothic chapel’s construction was begun in 1475, and completed in 1528. St. George is the patron saint of England, despite the fact that he was a third century Greek-born Roman soldier who never saw England (he spent much of his life in what is now Turkey), and he never certainly never slew a dragon (dragons aren’t real).
The interior is very reminiscent of Westminster Abbey, although on a much smaller scale. There is one stained glass window from the medieval era, the rest is Victorian. The wooden seats of the quire are English oak, originally felled in the nearby forest. The 75-foot high vaulted ceiling is lined with colorful heraldic banners. In the floor of the quire is the tomb of Henry VIII.
As his weight skyrocketed and his health declined, Henry VIII planned an elaborate exterior mausoleum for himself and his already-dead (of natural causes) favorite wife Jane Seymour on Windsor’s grounds. Once he expired, his remains were placed in a temporary vault in the floor of St. George’s Chapel. Since his overbearing regal presence was no longer around the crack the whip, no one was really motivated to complete (or even begin, really) the mausoleum, and the temporary vault became permanent. The vault was cracked open a hundred years later, and the body of executed Charles I — his head sewn back on — was plopped in the vault on top of Henry and Jane. A stillborn infant of Queen Anne was tossed in for good measure fifty years after that. The vault in the quire became a kind of macabre utility drawer.
Elsewhere in the chapel, you can pay your respects to George III, our old foe from the Revolution. He is also entombed in the floor, in a spot highly susceptible to Americans dancing a little patriotic jig. (A shame, really. Apart from the bad timing of being king in 1776, and the later mental illness, George III was one Britain’s more capable and sensible monarchs. He was laughed at behind his back by his courtiers for remaining faithful to his wife and not taking one or more mistresses.)
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are buried in a large mausoleum on the adjacent (and much more private) Frogmore Estate grounds.
The newest addition to the St. George’s interior is the George VI Memorial Chapel, completed in 1969 in honor of the king who had died seventeen years earlier. George VI’s remains were moved here, and he is buried alongside his wife, Elizabeth (the “Queen Mother” who died in 2002 at the age of 101), and his daughter, Princess Margaret. Space is reserved for the current queen and her consort, Prince Philip.
One of the most attractive features of Windsor Castle is the one that we didn’t have time to explore — the 5000 acres of Windsor Great Park to the south of the castle. Full of ancient oaks, deer, and rambling paths and creeks, this expanse of broadleaf woodland is connected to the castle by the Long Walk. The only interruption to the idyll is jets coming in for a landing at Heathrow Airport, which is practically in Windsor’s backyard.
We trooped back to the van and turned northwest through Oxfordshire, arriving in the hamlet of Woodstock in time for lunch. Lunch was at a 16th-century pub alongside the little River Glyme called The Black Prince.
Historically, the person who became known as the “Black Prince” was Prince Edward, eldest son of Edward III. His nickname is said to be based on the black armor he wore at the Battle of Crecy, but this has never been verified. He won several victories in the name of his aging father during the Hundred Years’ War, and it was generally assumed when he became king upon his father’s death, he would be among England’s greatest. Unfortunately, he predeceased his father by a year in 1376 (that damn dysentery!). The crown ultimately passed to the Black Prince’s ten-year-old son, Richard II, kicking off a politically disastrous era for England that lasted until the end of the following century.
The Black Prince pub had a chili dog on it menu, and remembering the lesson of yesterday, I ordered it without a second thought. No regrets. Cam sampled another traditional British dish, “bubble and squeak” — a fry-up of cabbage, onion, and potato — and he declared it a winner.
Just across the street from the pub was the entryway to our next stop — Blenheim Palace.
It is a difficult task to keep track of all the territorial and dynastic conflicts the British have involved themselves in as they built themselves into a world power, including one spat known as the “War of Jenkins’ Ear.” The War of Spanish Succession (1701-14) saw Britain throwing its lot in with the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch against the Spanish and — of course — the French. Britain never missed a chance to pick a fight with France. On August 13, 1704, in some random corner of Bavaria, the British won a glorious victory in the Battle of Blenheim.
The field commander that day was John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Ultimately one of the most capable generals in British history, to say Marlborough had some ups and downs is an understatement. Through the last couple of decades of the 1600s, he was by turns honey-tongued diplomat and aggressive soldier, close courtier with the ear of the monarch, and enemy of the state. By the early 1700s, fortune was again smiling on him, partly due to his wife’s close friendship with Queen Anne. When he scored his Blenheim victory (unimportant as it seems now in the grand scheme of things), he was lavished with royal gifts — including a pretty hefty chunk of cash and nice piece of property near Woodstock.
The Duke of Marlborough decided to build the grandest house he possibly could on the property, and certainly succeeded, often over the objections of his more frugal wife, Sarah. The Duke figured the money faucet would never be turned off, but the Duchess was more in touch with reality, especially after her falling out with the Queen. The exact nature of the relationship between Sarah Churchill and Queen Anne has always been the topic of speculation. Whatever it was, it was intense, and came to an abrupt end when Anne began favoring another woman, her cousin Abigail Masham. (Politics had a lot to do with it too — Sarah was an outspoken Whig, the political party that favored the elevation of Parliament over royal power.)
The English Baroque mansion took seventeen years to construct (1705-22), and ended up being one of the largest houses in England. It is the only non-royal, non-episcopal building entitled to be called a “palace.” It cost every penny the Duke had and more, and in keeping with tradition, the Duke died the same year it was completed. The Duke had no surviving sons. A special Act of Parliament had to be passed for the dukedom to pass to his daughter, Henrietta, and Blenheim Palace has remained the seat of the Dukes and Duchesses of Marlborough ever since. (Henrietta’s youngest sister, Mary, married the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who sold Montagu House to the British Museum as discussed back in Part 2. See how it all ties together?)
The trend of the British landed aristocracy bolstering their dwindling fortunes by marrying rich American heiresses is not just an invention of Downton Abbey. The lavish lifestyle at Blenheim was about to be severely curtailed in the late 1800s until the 9th Duke saved the day by marrying Consuelo Vanderbilt, who provided an infusion of American railroad money. So life could continue in its accustomed way, with the Dukes living a life of almost unimaginable ease. Supposedly, the 10th Duke went on a trip without his valet, and complained to his hosts at breakfast that his toothbrush was faulty — it refused to foam up. He had no idea his valet had been placing a dab of toothpaste on the brush before it was handed to him. I don’t know if the story is true, but it’s repeated often enough, and the 10th Duke did have a reputation for cheerful vacuousness. In 1950, the Marlborough fortunes were once again saved by opening the palace to public. Photography happily encouraged.
As one of the younger sons of the 7th Duke, Randolph Churchill would not inherit the title, but he also married an American, socialite Jennie Jerome. Not so much for her fortune (it was modest) but, as the story goes, he was dazzled by her beauty and charm. Their son, Winston, was born at Blenheim Palace on November 30, 1874.
Winston Churchill is one hundred years and four days older than me. I often chart my personal and professional progress alongside his. When Churchill was exactly my age, in September of 1918, he was serving as the British government’s Minister of Munitions. Of course, by 1918 he had also been: 1) a cavalry officer who participated in the last major horseback charge in military history in the Sudan, 2) a published novelist, 3) a war correspondent covering uprisings in India and the Spanish-American War, 4) a P.O.W. camp escapee in the Boer War, 5) an elected Member of Parliament, 6) President of the Board of Trade, 7) Home Secretary, 8) published historian, 9) First Lord of the Admiralty, and 10) a battalion colonel in the trenches of World War I. Plus some stuff I’m probably forgetting. So yeah, he has a few things on me so far, but there’s time to catch up.
Blenheim Palace sits on two thousand acres of landscaped parkland, laid out and designed by the aptly-named “Capability” Brown. To the west of the palace is a sculpted “water terrace” and a lake created by damming the River Glyme.
The south facade looks across a mile-long lawn toward the little village of Bladon. Bladon is home to St. Martin’s church, burial site of Winston Churchill.
The north facade opens onto a spacious (everything here is “spacious”) Great Court, beyond which are more green fields dotted with white sheep, the Grand Bridge crossing the lake, and far in the distance, Marlborough’s “Victory Column,” a 134-foot pillar topped with a statue of the Duke dressed as a Roman soldier. Blenheim Palace is still home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough and his family, who reside in the east wing.
The palace is frequently used as a filming location. You’ve seen it in the James Bond film Spectre, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, and the cinematic marvel that is King Ralph.
Visitors enter the palace through the north doors, and step into the Entry Hall. The distinctive black-and-white floor tiles and high ceilings are continued beyond the closed doors that lead to the Grand Salon, but we didn’t head straight there just yet.
The audio tour prompted us to head past the oil painting of the first Duke’s family, and begin our walk through the palace in the Green Drawing Room. From there, we passed through rooms of increasing size, importance, and visibility. Many of these rooms are decorated with the Marlborough Tapestries, a series of ornate, 14-foot-long woven wall hangings depicting various scenes from the Battle of Blenheim. After passing through this suite of state apartments, we reached the Grand Salon, where the Duke entertains important guests. By accident or by perverse screw-the-servants design, the kitchen is at the furthest point from the Grand Salon that you can possibly get. It takes the porters several minutes to transverse dozens of rooms with covered trays of hot food.
From there, you go through another set of rooms mirroring the first, ending up in the aptly-named Long Library. On one end of the library is a very flattering statue of an unrealistically slender Queen Anne, commissioned by Sarah Churchill after the queen’s death. All was forgiven, it seems. At the other end is the largest privately-owned pipe organ in Europe.
The audio tour narration for almost every room ended with descriptions of even grander designs intended by the first Duke “…but the Duchess felt it was too expensive.”
The palace tour concludes with a section of rooms off the Long Library dedicated entirely to the life of Winston Churchill. The room and bed in which he was born is part of the exhibit, as is a curly lock of three-year-old Winston’s hair framed just above the bed.
Back to the van. We were almost to our next destination, the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds is a region of pastures and rolling hills in south central England, roughly 25 miles across and 90 miles long, known for its picturesque villages made of Cotswold stone, and sheep. Lots of sheep. The term “wold” is Saxon for “wooded hill,” but the prefix “cots” is something of an etymological mystery. Most people believe it is derived from a Saxon proper name. “Cod’s Wooded Hills,” or something like that. The whole region was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1966.
We made a stop at the co-op in the village of Bourton-on-the-Water to load up on necessities. I made sure the cart had coffee, Jameson Irish whiskey and ginger ale, a case of our old standby, Peroni, and several pint bottles of various brands of ales.
The British aristocracy names things on a slightly different scale. Their huge mansions with hundreds of rooms were simply called “houses” (as in Montagu House, Somerset House, etc.) A “cottage” to them was not a humble, low-ceilinged woodcutter’s shack the way Americans reared on fairy tales would picture it, but a country retreat, smaller than the great houses, but very luxurious and still the size of a pretty large dwelling anywhere else. River Cottage, which we rented for the next few days, was a rambling, multi-level affair in the tiny village of Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire.
It is one of the largest dwellings in the central part of the village known as the Square, along the River Eye, and is actually a combination of four older structures, the oldest of which dates from the 1600s. As I opened the window in our room above what was once a garage (but now known as the “Annex”), I could hear the sound of horses’ hooves and the bleating of sheep carried on the slight breeze. Today was the summer solstice, and there was still hours and hours of daylight left.
A restaurant, Slaughters Country Inn, was just across the street, and we dined there that evening on the usual solid British fare. The steak was excellent.
The hectic pace we set in London was about to relax considerably.
A Note To Our British Friends About Ice:
Why do you hate it so much? Why are you against being refreshed by a really cold beverage? Is it some kind of stiff-upper-lip self-denial built into the national character? Or do you genuinely enjoy things as tepid as possible?
For awhile in London, it appeared as though things were changing. Instead of having to ask specifically for ice as American tourists had to do in times past, a cube or maybe two is now grudgingly included without asking. Then we got to River Cottage. Everyone was thirsty for gin-and-tonics and Jameson-and-gingers, which require a certain amount of ice. (Lots. “Lots” is the certain amount.)
The heart of River Cottage is its large and beautifully updated kitchen. Flagstone floors, a large center island, and a nice stainless steel fridge-and-freezer combo. The ice maker in the freezer was defiantly set to “off.” The few lonely cubes in the hopper were fused together and covered in fuzzy frost. No one had touched ice in this cottage in who knows how long! And when we finally turned it on, it produced about eight cubes every six hours. There were no separate ice trays. I took to freezing the water the nieces and nephew left behind in their little-kid cups in order to have enough to get by.
Ice is easy. Water, cold, and time. That’s the recipe. Indulge yourselves!