The visitor to the gardens at Blenheim Palace, should look for four things. First, the surrounding park, surely ‘Capability’ Brown’s masterpiece. Second, the bridge, over which there has always been such controversy, and under which, at times, so little water. Third, the Edwardian terrace-garden, legacy of a Vanderbilt Duchess sixty years ago. Fourth? This is a feature of the gardens at Blenheim which all but the most knowing garden visitor might overlook – the spring woodland garden created in the last twenty years by the late Duke of Marlborough. Quite small, and all but lost in the vast pleasure grounds which surround it, this little garden is easily missed, but is one of the most delightful and human corners of the whole garden. Each of these four features will be dealt with in turn.
The story of Blenheim Palace itself is well known. How a grateful Queen Anne offered her victorious general – the first Duke of Marlborough – the royal domain of Woodstock; how she promised to build him a suitable palace there; how this, in course of time, was done by the most brilliant and talented architect of the day, Sir John Vanbrugh; how troubles followed, when the Marlboroughs fell from favour, and how, finally, the Duke himself had to complete his great house and gardens at his own expense. The story is in every guide book: our task is to describe the grounds and gardens, their construction and creation; and how they impress a visitor to Blenheim today.
The park at Blenheim, as previously mentioned, is often thought of as ‘Capability’ Brown’s finest work: his creation of the lake, by damming the meandering River Glyme, has been acclaimed by that great authority, Sacheverell Sitwell as the ‘one great argument for the landscape gardener -there is nothing finer in Europe’. The park itself is a thing of perpetual beauty, and is an example of Brown’s work at its best. It has been often said that the one great British contribution to art is the idea of the landscape garden. No foreign country, though they have tried, has ever succeeded in planting anything remotely similar. ‘They stand alone . . . green misty perspectives such as Claude painted, but his countrymen were quite incapable of planting; dreamy opalescent distances, sometimes peopled by deer, but more often by cows, for this is England, not Arcadia.’ The park at Blenheim is one of these inspired creations.
The second feature of the grounds at Blenheim, which it was suggested the visitor should examine, is Vanbrugh’s bridge, if only on account of the trouble it caused from its very inception. Vanbrugh had set his heart on an imposing bridge to act as approach to his brand new palace. But it had to be a bridge of some importance to be in keeping with the grandeur of the building.
Above: A new formal garden, with spectacular fountains, was laid out by the French garden architect Achille Duchene, for the ninth Duke, in 1925.
Unfortunately a bridge has to cross something – a valley, a ravine, or more usually a river. The land round the new palace was undulating – nothing more: and the River Glyme was only a sleepy, rush-bordered stream. But Vanbrugh had his way, and his bridge was built, and so large was it that it was possible to accommodate dwellings, each with several rooms, in its giant fabric. Frantic efforts were made, by canalization, to increase the flow of the inadequate Glyme, to give the bridge more water to span, but without success. It was not until 1764, long after the death of Blenheim’s first occupants, that ‘Capability’ came on the scene – and transformed it. He changed the Glyme, by damming, into a serpentine lake, which had all the appearance of a river. This was such a success that he joked that he doubted whether the Thames would ever forgive him. In the process, some of the built-in living rooms were flooded, but that could not be helped; and it is doubtful if the dwellings were ever meant for human habitation. That is the story of Vanbrugh’s bridge over Brown’s lake at Blenheim: one of the classic stories in the history of British landscape gardening.
The third feature of the gardens at Blenheim that takes and holds the eye of the visitor is the Baroque terraces lying to the west of the Palace, running down towards the lake. These were an addition to the garden made by the Ninth Duke, who married the beautiful and enormously rich Consuelo Vanderbilt. Vanbrugh, aided by Henry Wise, had created a formal garden at Blenheim which was one of the sights of England. ‘Capability’ Brown, with his passion for the natural look in gardens, swept them away. The Ninth Duke did his best, with the aid of a French garden architect, Achille Duchene, to put them back. And there they are today – not quite as Vanbrugh’s were, but elaborate and grandiose enough for any palace. It they have a slightly exotic and un-English look, they are none the less impressive for that. And with the parterres ablaze with bedded out plants in summer, and the black and gilded fountains playing, they make as brave a show as can be seen on this side of the Channel.
Before leaving the marvels of the terraces and park, before blinking, for the last time, at Vanbrugh’s jumbo bridge, the visitor must seek the fourth feature of the garden at Blenheim – the secret Spring Garden which was the late Duke’s special joy. It is in sharp, but perhaps comforting, contrast to Vanbrugh’s theatrical and massive architecture, Brown’s misty perspectives and Duchene’s stylish terraces. A little garden, hidden in the trees, it exhibits the ‘taste in gardening as understood in the twentieth century’. Winding paths lead between banks of small trees and shrubs, which though they are at their best in spring and early summer, show pleasing vistas ofand contrasting until the first frosts. Here are rare species hydrangeas, glaucous-leaved hostas, blue Tibetan poppies. And in specially prepared beds of acid soil (necessary in most parts of Oxfordshire), there are many-coloured and azaleas.
Such is the garden at Blenheim. And in this short account much has been left out: the Cascade in the park, devised by ‘Capability’ Brown in 1764; the Kitchen Garden, with its walls like the bastions of a fortress; the two mighty avenues, planted on military lines; the Great Avenue and the Mall; and one last but charming detail – an eighteenth-century sphinx on one of the terraces, which proudly carries a portrait head of the beautiful American wife of the Ninth Duke.
OPEN March 1st – October 31st: 11.30 a.m. – 5 p.m. LOCATION Off A34, 8 miles north of Oxford.