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Travel Flashback: The Full Blenheim Experience

Travel tip: If you have the opportunity to visit Blenheim Palace in England, when you walk through the front door, turn RIGHT. Let me explain:

To get a true feel for England, you have to spend some time in the countryside. Some years ago, I spent several days in Oxford (every bit as lovely as you would expect) and took day tours out into the surrounding Cotswolds’ villages, which are so charming you’ll be sipping tea with your pinky out and adding British words to your vocabulary by the end of the day. Smack dab amongst the adorable towns and thatched roof cottages is the largest private home in England: the redoubtable Blenheim Palace (no relation to the ginger ale).

Still lived in today by the current Duke of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace is famous for being the birthplace of Winston Churchill, and for being an incredibly tricked-out piece of real estate. The expansive grounds – picture lots of rolling green hills, ponds populated by swans, and tall stone columns known as “follies” (because yes, they’re silly) – are so large they actually succeed in making the massive house look small.

On the day I was there, I didn’t have much time to linger in the gardens, because I had to make sure I caught the last bus back to Oxford. When I walked through the front doors, a docent greeted me and said that I could go either left or right to start my self-guided tour. It didn’t appear to make any difference, so I went left, up the staircase. When I got to the top of the stairs, however, I was ushered into a small room with some other visitors and asked to wait there. As the doors closed behind me, I suddenly realized my mistake. “No no no,” I thought in a panic. “This is not where I want to be!

I had, you see, managed to walk straight into the “multi-media visitors’ experience” that Rick Steves’ guidebook had kindly described as “skippable.” But there was no way out: another set of doors automatically opened on the opposite wall, and I had no choice but to follow the group through the open doors. The “experience” involved a lot of animatronic people in period costumes, holograms, light and sound effects, and (if memory serves) at least one smoke machine. An animatronic maid (or was she a ghost? it wasn’t clear) guided us through the rooms and regaled us with the history of the palace, none of which I remember except that I’m pretty sure one of the Duke’s ancestors got electrocuted while experimenting with electricity.

Worse than skippable, the whole thing was 45 minutes long and left me little time to explore the rest of the palace. I did a quick turn through the public rooms and made it back to the bus station just in time.

Now, if animatronics are your thing (say, if you really love the “Tiki Room” at Disney World), by all means, go ahead and enjoy England’s version of “It’s a Small World.” But if animatronic creatures make you giggle uncontrollably and you prefer to explore grand old homes at your own pace (and with all the lights on), politely thank the docent at the front door and immediately turn right.

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