Blenheim Palace near Oxford is much touted as a 'stunning place to visit' and a 'must see location' for all tourists to the area, with visitors going out of their way to see the birthplace of Winston Churchill and the only palace in the country which is not owned by the royals. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the palace receives nearly one million visitors a year, is often used as a filming location and hosts countless weddings. With a ticket costing nearly £30 per person, is it worth spending the money to visit?
The short answer is no, absolutely not.
As a lover of and regular visitor to countless stately homes, I can categorically confirm that it is not worth £30 per person. I visited yesterday, in September 2021 - and really wish I had saved my money and time. Here's my reasons why...
1. The tickets are far too expensive.
The £30 per ticket only gives you entry to the major rooms on the ground floor - I think there were about 11 of them, one of which was completely boarded up. If you want to see the state bedrooms, you need to pay an extra £5 to go on a guided tour. If you want to see the servants quarters 'below stairs', you have to pay an extra £5 to go on a guided tour. So, an extra £10 to see what you would normally see in any other property as part of the main ticket price. £40 to see a stately home? The palace would have to be beyond incredible to pay that much, and it is not.
The palace says in response to Trip Advisor reviews which complain about the price, that it also includes entry to the Butterfly House and Pleasure Gardens. Well, all I can say is that as an adult who didn't take my kids, I had no interest in the Butterfly House or Pleasure Gardens. I went for the house and the history.
If you book the right tickets, they cover entrance for a year, so long as you queue up at a welcome station to get them converted to a printed pass. Assuming you will be near Blenheim again it may be worth doing, but the queues at the welcome station were so long that twice we tried, and twice we gave up.
2. The rooms you see as part of the tour are stately, but not amazing.
Some of the rooms are better than others, and obviously a lot of this is down to personal taste, but they are mostly shrouded in darkness anyway. They weren't to my taste - rather vast, echoing caverns or overstuffed smaller rooms which were pleasant enough, but there was nothing to take your breath away which you can often get in other stately homes.
Churchill's birth room was rather bland and nothing special. The Churchill Exhibition was quite well curated and staged, but it did seem to be clutching at straws a little with few artefacts and blurry photos of paintings. (If you want to see some decent Churchill artefacts, try the Churchill War Rooms in London instead.)
3. There is limited information about the history of the property or the objects within it
After you have queued to enter the house, which you must do even if you have pre-booked your ticket, you get given a a short talk from a guide who points out some of the features of the outside of the building. You then go through to the main hall and get given a short talk from a guide about the features inside the hall. These are only a couple of minutes each and tell you no more than you probably read in the first paragraph in Wikipedia before your visit.
Who knows though, as both guides were fully masked and therefore impossible to hear.
There were an awful lot of objects in the house that you just didn't have a clue what they were.
A few things had a little plaque telling you what it was, but otherwise there was a single information board in each room, which you had to queue to get to.
There would be the odd headless statue on display with absolutely no explanation of what it was, or an old army uniform underneath a picture of a young Winston - was it his uniform - who knows?
You could download an app to talk you through what was on display (assuming you can get a signal which many can't), but that does ruin the enjoyment for those of us who like to wander through a property with a friend pointing out the things we see, for those of us who don't carry headphones everywhere we go, or who would rather use our phones for photos instead.
4. As a visitor, you are secondary to any events such as a wedding which may be taking place on the day of your visit.
We visited on a Saturday, a common day for weddings, which was a mistake. The main hall had a glittery gold bar set up in it and countless stage lights and workmen setting up a sound system. Was this for a wedding or filming? We never found out as the guide, standing directly in front of the gold bar, didn't bother to tell us or to even casually apologise for our visit coinciding with the hall looking like a stage set.
The library, which could have been a fascinating room, was being set up for a wedding after the riff raff had gone home. We went round it at lunchtime, I believe the weddings don't start until 5pm, but already the library was filled with tables, stacks of chairs and scores of waiting staff all buzzing around. Forget taking a decent photo of the room, or seeing how it is meant to look, you are very much in the way and just need to hurry through.
5. There are barriers everywhere.
It's not just the low level ropes which you expect inside the bounty filled rooms, it is the fact that so much of the palace is off limits with key pad door locks on the doors, signs saying 'Private' everywhere, iron railings around the tiny Temple of Diana, the whole of the Italian Garden off limits so you can only peer at it over a thick hedge; my list could go on.
6. There is so much walking needed to get anywhere
You can't walk the whole way round the palace thanks to so much of it being off limits, so to get to all the places you want to see, particularly in the grounds, there is endless walking involved as you are forced to take the long way round to everywhere you want to go. Lots of visitor reviews mention this - even if you don't want to go to the far flung corners of the estate, you are still forced to walk great distances to get anywhere.
It doesn't help that you don't get given a paper map of the vast site, so it is very easy to get lost, spend ages walking in the wrong direction, or spend your time peering at your phone to see the map they have on their website.
With lots of 'Keep off the Grass' signs you are directed down long walks to get to a place you could cover in a far shorter distance. I will admit that in the end we did cut a few corners, yet we still walked 6 miles during our visit, and we barely even went in the grounds. For my friend who has problems with her feet, that was far too much and she was hobbling by the end of it.
8. No thought has been given to people who may want to take photos.
In these days of Instagram and sharing photos, visitors want to take pretty pictures of the places they visit. Blenheim does not give two hoots about this.
The potentially stunning view of the palace from the front? Large barriers covered in signs, directly in front of the black and gold wrought iron gates, telling people to 'stay safe' and 'keep their distance'. We're in the second year of the pandemic now - we know this. Its not as if people are allowed to walk through those gates anyway, so why have signage there, other than to ruin a good view?
The potentially impressive view of the back of the palace from the grounds? A huge white marquee attached to the back like a limpet, used as a changing area for the waiting staff for the wedding. Obviously in a house with a mere 187 rooms, there just isn't the space to house them somewhere inside.
The impressive and ornate Mausoleum in the chapel, built for the 1st Duke of Marlborough?
A huge set of bright blue ladders plonked right in front of it. No other signs of work going on in there, the chapel was utterly devoid of tools, paint pots or workers.
No, just a huge set of ladders in the way of your one view of the mausoleum - there were of course barriers to prevent you getting to the other side to be able to see it properly.
9. The prices of food and drink
There is a small van selling tea, coffee and cake on an upper terrace. £2.50 for a cup of tea. The cheapest cake was £3.25 for a slice of stodgy looking lemon drizzle, £4.25 for carrot cake, £6.50 for fruit cake. £10 for a small plastic glass of champagne, £60 for a bottle of champagne. I wasn't the only one standing in that queue with a look of horror on my face.
As we sipped our expensive hot drinks out of the provided single-use plastic cups, a duck wandered past our table looking for crumbs. "I wonder how much rent he has to pay to be here?" my friend muttered.
The café had cheese and egg rolls and bowls of soup. The fancy Orangery restaurant was closed to all except wedding guests. You are allowed picnics in the grounds, but good luck carrying a decent picnic with you for those walking distances.
10. The Grounds have been thoroughly commercialised
On the day of our visit, we unfortunately coincided with an Autumn Fair. The Walled Garden was filled with market stalls selling quality tat. The features were decorated with dead looking foliage and pumpkins. There were hay bales, loud speakers, swing ball sets and kids everywhere. All of this must be great for the locals who have an annual pass and who want something different for a day at the Palace. For those of us who have driven for 2 hours to get there, paid £30 for a one-off visit to see the palace for the first time? Not so much.
There is a butterfly house, play parks, a small train (50p a ride) and a maze. Great if you are taking kids, not really relevant for adults.
The grounds, landscaped by Capability Brown, have beautiful cedar trees and a truly vast lake.
They also have some 'art' at random intervals - a giant yellow metal bird cage which dominates and is meant to represent the plight of refugees, a stone leaf under a random tree for sale for a mere £1000, a bronze resin on a wall going for £1,500.
Although the wider grounds are filled with open grassland and mature trees, the area around the Palace is very beige, with formal gardens and vast swathes of paved areas. There is a lot of concrete, gravel and tarmac - it all seems very utilitarian, functional and unprepossessing.
The Italian Garden looked incredible, but as it is sunken and we were only allowed to look at it over a thick hedge, who knows?
It is worth mentioning here that you can access the wider grounds entirely for free as several public footpaths run through it. You can't get into the palace or Pleasure Gardens - you get your tickets checked at every step and turn here, but the footpaths will allow you into the parts of the beautiful Capability Brown landscape which have yet to be turned into an income stream.
All in all, if we had paid maybe £20 and been allowed to see the upstairs and below stairs as part of the price, we would have considered it respectable value for money. However, we felt like cash cows, just a way of the estate bringing in money, and an inconvenience getting in the way of the hundreds of people who seem to work there and the fancy weddings (having a wedding there can cost up to £35,000).
The Duke of Marlborough, a convicted criminal who currently owns the estate of 11,000 acres, worth £100 million, and which receives half a million pounds each year in farming subsidies, is not someone I am terribly keen to give my hard earned cash to, particularly with rooms closed, roped off or filled with wedding paraphernalia.
If you want an entertaining read, try the 1/2* reviews of the palace on Trip Advisor - not only does it sound like the palace have used the pandemic as an excuse to strip down their services but not their prices, but I really feel for the poor visitors of August 2021 who were accosted by humming and shrieking performance artists who chased them around the grounds and writhed around on the floor in front of them.
If you are in the area and want to see a stately home, try Highclere Castle in Newbury. It is not open all year round but when it is, not only does it have some incredible rooms and artefacts, but you are made to feel truly welcome - a treasured guest rather than an annoying source of cash.