Monumental, it may be, but Blenheim Palace is a paradise for children too, writes Catherine Stebbings
Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Duke of Marlborough, is one of England's most imposing stately homes. The massive house was built by a grateful nation for John Churchill, who became a national hero and the 1st Duke after his defeat of the French at Blenheim, in Bavaria, in 1704.

It was also the birthplace of Winston Churchill - and although he never lived here he is buried in Bladon, on the edge of the estate.

The vast classical palace, with its sprawling symmetry, majestic colonnades and imposing Corinthian portico, is typical of the work of the architect and playwright, Sir John Vanbrugh. Blenheim is a fantastic display of 18th-century intellect, wit and pleasure.

The monumental mansion exudes grandeur, opulence and power, but its sheer size makes it uninhabitable.

Inside, Blenheim has it all: architectural details include work by Hawksmoor and Grinling Gibbons, murals and ceilings painted by Laguerre. Paintings include works by Rubens, Van Dyck and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and there are vast cabinets of Meissen and Sevres, and sculptures by Rysbrack, Epstein and Coysevox.

Outside, a number of formal gardens with fountains, ponds and neatly clipped hedges elegantly separate the house from "Capability" Brown's landscaped park.

An arboretum, including a rose garden, hides many rare and interesting species.

The former kitchen garden, now known as the Pleasure Gardens, offers many activities, particularly for younger visitors, including a butterfly house. The main attraction of this part of the palace complex, however, is the world's largest hedge maze, representing the history of the palace, known as the Marlborough Maze. Opened in 1991, it is now mature enough to puzzle even the most wily of visitors.

In the same area is a model of a local street, as well as putting greens, giant chess and draughts, and lots more for children wanting to let off steam.

The visitors

Keith Jenkins, social work team manager, and his wife Sara, teacher, took their daughter Hannah and her friend lmogen, both seven years old.

Sara: The house has an idyllic setting, with its immense park and large lake, and smaller formal gardens around the house. Although we shared the day with thousands of others it was not claustrophobic; there was just a wonderful feeling of space. Everything is beautifully kept and well organised. No litter, no mess, no queues and plenty of refreshment stops.

The children couldn't follow the guided tour in the house, partly because they were swamped by a large group of adults so they were unable to see or hear. So I took them off and we made our own way, dodging between groups, and the children enjoyed looking at the tapestries, furniture and paintings at their own pace. We must have been inside for at least an hour.

Keith: The tours around the palace were well organised and kept moving despite the large number of people. I enjoyed the tour very much; it was both entertaining and historically interesting. The guides took us from one room to the next giving a brief story of the palace, the Churchills and the family, looking at a few objects along the way. It was fascinating. I thought the library was particularly impressive.

Essentially you come here to see the palace, but there is lots more, which makes it a good family day. It didn't feel over-hyped like stately homes which are dependent on theme parks. Blenheim had a pleasant, unsophisticated, old-fashioned touch to it. It was a great way to combine education with a little bit of leisure.

Hannah: I really enjoyed the pleasure gardens where there was lots to do and see. I loved the maze, which was quite big and very difficult. I got lost a lot even though the hedges aren't that high. We also saw lots of pretty butterflies and plants in the butterfly house, and then we took the mini-train back to the house.

I loved going around the lake in the little boat. We saw masses of swans, a heron and a little grebe. It was a really good way to see the park, but we didn't go under the big bridge.

The house was interesting, too. In the room where Winston Churchill was born I saw a frame with his curls in it.

I liked the blue-and-white china and the huge tapestries on the wall - they were as big as a carpet and had really tiny stitches. We saw lots of clocks, furniture and statues - loads of things like that.

Imogen: I really enjoyed the park and the gardens - even though we were attacked by wasps on our picnic. The maze was great and they had lots to play on, like monkey bars, putting and giant chess.

But the adventure playground wasn't so good, because it was stuck behind a high wall.

I thought the house was quite interesting but there was so much gold everywhere that it was completely over the top. In the library there was a statue of Queen Anne made of marble, but it had so much carving on it that it looked like marzipan.

The deal

Blenheim Palace (01993 811091), Woodstock, Oxfordshire, is 10 miles north of Oxford on the A44 and is well signposted. Parking is free in the park close to the palace entrance.

Opening hours: Blenheim Palace is open daily, 10.30am-5.30pm, last admission 4.45pm, from mid-March to the end of October. The park is open daily, 9am-5pm. Dogs are not allowed into the palace or the palace gardens, but may go on a lead in the park.

Admission: palace and park: adults pounds 7.80, OAPs pounds 5.80, children aged 5-15 pounds 3.80. Family ticket (two adults, two children) pounds 20. This includes the tour around the house, the Churchill exhibition, boat ride, train rides and entrance to the herb garden, butterfly house as well as an adventure play-ground. Park only: adults pounds 3, children aged five to 15, pounds 1.50. Extras: Guided tours around private apartments from noon until 4pm: adults pounds 3.40, children pounds 1.70. Walled garden, which includes maze and children's games, pounds 1. Bouncy castle, 50p. Brochure, pounds 3.50.

Access: on foot on level ground, with lots of ramps for buggies and wheelchairs and a small train to take visitors from the house to the pleasure gardens.

Food: plenty of refreshment stops for drinks and ice-cream. Interesting lunches are served in the elegant Indian Room restaurant overlooking the water terraces: three courses pounds 14.50, two courses pounds 12.95. Lighter meals are offered at the adjoining cafeteria: baguettes pounds 2.80, veggie special pounds 2.90. There is also a cafe in the pleasure gardens for light meals and snacks. Picnicking is popular and there is plenty of space.

Shops: there are a good number of shops selling books, gifts and sweets. Souvenirs range from Blenheim fudge to golf balls carrying the Blenheim logo.

Toilets: clean, efficient and numerous.

Comments