Woodstock, 10 miles north of Oxford, is a town that, despite displaying all the outward signs of gentrification (interior design shops, delis and brasseries), still supports a butcher, fishmonger and barber. It is the kind of place where it does not do to gossip about friends to strangers. And the errant heir is considered a 'friend'.
They had only kind words at Dulcie's sweetshop on the High Street. 'You speak as you find. He's been coming in here since he was a little boy and he's one of the nicest people I know.'
And the drugs? 'It's not true. People are jealous of him, they just want to bring him down.'
A woman marches toward the palace carrying a shopping basket full of German sausage. Her association with Blenheim goes back 38 years, to when she was 16 and her father was a gardener at the palace. 'I want to take him in my arms and give him a cuddle,' she says. 'At the same time, I feel like putting him across my knee and smacking some sense into him. In any family, we've got our loves and hates. We're all human, not machines. From the time he was born, he has never had anyone there to share his feelings. We respect the duke, but we love Jamie.'
A traffic warden strides up. 'We all love him. He's wonderful and would do anything to help anybody, wouldn't he?'
She collars a passer-by. 'This man's from a newspaper, he wants to know about Jamie. Tell him how wonderful he is.'
Yes, they are talking (albeit anonymously) about Jamie Blandford, 37, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which he later used to shovel lorry-loads of cocaine up his nose. His progress through the last decade has been marked by 12 motoring offences, two prison sentences, one attempted burglary, one assault on a police officer, a drug habit that was costing him pounds 500 a week and mounting debts.
The world outside loved it. On his way to succeeding the lord of the manor, he had become, on the national stage at least, the village idiot: a Tim Nice-but-dim figure, but not so nice.
His decline continued this week with his unceremonious arrest after five days on the run, and brief imprisonment for failing to pay pounds 10,534 maintenance to his estranged wife, Becky. Hours earlier, he had boasted to the press that he was the 'new Lord Lucan'. It might have been funny, if it was not so sad.
Becky Blandford left her husband last year, saying she could no longer tolerate his 'increasingly erratic' behaviour. In fact, his antics were grimly predictable. He had long displayed all the survival instincts of a kamikaze pilot but, unlike those noble Japanese, he had no obvious cause to die for. 'I have always resented having my life mapped out for me. I don't really know what to do with my life,' he once admitted.
He described his drug-taking as an 'emotional prop' to help him get over a girlfriend. After the Princess of Wales's 'we all need hugs' speech last year, Blandford called the BBC's Good Morning programme to tell Anne Diamond and Nick Owen how his father's lack of affection toward him as a child had left 'an emotional scar'. He was also said to have been deeply affected by his parents' divorce when he was four.
There have been suggestions that the 11th Duke would like to disinherit his eldest son in favour of Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill, his son by his third and current wife. This, however, would require an Act of Parliament, since the palace, estate and title were a gift from the nation to the first Duke of Marlborough after beating the French at Blenheim in 1704. According to Debrett's, such an Act would never get through the Lords. Blandford's inheritance is in effect inalienable. Not surprisingly, he describes the prospect as 'rather wonderful'.
At the palace, some still recall a 'charming, good-natured little boy' but fear that the man he has become would be 'incapable' of running a business that turns over more than pounds 2m a year. 'Unworthy' is another word they use.
In truth, the magnificence of Blenheim would be enough to make the Sultan of Brunei feel unworthy. Everything is designed to impress: Capability Brown's lake and beechwoods, Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge, the Duchene-designed water terrace and the 134ft Column of Victory.
On entering the palace, you are guided through the Churchill exhibition, a tribute to the wartime leader, who was a nephew of the eighth duke. The corridors ooze achievement. You pad along the red carpet to Sir Winston's 'blood, sweat, toil and tears' from a loudspeaker.
At the mention of the current marquess's inheritance, the guide stiffens. 'Of course, we all know he's wholly unfit to take over,' she confides as the tour group move off. 'But they need a genuine reason for an Act of Parliament. I don't know how they're going to sort it out.'
'Sorting it out' might explain why the palace guidebook has not yet been updated to include Blandford's marriage in 1990 and the birth last year of his heir, George, the Earl of Sunderland.
Passing through the 100-piece Meissen Dresden collection, a gift to the third duke from the King of Poland in return for a pack of hounds (so that's where Jamie gets his knack for making deals), you proceed into the Green Drawing Room. A set of 'family' photographs stands on a table under an 18th-century French crystal chandelier. In the front row sits the current duke with Ronald Reagan, the duke with the Duke of Edinburgh, the duke with John and Norma Major, and the duke with the Princess of Wales. On row two, tucked away, are Jamie and Becky Blandford on their wedding day.
In fairness, there is not much room for family between the Italian marble, Chippendale and the Van Dycks. That is saved for the Private Apartments, where the Duke and Duchess live for part of the year. Lord Blandford is acknowledged, but only fleetingly. 'That's the marquess at his 21st,' says the guide, indicating a photograph on a table. Praise is reserved for Lord Edward. 'Helps his father with the estate, always in the office. Frightfully bright young man, about to go to Cambridge. Just back from Johannesburg, safely, thank goodness.'
Lord Edward is, of course, everything the marquess is not. He rowed for Eton, is sound, sensible and dependable. The perfect heir.
Displaying the kind of optimism that says England are in with a chance of winning back the Ashes, the loyal folk of Woodstock believe that, should he survive that long, the marquess will find salvation in his inheritance. If not, then no matter. As Gladstone observed in 1822: 'There was never a Churchill from John of Marlborough that had either morals or principles.'
Sandra Barwick appears on the front of the Weekend section.
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