…and when I say “unloved amateur shambles” I am not referring to the building work going on! I am referring to the cringe-inducing “tours”, the appalling lack of organisation, the miserable staff and the general air of depression and lack of professionalism about the whole place.
This was Winston Churchill’s old family pad. This is a World Heritage Site. Those currently in charge ought to be horsewhipped.
The overwhelming impression I was left with at the end of the visit was that The 12th Duke of Marlborough does not like Her Majesty’s Great Unwashed visiting his house. This is, of course, his prerogative, but it is also a little bit unfair since H.M.’s G.U. actually only gets to drag their sack-cloth covered, disease-ridden bodies around half a dozen rooms at most, unless you count the vast “gift shoppe” full of awful ticky-tacky, and the army canteen “restaurant” effort.
The visitor, having been mugged for £49 entry (roughly $66.80 in what passes for foreign currency) and having then diced with death half a mile along a roadway that also carries two-way vehicle traffic, finds themselves first in the coach parking area (left hand down a bit, Doris, and don’t forget the handbrake). Not for the Public any grand entrance, it’s past the “information shack”, to the side and around the corner for you my lad, and then channelled inescapably through canteen and ticky-tacky shop (clatter, clatter, screech)..
Sadly, the visitor also then finds themselves out in a courtyard and utterly at a directional loss. No signs. No staff. No nothing.
When a chap guesses that maybe the house ought to be “roughly over there, perhaps through that archway” he also discovers that there are a couple of character-challenged young ladies, out in the open, checking tickets. It is then another guess (“that looks like the front door, over there, there must be a pathway to it somewhere around here that doesn’t involve gazelle-leaps up and down the levels of this courtyard”) whereupon there are yet another two young ladies who, once they’ve reached a convenient point in their conversation, will once more check your tickets – and bear in mind that all the visitor has seen at this stage is a road, a coach-park, a canteen, a gift shop, two other ladies checking tickets, an archway and a navigational puzzle.
Yes, it is that much fun, and it only got worse. Much worse.
Inside the grand entrance are many things. The grand hallway, for one. Doubtless once an impressive place it is now home to some sort of arrangement in the corner where a market trader appeared to be flogging old guide books. Most of the floor space is taken up by the contents of some paper-freak’s wardrobe (paper dresses? what’s that all about in the hallway?), and by a very ordinary-looking but fully-set dining table (huh? Blenheim Palace doesn’t have a dining room, they all eat in the hallway?). The hallway is also home to some sort of “meeter and greeter”. I half expected her to ask if we were there for the bride or the groom.
We arrived fairly early on in the day but this “meeter and greeter” was very obviously already bored beyond the confinement capacity of her Army corsets. Above the market-trader-esque din of the hallway we rather gathered that she was offering us the binary options of some sort of automated tour to the left, and some sort of human tour to the right. We fools, we ignorant, innocent fools, this was Churchill’s childhood home, we wanted to see it all! We would do both, but we turned left initially.
Jebus H fer cryin’ out loud, beam me up, Scottie and be quick about it.
Mrs Miserable-in-a-Kevlar-Corset indicated that we should get ourselves around a corner. There we met yet another young lady, checking tickets. She clicked one of those little clicky hand-counter gizmos and indicated that we ought to get our public backsides up the stairs to begin “the tour”. This young lady looked a little “lost to the world”, sad in the way that those young girls perennially on the sidelines of the hockey tournament always are, and I suspect that she had been given this task, out of sight, in the shadows, alone, because she’d once tried to be cheerful or something while on duty.
She was to be the last non-public human we were to see for the next forty-five excrutiating minutes. The Bro, myself and some poor benighted foreign chap went through the first door as it opened electrically (or possibly hydraulically, or by some scrofulous peasant in the cellars pulling on a system of ropes and pulleys).
I need to swear here in pithy Anglo-Saxon, but I shall instead simply roll my eyes and invoke ‘Dame Julie Andrews over the Alps on a pogo-stick’ and leave it at that.
Forty-five minutes captive, able to move “on” only when doors opened in front of us on some timer arrangement, forced through a series of amateur-built gloomy, dusty “displays” separated by chipboard partitions. No staff, no fire-escapes, no telephones, no escape – quite literally. Awful, awful, awful nonsense involving mannequins in bed, mannequins up scaffolding and some unknown bint (also a mannequin, back to the “audience”) giving a ten-minute tape-recorded monologue into a mirror. No idea what any of it was about, and none of us cared a jot – all three of us just wanted out. We wanted away, as much as anything, from the dreariest “commentary” seeping out of speakers in every “room”. The little “do it yourself history” computer displays on stands weren’t much help (or of much interest), half of them being crashed and stuck on a DOS c-prompt. Oooh, we all thought, this is so professional and well-done (not).
We had been reduced to tourist rats in a mechanised maze.
So impressed was I by this experience that I was moved, once back aboard the Cardinal, to contact the Fire Brigade to report the obvious, horrid lack of safety involved.
Not for my conscience the news reports of the death of six hundred Japanese tourists trapped in there next week, photographing the smoke and flames as they creep under the door, thinking it part of the “show” (and I use the term “show” so loosely that I might easily replace the letters “o” and the “w” with “i” and “t” without undue effect on the pith of my point)…
I emailed back and forth to [The Heritage Officer, name supplied, natch] BSc., MIFireE., FRSPH., Station Manager, Fire Protection & Business Support Team of the Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service Command Headquarters, Kidlington, Oxfordshire, OX5 2DU, who, working for a public service as he does, I am sure will not mind my reproducing his report here.
Dear Mr Hutson, I am happy that the palace is safe, I spoke at length with the Director of Operations and visited the said area.
The emergency provisions are adequate and members of the public are never at risk, but you would not know what they were until an emergency.
I am satisfied the standards are being met and therefore will close out this enquiry
Many thanks for your email,
Now, I am old-fashioned, and I rather think that fire (and medical emergency) safety ought to be obvious, and not something that only becomes apparent after an emergency has happened. However, I have every confidence in the chaps of the Fire Brigade, so I am reassured that eyes immeasurably superior to my own spotted the missing/hidden fire escapes, telephones and means of opening the automated doors while in a panic, disorientated, and in the dark once the power has already gone off and the smoke started to build.
We were not observed during the “tour”, we were not supervised or counted out when (finally, blessedly) released from the tour (forty-five minutes after being counted in) and, just to add that fly-poo speck on the cherry on the icing on the cake, the exit dumped us outside the building somewhere with, you guessed it – no signs to give us a clue where to go then.
Back around in vague exploratory directions it was then, back to the second of the two ladies (still in deep conversation) who once again checked our tickets (how many times is that so far?), and then up the outside front steps to Mrs “Bride or Groom?”, she of the “two tours” option, with her dining table in the hallway and some paper dresses.
Admittedly calling our intelligence and ability to learn from environmental stimulii into some serious question, we then volunteered for the “right hand” option tour. The term “Englishman” is synonynmous with the term “glutton for punishment”.
I remembered tours like this one from the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies, before the National Trust accepted that visitors were just humans, with human feelings and weaknesses. Move over here, stand there, leave a gap – LEAVE A GAP – can you hear me? What? CAN YOU HEAR ME? Yes, but I wish that I couldn’t… For all that I knew the “tour guide” might have been a sheep-herding Collie with a cassette tape recorder strapped to its back.
Half a dozen rooms at most, an after-thought display of Churchill goods and factoids stuffed into some little side-rooms and corridors, and then back out into the back of the outside beyond once again, still without any signs or clues in re how to return to putative civilisation.
Summoning the navigational spirit of dear cousin Dr Livingstone the Bro and I found our way back to the coach park and the “information shack”. Where, please, may we find our access to the world-famous Blenheim Palace gardens, with the statues and the fountains and the oy vey wotnot?
The directions were back through the canteen, past the ticky-tacky “gift shop” (gifts for people you hate?), through the first archway with the two young ladies who checked our tickets yet again, across the various levels of the front courtyard towards the scaffolding and the particle-board cladding to an unmarked little archway and corridor and, whoa, hey presto, never forget, wherever you go – there you are. Sir.
The lady in the “information shack” in the coach park was the most cheerful soul in the entire establishment. The only cheerful soul in the entire establishment. She was eating her lunch as I made my enquiry, some sort of pasty I think, and damned near choked to death on it. How I should have hated being responsible for the demise of the only person in Blenheim capable of laughing (well, laughing, coughing and simultaneously going blue in the face). With hindsight I ought to have waited until she’d finished pudding before approaching the “information shack” with my query.
Even the gardens are grudged to H.M. Public. The one way in is also the only way out. Yes, that is the entrance and exit, through that dark little boarded-up tunnel. The Italian Gardens, surely the most wondrously tasteless display of gold-leaf on a garden fountain that ever there was, were firmly closed to the public. The sign that advised that there was no other way out was, of course, at the far end of the gardens.
We chanced across little old ladies who had, by the look of them, come in to visit with a party of Girl Guides in nineteen twenty-seven, become separated and lost and lived their entire lives since wandering through Blenheim asking for help (or swift dispatch). Being gentlemen, the Bro and I dispatched a few of the more desperate lost souls, and informed a few others that the war with Germany was over.
The way truly out, out, out was also – yep – back through the canteen and past the “gift shoppe”. Is sir quite certain that he doesn’t want to purchase a lovely set of commemorative teaspoons, or perhaps some Highland Shortbread in a tin? A paperweight, perhaps, or a tea-towel bearing Prime Minister Churchill’s portrait?
The way back to our car was back up the roadway, again dodging two-way motor-traffic.
In summary? Well, in summary I would just like to say “So sorry” to Mr Churchill. Any and all enjoyment at Blenheim Palace (and there was much) came from within ourselves, from knowledge of in whose footsteps we were shuffling, from personal knowledge of what went on there.
Blenheim Palace, in my humble been there and seen it at length very recently (as of April 2018) opinion, is currently a dismal place to visit, unloved and utterly without spark.
This is good, since I also consider it (still) to be a fire (or medical emergency) death-trap, in the matter of that first “automated doors, gawd knows where you are, no cctv, no telephones, no staff” tour. I wouldn’t want to mix any spark, metaphorical, metaphysical or – heaven forfend – quite literal, with that prison-like “attraction”.
As well as the Fire Service I have, as you would expect, written to the folk who “run” Blenheim Palace, and offered my first-hand, £49-a-pop observations.
I offered my observations in considered, measured, helpful tones.
I have yet to be graced with a reply.
Can I recommend this World Heritage Site of Blenheim Palace? Well, it’s a phenomenal building with lovely gardens and history and Churchill-relevance by the bucketful. Just don’t take any of the tours or look to the staff to bring the place in any way alive for you. Give the canteen a miss, shut your eyes as you are forced through the ticky-tacky shop and don’t forget to pack a compass and your own map, the better to navigate with in the absence of any local organisation. Oh, and if you want to see the gardens, half of them are open and half of them are closed, and you’d better be good at orienteering (and long-distance hiking on nothing more than the sustenance of a £5 slice of factory-produced cake supplied frozen by Just Like Everywhere Else Catering Ltd.).
It pains me to say so, Mr Churchill, but until whatever snowflake that nominally “runs” Blenheim Palace gets their act together (or, which would be better, is fired), this is one World Heritage Site that ought to be stripped of its status as such.
Between us, the Bro and I had a lovely day there – lip-reading, taking the Mickey out of the awfulness, interacting with other lost souls seeking the gardens/the toilets/an escape route/or failing that, early death, and generally moving on with an embarrassed giggle from one low point to the next even lower point.
You find your fun where you can when the “management” provide none.