Three centuries ago a rivulet meandered through a marsh in a deep valley outside Woodstock, in Oxfordshire, England. The freshet’s name, the River Glyme, was much too grandiose for its reality: During late summer, it could be reduced to a trickle.
Royals still owned the land, but the old royal manor house lay in ruins. It would have been hard to see then how this deserted place could become a grand destination. The transformation took more than 50 years, repeated attempts, and humongous expense, but the results draw visitors along the entry road from around the world.
Changes began with a commoner, John Churchill, who led English forces to victory at Blenheim in Bavaria in 1704 and so many others over the French and their allies that Queen Anne awarded him the title Duke of Marlborough, granted him the lands around the Woodstock trickle, and opened the royal purse to fund a house there so grand it would become known as Blenheim Palace.
Another commoner, the brilliant and by then knighted Sir John Vanbrugh, designed the house. After 17 years had been spent building it, the royal money spigot was turned off, the Duke had died, Duchess Sarah had seen Vanbrugh off the premises (his last bills unpaid), and the resulting stone courtyards and building—topped by ferocious lions and plunging swords—covered a full 7 acres atop the far bank of the measly Glyme.Before his dismissal (and perhaps prompting it), Vanbrugh tried to overcome the irony of the puniest river announcing the grandest house in all of England by crossing the valley with a bridge massive enough to match the mansion’s scale. In his conception, the bridge would rise 25 meters from the marshes and include more than 30 rooms, with two towers and an arcade above the roadway. A dam down river would create a shallow lake around it.
During one visit, the Duchess was disappointed and dismissive. “All is without doors, is a chaos that turns one’s brains to think of it; and it will cost an immense sum to complete the causeway, and that ridiculous bridge in which I counted thirty-three rooms.”
Vanbrugh replied that the Duchess “could sit in the cool recesses of the rooms on a sweltering day and listen to the coaches rumbling over her head.”
The Duchess remained unconvinced, beheading the bridge, refusing to authorize the towers and arcade. The dam went unbuilt, too. Finally, at least, the old manor house and its hillock were razed to make a causeway to the bridge.
Duchess Sarah tackled the marshy chasm problem again, using a plan for canals drawn up by the late Duke’s chief engineer, one Colonel Armstrong. The three side-by-side canals passed through the bridge’s three arches when they were completed in the mid-1720s.
Thirty years later, when the Fourth Duke arrived as the first to live steadily in the house, he began redoing the by-then neglected grounds. The Glyme Canals had not solved the primary problem—the water still lay at the bottom of the valley, dwarfed by Vanbrugh’s massive bridge, cut off from the palace by bare, steep, deep embankments.
Horace Walpole complained after a summer visit in 1760 that “the bridge, like the beggars at the old Duchess’s gate, begs for a drop of water, and is refused.” To fix this and other problems, the Duke summoned the pre-eminent English landscape designer of the day, Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
Brown quickly tackled the problem and solved it, although it took years for the beauty of his solution to become apparent.
By the first winter (1763), tenant farmers had removed two earlier causeways that crossed the marshes, with one raised piece left to form an island, today topped by trees making it look like a a tall-sail ship.
Downstream, Brown directed construction of a major dam, which proved to be an engineering and aesthetic success.
Aesthetically, from upstream, planted woods hide it from the house so the lake it formed looks natural. From downstream, it appears to be a cascade, which tumbles from a height too great to be understood as a dam.
As for engineering, it took years, but the River Glyme slowly flooded the arches and rooms of Vanbrugh’s bridge, which then crossed a lake worthy of its scale. The lake’s sinuous shores rose to the shoulders of the valley that Brown had reshaped into gently sloping lawns. Brown was proud enough of his ever-broadening river-as-lake to declare that the “Thames will never forgive me.”
The lake also rose to the eye of those riding in carriages along Brown’s newly graded and aligned drives. The views of the new lake, the truncated, mostly submerged bridge, and the decades-old palace—shaped, screened and framed by the varied clumps of trees Brown carefully placed around the shore—generated variety and unity from essentially all viewpoints.
The result has proven not only to be Brown’s greatest surviving work, but something worth being labeled a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Another assessment came more than a century ago, when young Randolph Churchill, Sir Winston’s father, accompanied his new bride, the American Jennie Jerome, through the Woodstock Gate into Blenheim Park for the first time (in a carriage pulled not by horses, but by townspeople).
He motioned to the view across the now great lake and its island, sails unfurled, spanned by the not-inconsiderable remainder of Vanbrugh’s bridge to the massive palace beyond, and declared, “This is the finest view in England.”