Looking outside Blenheim palace

Two men were looking at the diminutive river trickling through a small valley. ‘What can we do about this marshy little river? It looks ridiculous against my new bridge!’ said one man (perhaps!). The massive bridge had a large central arch flanked by smaller ones. There were said to be 30 rooms in it. Its architect, John Vanbrugh, was so proud of his design that he thought it was ‘the finest bridge in Europe’. The river had been channelled into small streams through each arch. The effect was underwhelming. ‘Well’ said the other man (possibly!), ‘it has capabilities’. The first man was John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. The other was Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown. The water playing the bit part was the River Glyme in Blenheim Park.

Brown’s idea was to dam the river, flood the valley and create a huge lake. The lower stories of the bridge and the rooms in them were submerged. This scaled down the incongruous height and mass of the bridge. The result is regarded by many as the epitome of an English landscape. It is an outstanding feature of this World Heritage Site. Posterity does not record Vanbrugh’s reaction to the lower half of his fine bridge being drowned (fortunately?).

Capability Brown then landscaped the park round the house on the east side of the lake. But he knew that there was a limit even to his way of controlling and shaping nature. West of the lake is the area known as ‘High Park’. He left that area virtually untouched. Entrance to the park through the Combe Gate takes you into this woodland area that is a remarkable natural habitat. The importance of High Park as an ecological treasure equals Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace as a stunning architectural statement.

It was created as a royal hunting forest by King Henry I. Surviving records show that it was full of wildlife from the outset. There were deer (obviously), but other species such as foxes and badgers were plentiful and had to be culled (medieval Kings were like that!). Ancient chronicles mention that Henry I kept a menagerie of exotic animals in the park, including leopard and camels (none were seen the last time I walked round). But it still is rich in flora and fauna and is one of the most biodiverse areas in the UK. It is home to thousands of rare species, some so rare that they have no English name and are known only by their botanical Latin name.

Most of these species will not be seen in a casual walk through the park on permitted paths. But one notable feature can be seen – the ancient oaks. High Park is home to the highest number of ancient oaks in Europe. Some 90% of the trees there are oaks. At least 60 of them date back to the Middle Ages. A rolling programme of replanting is in progress with saplings grown by the forestry team using acorns from the existing trees. Thus, new plantings are direct descendants of the ancient stock allowing the legacy to continue for hundreds of years to come. White cattle have been introduced to graze the bracken and other undergrowth to allow the saplings to thrive (not as exciting as leopards, but more useful!).

If you only want to see history then by all means visit Blenheim Palace. But to encounter history, escape from the tourist masses and walk through High Park. You will be in the closest thing possible to a medieval forest.

Peter Wilkinson

April – May 2022