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Lifestyles

You've heard of Kensington Palace. You should have heard of Blenheim Palace.

Posted July 1, 2018 6:06 p.m. EDT

WOODSTOCK, England

Even if you're no lover of the monarchy, Britain's palaces are hard to resist.

There's Buckingham Palace, where a recent changing of the guard featured a regimental band cheekily playing Our House. And there's Kensington Palace, home to legions of the queen's relatives and a splendid collection of Princess Diana's dresses and gowns.

In my book, though, nothing tops Blenheim Palace, birthplace of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, home to the Dukes of Marlborough and since 1987, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This magnificent 18th century manor near Oxford is one of England's largest houses and has perhaps the most beautiful grounds and gardens in a country known for both. Curiously, though, even some Brits, especially younger ones, have never heard of it. That might be because it's a bit hard to get to, although it's just 60 miles from London and well worth a day trip.

Express buses to Oxford regularly run from central London, but on a Saturday morning in late May we opted for the train from Paddington Station. Joining me were my granddaughter and her best friend, both recent high school grads and still fans of the Paddington books and movies.

Initially, going by rail seemed a mistake. The first train was canceled and the second so crowded the doors could barely close. The third was standing room only, too, but with a change of trains in Reading we made it to Oxford in about an hour.

At an information booth in the train station, we bought discounted tickets to Blenheim for 22 pounds apiece (about $25). That included fare on the bus to Blenheim, which we caught just outside the station.

Home to the one of the world's oldest universities, Oxford has become a major tourist attraction. The town was mobbed as the bus slowly made its way through the narrow streets but gradually the souvenir shops and suburban car dealerships disappeared as we headed into the country.

Forty minutes later, the bus deposited us across the street from a long, straight drive. Far at the end sat Blenheim Palace.

Built in the early 1700s, the palace was the nation's reward to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, for his military triumphs including at the 1704 Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria. There were battles over the place itself due to its enormous size, cost and flamboyant baroque style, which the original Duchess of Marlborough disliked. (She had wanted a different architect, Sir Christopher Wren of St. Paul's Cathedral fame.)

Still, the palace has remained home to the Churchill and then Spencer-Churchill families for more than 300 years. At one point, it was saved from financial ruin when the ninth Duke of Marlborough married a member of America's wealthy Vanderbilt clan.

The day was glorious, sunny with a soft, cool breeze, so we didn't mind the 10-minute walk to the entrance. Hungry by the time we got there, we headed across the vast courtyard to the Water Terrace Cafe.

Is there a prettier place in England? I wondered as we had lunch overlooking a formal garden with reflecting pools and immaculately pruned hedges. Beyond that: a lovely lake and 2,000 acres of rolling green countryside.

The girls took selfies with a stone sphinx, whose head was modeled after an early Duchess of Marlborough. Then we started down the lakeside path. It wound past the spot where Churchill proposed to his wife, Clementine, and highlighted milestones in his long career with plaques set into the earthen path.

Everywhere we looked the views were Instagram-worthy. Lilacs and daisies dancing in the tall grasses. Ducks and ducklings waddling toward water's edge. Jasmine dripping off an arbor and roses of coral, pink and scarlet in full bloom.

The path curved toward a wooden bridge and small waterfall, where we took more pictures, and then led past an old Tudor-style boathouse. A floating platform in the lake suggested that members of the Spencer-Churchill family still swim there.

Our stroll finished, we entered the monumental palace. Only a few of its 187 rooms are open to the public, and several of those had been stripped of their furniture because of recent filming for the movie The Voyage of Doctor Doolittle, due out next year with Robert Downey Jr. in the title role. Blenheim has appeared in many movies, including Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

The absence of furniture drew more attention to the rooms' spectacular painted ceilings, soaring 25 feet high, and centuries-old tapestries. The public tour ends in the library, the length of a football field. It contains thousands of leather-bound volumes, family photographs and an exhibit on Churchill, who served as prime minister during World War II and again in the 1950s.

Among the highlights: the bed in which Churchill was born in 1874 and the tiny gown he first wore. His American mother, the stunningly beautiful Jennie Churchill, went into early labor while visiting Blenheim and had to borrow clothes from a groundskeeper's family. Marking the other end of Churchill's remarkable life is actual black and white TV footage of his state funeral in 1965.

We still hadn't seen the hedge maze or the butterfly house. But it was getting late, so after a quick pass through the gift shop, it was time to head to the bus (a shuttle spared us the long walk) and on to the train station. The train wasn't as crowded on the return trip so it was nice to sit down and gaze at the sun-dappled countryside as we sped past.

In suggesting a visit to Blenheim, I had wondered if two teenage American girls would appreciate its history and setting. Not to worry -- it turned out to be their favorite part of the trip. Almost. It did tie with the London Eye, the decidedly unhistoric giant Ferris wheel.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

Savings tips

Having gone to school and worked in London, which you can now reach directly from Tampa International Airport on Norwegian, I know how expensive the city can be. And even though the pound has weakened since the 2016 Brexit vote, you can still spend big. Here are some tips:

Do not exchange money at a British airport

Whether you're going into London by train or taxi, pay with a credit card (be sure to let the card company know you're traveling) and change your money in the city. I recently got 52 pounds for $100 at Gatwick Airport but 72 pounds at an exchange store near Harrod's -- a $25 difference.

Buy an Oyster card

It can be used for travel by tube or bus, available at any London Underground station. We each put 20 pounds on our cards, which lasted us five days. Another nice thing about the card, named after the Shakespearean line "all the world's an oyster,'' is that you can get a refund at any tube station for the unused amount.

Check out the museums

Many of London's best museums are free including the British Museum, the Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. The latter three are close to each other in South Kensington.

Grab-and-go meals

For lunch or even the occasional hotel-room dinner, the Pret a Manger chain offers a great line of inexpensive prepared sandwiches. (I loved the prosciutto with avocado, tomato and mozzarella). Marks & Spencer food halls also have sandwiches plus grab-and-go fresh fruit cups and salads.

HAVE A HIGH TEA BUT NOT TOO HIGH

What's a trip to England without a traditional English high tea? Prices, though, vary wildly, with posh spots like Fortnum & Mason charging 57 pounds or more per person. We had a perfectly lovely tea with finger sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and little cakes for 25 pounds per person at a restaurant near our South Kensington hotel.