London, 12 May 2014

When I studied history in primary school, it was still taught the old way, by rote. So one learned royal genealogies by heart (“William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I, Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, John Lackland”, etc.) as well as names of battles and the year they were fought (“Battle of Hastings 1066, Battle of Bannockburn 1314, Battle of Crecy 1346, Battle of Agincourt 1415, Battle of Naseby 1645, Battle of Culloden 1746” etc.). It was all very 1066 And All That, which is why I so dote on that book. One especially tricky set of battles to remember were those won by the Glorious Duke of Marlborough, who really stuck it in the eye of the French King, rah-rah (it was especially trying to be half French in these moments of our history classes when the Brits were triumphing over the French). For those of my readers who might have forgotten these battles (or much more probably have never heard of them), we are talking about the Battles of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenaarde, and Malplaquet, fought in the years 1704, 1706, 1708, and 1709. To help us remember the names of these battles and their dates, our history teacher taught us an ingenious mnemonic in the form of a telephone number: BROM-4689 (only British readers as old as me will remember that there was a time when UK telephone numbers were a mix of letters and numbers). So now, for the rest of my life I will remember the dates of these four battles, glorious victories for the British, rah-rah. A quick whip through the internet shows me that my history teacher wasn’t the only one who used this mnemonic, which has somewhat deflated the admiration I have had for him all these years.

If I am recounting this old story, it is to explain the emotion which I felt when my wife and I visited Blenheim Palace a few days ago. After all those years of having BROM-4689 uselessly rattling around my brain, I could finally see a concrete output of at least one of these battles, the Battle of Blenheim.  For the Duke of Marlborough was given a modest manor and its grounds by a grateful Queen and a promise of funds from “the nation” (i.e., the taxpayer) to knock down the manor and build a grand new home and garden, worthy of the victor of the glorious Battle of Blenheim, rah-rah. In the event, the Duke and Duchess (because she was heavily involved) got little if any funds from the “grateful nation” and the Duke paid for most of the works from his own pocket. The story of the building’s construction is worthy of an opera, but I will skip over that to focus on the end result, here seen in all its glory from the air




To be honest, I think it’s really only from the air that one can appreciate this ducal pile. My wife and I found that from ground level it’s all rather overpowering. Here’s a shot of the front taken by another visitor. Note the size of the persons compared to the building.

We visited the inside, looking respectfully at all the nice things displayed – the portraits of worthy grandees, the tapestries, the long library with its organ, the expensive baubles scattered over various surfaces – but all the time my wife and I kept saying to each other “how did the Dukes keep this place warm and lit?” The bills for the upkeep must have been staggering. And in fact the current Duke has had to do all sorts of things (add a little train, build a butterfly house and a maze) to attract the tourists and get their entry fee. And you can get married there – for a fee. Etc., etc.

What really caught me was the garden. It would, of course. It was designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. I love his style, which is so very naturalistic. He creates these undulating fields of grass which sweep up to the house. He scatters clumps or belts of trees, or even individual trees, over these fields. He will often create lakes by invisibly damming small rivers or streams running through the property. His garden at Blenheim Palace has all of these. This is a modern photo


But I prefer this old painting


For me, Capability Brown’s gardens are the quintessence of the English garden, preferable by far to the strict and sterile geometry of a French garden, of which Blenheim Palace also has an example.


By one of those strange twists of Fate which one’s life is filled with, I had first come across Capability Brown at the same time that I was learning BROM-4689. My grandmother had come down for the weekend to visit me in my primary school and she took me to visit Longleat House, another of those stately homes which dot the English countryside, this time belonging to the Marquesses of Bath.


As required by the fashion of the times, Longleat had boasted of a very large, formal French garden


but luckily good sense had prevailed and the 1st Marquess of Bath (they had been mere Viscounts before that …) had hired Capability Brown to replace the formal gardens with one of his creations.


See how Brown’s work fits seamlessly into Britain’s natural landscape.


Of course, the Marquesses of Bath have been under the same financial pressure as the Dukes of Marlborough. At Longleat, the Marquesses have adopted the same kind of tourist attractions as the Dukes at Blenheim: little trains, mazes, weddings, and so on. But the Marquesses went one step further and created one of the first Safari Parks in the UK in the grounds of Longleat. So in Capability Brown’s landscape we now find lions, giraffes, zebras, and more.


How fallen are the mighty. But what to do, even Dukes and Marquesses (finally) have to make a living like everyone else.


Blenheim Palace aerial view-1: (in
Blenheim Palace aerial view-2: (in
Blenheim Palace aerial view-3: (in
Blenheim Palace front door:×480.jpg (in
Blenheim Palace-gardens-modern photo: (in
Blenheim Palace-gardens-old painting: (in
Blenheim Palace-formal gardens: (in
Longleat House: (in
Longleat old French gardens: (in
Longleat gardens: (in
Longleat aerial view: (in
Rhinos at Longleat:×401.jpg (in

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg

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