Our Travel Editor, Smitty
Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.
I flew into Heathrow this morning, parked at a rest stop somewhere up the M25 and slept off my jet lag. Then I drove on to Woodstock, just north of Oxford. It's a handsome town of limestone houses, and the whole place is tucked into a bend in the estate wall around Blenheim Palace. The local butcher's shop caught my eye. A chalkboard sign out front offered "braced dressed pheasant" and "wild duck dressed." There was a royal game pie in the window, made of venison, pheasant and ham, and a huntsman's pie of pork, turkey and apple stuffing. Inside, the clerk asked if I needed help. "Just looking," I said. "That's fine," he answered. "It's free today."
I headed over to Blenheim for an appointment with John Forster, education officer for the palace, who led me through an office door so narrow that only one of us could sidle by at a time. "This is the reality of Blenheim," he said. "Not the grandeur. This was formerly the butler's quarters." It was an octagonal little room in one of the towers, with an industrial wall-to-wall carpet, metal filing cabinets and a sheet of paper hanging from the mantle saying, "Useful Japanese Phrases."
"The thing about Japanese visitors isn't just the raw numbers," Forster said, "but spending power. They spend five times what other tourists spend. They're one of the most demanding groups in terms of customer satisfaction, and they just don't come back. So you want to get it right the first time. If you say, 'konnichi-wa,' which is 'good afternoon,' they are delighted."
This is, of course, the other reality at Blenheim these days: it's mostly about attracting busloads of tourists and festivalgoers, keeping them happy for a few hours, and sending them home with plenty of Blenheim tea towels, Blenheim bumper stickers, even Blenheim Frisbees. Forster was, without a doubt, happy to show me the faint remains of Akeman Street, a 2,000-year-old Roman road running through the estate. But he was delighted to point out a horse chestnut tree with not one but two brass plaques commemorating a concert given at Blenheim in 1983 by Barry Manilow. "That should read well in your American magazine," Forster remarked.
In Woodstock, I ate at a brasserie, said to have "very nice food," that uninspiring British endorsement. The chicken curry was predictably bland. I was happier around the corner at a pub (if you want a brasserie, hey, go to Paris) called The Star, where I ordered a pint of bitter and sat down to read a book about the royal hunting lodge at Woodstock. English kings have been coming to Woodstock to relax for more than 1,000 years. (Well, they didn't all get to relax. Elizabeth was imprisoned here by her sister Mary. But I was interested to read that her jailer at Blenheim was Sir Henry Bedingfeld, whose namesake and descendant I had lunch with in 1999, when I was researching my story on Burke's Peerage; history sometimes seems awfully close in England.) My dinner at The Star was a slow-smoked shoulder of lamb. The meat fell away from the bone, moist and tender under my fork, and a joint of meat seemed historically correct. I also dined at the two inns in town. The Bear was good, but uneven. The Feathers, which has two stars from Michelin, was excellent from start to finish. It was also expensive, and the food was served with the sort of artistic presentation that makes me wary—all stacked and spritzed with odd tungstenlike curlicues of who knows what. But every time I took a bite, it was bliss. I also stayed at The Feathers, and felt comfortable and well cared for.
When I wasn't at Blenheim, or in Woodstock, I spent my time visiting the villages on the perimeter of the estate. Back when Blenheim had a staff of 80 or more, the village of Combe is where many of them lived, in beige stone houses with lichenous slate roofs, and smoke whipping sideways off cream-colored chimney pots. The streets have names like Chatterpie Lane and Orchard Close. You are likely to run into a few weekenders from London with expensive prams and posh country duds. I also visited Bladon, where I found my way to the graves of that Blenheim fringe element: Winston Churchill with his wife, Clementine, and nearby, Consuelo Vanderbilt. Someone had placed fresh flowers at their graves. I had a sense that the elderly men and women stopping by to pay their respects could still hear Churchill's reassuring voice on the radio in their minds.