Our host families provided transportation for our last gathering at The Dragon School with their Music Director, John Madden. Before departing, we learned that John Madden has a dog named Tallis. Given the many references to Thomas Tallis on this tour, this seemed to be a God (dog spelled backwards!) moment.
The buses took us to nearby Blenheim Palace, the largest still lived-in home in England. With so many palaces and castles on tour, you might wonder about the difference between the two. A castle is essentially a fortress whose primary purpose is defense. A palace is all about showing status and grandeur. Blenheim Palace is a showcase of opulence with elaborately furnished rooms and a history of noteworthy events. Blenheim is home to a long line of dukes with the title of Duke of Marlborough. The first Duke of Marlborough was given land for the palace as recognition when he conquered the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Winston Churchill was born there on 11/30/1874 when his mother was visiting Blenheim as a house party guest. Winston Churchill’s cousin was the 9th Duke of Marlborough. The current owner of Blenheim Palace is the 11th Duke of Marlborough. The 11th Duke and his wife still live at Blenheim Palace, and their Standard flag is flown while they are in residence, as was the case during our visit.
We were given a generous block of time at Blenheim, so each person could choose to tour the Churchill Exhibition, State Rooms, Private Apartments, or gardens. The palace has Formal Gardens with an Italian Garden, a Rose Garden, a temple, and an Arboretum. Pleasure Gardens include a train that runs past a shrubbery Maze, the Butterfly House, a giant Chess Set, and a lake.
Our visit to Blenheim Palace had the women chaperones discussing flowers. For anyone interested in flowers, English gardens have a casual-but-elegant look that is among the prettiest on earth. While this was the peak week for lavender, we saw gorgeous blooming flowers of all colors and textures: white freesia, red poppies, sweet peas, verbena, Prince William, phlox, Allium, hollyhocks, rhododendron, Canterbury Bells, roses, and more roses. Besides appreciating the beautiful gardens, we’ve learned to be careful around plants here. Stinging nettles are a plant that will make you sorry you touched!
Our tour chaperones on lunch duty brought in a picnic lunch of Subway sandwiches to feed our group of 100+. This was a fun and casual meal on the grassy wooded grounds of Blenheim Palace, literally in the shadow of history.
Now raining, the buses took us to Cambridge, our second visit to a world-famous prestigious university. Illustrious alumni include Isaac Newton and Darwin. Cambridge is younger than Oxford by about 100 years, and smaller in having only 36 colleges. Each school is integrated with the corresponding town, and both were started as ecclesiastical schools during Medieval times. Both can boast stunning architecture, historical significance, quaint shops, and friendly people.
Using the buddy system, we had the afternoon to enjoy Cambridge in whatever direction we chose. It was a rainy afternoon, and the boats for punting on the River Cam were tied up securely. Many gift shops profited from our business, while some of us did a little sightseeing.
King’s College Chapel is the single most famous building in Cambridge. Built from 1446 to 1515 by King Henry VI through VIII, this is a superb example of Perpendicular Gothic style. There is an enormous single span of vaulted roof, and the interior ceiling is positively ethereal. There are 25 precious stained glass windows from the 16th century, and these were carefully removed for safety during World War II, then painstakingly replaced.
St. John’s College was another worthwhile stop. The college has several beautiful courts and gardens, and a choir was rehearsing at the college chapel. A film crew was busy working on a documentary of Stephen Hawkings at the Bridge of Sighs. He is a world-famous physicist who held a prestigious mathematics position at Cambridge and is something of an academic celebrity.
In walking down King’s Parade, a main street in Cambridge, our group passed The Corpus Clock, a huge gold-plated clock that was designed by none other than Stephen Hawkings. The massive shiny clock catches your eye because it has a mythical-looking grasshopper sitting on top, in theory devouring seconds as they pass. The clock is a distinct work of art for the public and was officially unveiled in 2008.
The rain continued on and off, which prompted many of us to seek out one last cup of tea with scones on this final tourist day of the trip. By now we were regularly drinking tea the British way, with milk and sugar. The scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam were delightful!
All too soon we were rolling on the buses for our destination of Potton where The Amici Singers are based. Between Cambridge and Potton, we actually drove through a stream with the sign “Ford” posted. Upon finding the road closed ahead due to an accident, the buses turned around and we forded the stream once again with great excitement as a photo opportunity. We wondered how a Smart Car would handle the stream. We’ve seen many more of these in England than we have in the US, usually 2-door but some 4-door, and all are teeny, tiny cartoon-looking cars that look like toys.
We arrived at The Oaks restaurant and were paired up with our hosts from The Amici Singers, a female community choral group that has performed internationally. Under the direction of talented Douglas Coombes, they have been to Damascus, Maryland twice. They visited DUMC as recently as Easter Holy Week of 2011! Sitting with our new hosts, we shared stories over a buffet dinner at the restaurant. Dishes included roast beef sandwiches, quiche, mini-pasties, egg salad sandwiches, pizza, and Scotch eggs. We happily went home with them to meet their families (including pets!) and savor one last night of community in England.