‘We hope we succeeded in restoring some of the magic,’ says Charles James Spencer-Churchill, styled Earl of Sunderland until 1972, Marquess of Blandford until 2014 and now the 12th Duke of Marlborough. The duke – or Jamie, as he announces himself when he telephones my landline – is talking about the wildflower meadow at his 12,000-acre estate, but five minutes into our conversation, he asks: ‘Are you watching the television?’ I’m not, but I frantically reach for the remote, wondering what breaking news I’m missing. ‘There I am with Trump,’ the duke says matter-of-factly.
Indeed he is. The BBC is playing footage of the balmy summer evening in July 2018 when Jamie welcomed President Trump and the First Lady to his family seat, Blenheim Palace, for a dinner hosted by the then prime minister, Theresa May. (May did the seating plan: Jamie on her right and his wife, Edla, next to Trump.) It’s a surreal scene: the president’s stretch limousine – ‘The Beast’ – roaring over the horizon towards the palace courtyard, much to car-loving Jamie’s delight, while guardsmen march in full regalia and a piper plays Amazing Grace. British pomp and ceremony at its best. ‘Before dinner, Trump wanted to look at the Churchill exhibition,’ says Jamie. Secret Servicemen looked on in terror as the president tinkered with Churchill’s Boer War pistols.
There’s a historical as well as a horticultural significance to the 2,400 acres of gardens and park-lands at Jamie’s ancestral home. Created over three centuries by revered garden designers including Henry Wise and Achille Duchêne, the formal gardens include water terraces, the duke’s private Italian garden, the tranquil secret garden, a rose garden and a memorial garden for Churchill, who was born, baptised and betrothed at Blenheim, where he spent his youth exploring the vast grounds. ‘When he left the trenches of the First World War in 1916, the first thing he wanted to do was come to Blenheim Palace to paint and be inspired,’ says Jamie.
He is a charming raconteur and rattles off stories of royalty, rock stars and the ruling elite without pausing for breath. One thing becomes quickly apparent: this duke is happiest when he is working with long-standing, trusted friends. And now, in charge of the only non-royal palace in the country, a Unesco World Heritage Site that is larger than both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, he is enjoying himself, sowing the seeds for a bountiful future at Blenheim.
The wildflower meadow is just one example. In June 2013, the Prince of Wales invited Jamie and other meadow owners from across the UK to Highgrove to celebrate the launch of his idea to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. ‘The idea of the Coronation Meadows initiative was a simple one: to find the best surviving meadow in each county and use seed from that meadow to create a new one,’ the prince explained. So began a new chapter for the majestic gardens at Blenheim. Royal photographer Hugo Rittson Thomas has captured the picturesque results of this project in Wildflowers for the Queen, a new book produced in collaboration with conservation charity Plantlife, of which the Prince of Wales is patron. ‘This book not only brings their diverse beauty to life, but, remarkably, does them justice,’ the prince notes in the foreword.
It is a feeling echoed by Jamie, who is also quoted in the book: ‘The meadows have become home to bees, butterflies and various other wildlife. The park is home to hidden treasures of all kinds and it is a great source of inspiration, enjoyed for its beauty and peace.’
Justly proud, the Duke of Marlborough is bringing colour and character to Blenheim Palace once more.
Wildflowers for the Queen: A Visual Celebration of Britain’s Coronation Meadows by Hugo Rittson Thomas is available to purchase now (Wildflower Press, £50). All profits go to Plantlife
This was originally published in the May issue.
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