Foreign invaders

Sunday was a Roman day.  We drove down the Fosse Way to the ruins of the Romano-British villa at Chedworth, where the villa built by a wealthy Brit fond of the Roman life-style built a home for himself 8 miles from the big Roman city of Corinium (now Cirencester.)  As it was a typical English summer’s day—occasional rain—it well illustrated the appeal of Roman architecture, where every important room has its hypocaust to heat the floor, and plenty of servants and firewood to keep the heater burning.  Since the dryer in the rented house considers damp clothes dry, my sister could well see the point.

The Romans ruled Britain—or anyway, England—for four hundred years, and stamped the land indelibly with their remarkably straight roads, their place names, and their dream of warm places and central heating (the last two were not to be realized until the 20th century put radiators and travel to Spain within reach of middle-class Brits—but clothes dryers?  Somewhat later.)

I have had two members of my immediate family stray from the Academic Way because of computers: years ago, my stepdaughter’s doctoral research into Anglo Saxon grave finds, which she was analyzing with the use of these newfangled machines, frittered away into the machines themselves, and she’s now in IT support instead of scraping mud from potsherds.  And my own daughter went from a brilliant Cold War proto-scholar into a person who spends her life bent over keyboards, for the benefit of her mother, among others.  Talk about brain drain!

And on Monday we went to visit the site of another kind of drain, where the Duke of Marlborough won a vital battle, was rewarded with a house, some land, and several miles of stone wall, which by the end of the 19th century had nothing to support it.  So Consuelo Vanderbilt joined the migration of American aristocratic ladies whose parents bought themselves a link to a genuine British title, and the ninth Duke of Marlborough could repair his roofs.

But the Vanderbilt money only lasted so long, and by the middle of the 20th century, Blenheim joined the noble houses whose owners had been taxed out of existence by the recent changes in the death taxes.  So like Longleat and others, they opened it up to the Great British Public, and yesterday Capability Brown’s gentle slopes were crawling with the populace out to celebrate the end of summer.  Blenheim holds a classic car show on the August bank holiday weekend, and we joined the great unwashed in gawping at the fancy furniture and trodding down the croquet-court perfection of the vast lawns.

Being a liberal verging on socialist myself—my reaction to Versailles was one of wonder that the peasants hadn’t just torched the place—I thought it a proper use of the riches, to return them to the people whose labors had generated them in the first place.



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  1. Sarah on September 1, 2009 at 4:53 am

    Sounds like a wonderful time! You have reminded me to Google “Death Taxes”, I know what they are, but not what they really are. I agree with your thoughts on Versailles.

  2. Jessara on September 1, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Is it Blenheim that has those astonishing tableaux of life in Victorian times? Mannequins dressed as Victorian servants, the tea service and the bathtub are engraved on my mind. I do remember seeing the grounds, but it was raining then so they didn’t stay in my memory. We did not traipse around; recently arrived in England, my daughter and I had to share one umbrella. I wish I were there; this time I’d look at the gardens. Really.

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