Bladon and its Permanent Resident

Bladon is a Cotswold village, a few miles north of Oxford, roughly halfway between Woodstock to the north and Hanborough to the south. Hanborough provides its local railway station; Woodstock having lost its own, it has to make do with a reputation for being home to the magnificent Blenheim Palace. Blenheim – which for some curious reason is home to the Duke of Marlborough, whose theoretical seat is some 10 miles south of Swindon and in a different county – squats proudly amongst a few thousand acres of landscaped countryside and provides a green belt between Bladon and Woodstock.

Bladon is a sweet place with pub, bus stop and church. It is not to be confused with Blaydon, which is in the North of England near Newcastle-upon-Tyne and is the sort of place where they have races, people get injured and much raucous singing is engaged in.

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The church is a handsome structure, sitting slightly up the hill from the main road in its churchyard. (There is also a chapel, which at the time of writing is advertising an upcoming performance of the musical Cats to be staged at the end of October/ beginning of November 2014.) The original work here was built in the 11th or 12th century – the official history likes to be specific on these matters, but the precise origin is fairly irrelevant as the building, however old it happened to be at the time, was flattened in 1802 to make way for the current late Georgian structure.

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To be fair, this structure does have the odd nice little bit of detailing (as well as the weathercock on the tower and the fairly accurate clock):

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It is also home to a variety of graves of varying ages and legibility – this one, for example, did have something written on this side of it but not in a way which the combination of low winter sun, ivy, lichen and a century or so of erosion have made terribly readable:

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This set is more conventional, although the person who carved the pair on the centre right must be complimented for their ability to produce complementary works:

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This handsomely-carved pair of crosses, surrounded by a beautiful fence, turn out upon examination to be the resting place of two boys whose brief stay in this world came in the 1850s – one died aged 15½ months in 1858 and the other followed at the age of 10 months in 1859.

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On the 30th of January 1965, a train pulled up at Hanborough station and its passenger was removed. His lack of enthusiasm to alight on his own was less owing to a desire to proceed to Ascott-under-Wychwood and more because he had been dead for six days. He had arrived, fresh from his state funeral in London, behind the locomotive named after him to spend the remainder of time at the parish church local to where he was born – at Blenheim Palace.

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Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, who died 50 years ago today, was among other things Member of Parliament for Oldham, Manchester North West, Dundee, Epping and Woodford (not all at once). He held a wide variety of Government offices, variously being in charge of the Colonies, the Board of Trade, the Home Office, the Admiralty, the Duchy of Lancaster, Munitions, War, Air, the Exchequer, the House of Commons, Defence of the Realm and the workings of the county as a whole. During this time he went out on the street during riots to see what they looked like from the perspective of the law enforcement agencies and generally have an interesting evening, for which he was roundly condemned by political colleagues who did not wish to be obliged to go to look at riots, wars or the general progress of their policies themselves. His political opinions on various subjects, such as the possibility that the late Corporal Hitler was not merely the leader of a mildly disreputable fascist regime in a former failed state but also a megalomanical psychopathic murderer and one of the most evil people who ever lived, were frequently noted for proving to be broadly correct in general detail. This has obtained him much subsequent praise, particularly in historical tomes written by that noted 20th century historian Winston S. Churchill, but have been occasionally overshadowed by his periodic tendency to hyperbole (suggesting in 1945 that, if elected, the Labour Party would introduce their own version of Hitler’s Gestapo) and irregular disagreements with more iconic figures. For example, he regarded Mahatma Gandhi as a dangerous man bent on destroying the British establishment in India for his own ends and enquired during the 1943 Bengal Famine why it was that, if there was a famine, Gandhi had not died yet? Mr Gandhi reciprocated by encouraging his people to peacefully bow to Japanese invasion rather than help the British defend India, for which thought the British authorities had him imprisoned. While it is generally agreed that Sir Winston may have had a point on Hitler – and, indeed, the Japanese government of the time – it is not generally felt that this should necessarily translate into him having a point about Mr Gandhi, who lived to see India gain independence in 1947 before being assassinated in the ensuing fracas which, on a lower level and across a sub-continent divided on religious lines, occasionally flares up again today.

His political tenure was made more interesting by being in the governing party more often than the Conservative Party – which was a considerable achievement, seeing as about the only party in the world to spend more of the 20th Century in power than the Conservative Party was the Communist Party of Russia. (This is an intriguing statistic which should be considered by anyone pondering whether their policies and ideals will be better maintained long-term by a democracy or a dictatorship, given that the Communist Party is not likely to resume power in the near future whereas the Conservative Party is marking Churchill’s death by being in Government.) He achieved this by carefully-timed defections from the Tories to the Liberals, from there to a Constitution party of his own devising and thence back to the Tories. While other politicians remarked on how devious this was, he remarked on the “certain ingenuity” required to “re-rat”.

Churchill also wrote extensively, producing a historical magnum opus that his political opponent Clement Attlee suggested should be called Things in History that Interest Me. Amongst other things, it preferred not to dwell too much on social history or the Industrial Revolution, but is nonetheless a rather readable book. Churchill’s views on Attlee were expressed by remarks about “a modest man, with much to be modest about” and “an empty cab drew up outside No. 10, and Attlee got out” but he said this sort of thing about anyone given half a chance. He certainly managed (somehow) to share a Government with Attlee between 1940 and 1945; Attlee’s eventual loss of the 1951 election (on a constitutional technicality, as Attlee’s party got more votes than Churchill’s) should be seen in the context of 11 years of continuous high-stress government. Churchill ignored Attlee’s suggestion for a title of his book, did not get him to write the introduction and instead had it published between 1956 and 1958 in four volumes united beneath the title A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. (A 1970s subscription reissue made it up to seven larger and more complete volumes with additional content from other historians, plus a large picture of the original author in a garden chair.) People other than Attlee took occasional opportunity to say things about him, including the Australian Prime Minister who suggested (in better words) that Churchill never let the facts get in the way of a good speech and the British Field Marshal Alan Brooke who accused him of having “feet of clay” while simultaneously being the saviour of England. (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would, of course, have all been able to look after themselves in the event of Nazi invasion. Occasional sarcastic comment suggests that a Nazi invasion would in fact have fallen on an inability of anyone to make sense of a Southern Railway timetable, which would be essential to get from the popular invasion point of Pevensey Beach to the seat of power in London. The image of Hitler ending up in the bomb-ravaged ruins of Plymouth after getting on the wrong express train at Brighton is too good not to have been made into a film yet.)

Amongst Churchill’s other books was a volume about his ancestor, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, who won various battles for Queen Anne and whose father was, in a spirit of minor irony, called Sir Winston Churchill.

His role in the Second World War was divided between morale-boosting speeches about how bad things were (“blood, toil, tears and sweat”), other morale-boosting speeches about how great the troops were (“so much owed by so many to so few”) and creating military strategy. In December 1943, at the age of 69, he contracted pneumonia and spent much of the winter on his deathbed. Of the four hundred top secret documents leaked through the British Embassy at Ankara to the Germans in the latter half of the war, it was those pertaining to this period of his life that attracted the most interest from the Nazis. The other papers were of minimal interest, being expositions on how the Germans were going to be defeated next and what would happen to them at the end.

In the event he recovered; while his Party was defeated at both the 1945 and 1950 General Elections he returned in 1951 to lead the Tories through four more years of Government before he retired to the back benches. His last four years were notable for little, except various decisions of doubtful repute, the accession of Queen Elizabeth II (he was her first Prime Minister; he had also tried to keep her uncle on the throne) and the fact that his eventual departure allowed the much delayed launch of Anthony Eden as Prime Minister. Eden proved utterly unsuited to the role and spent the end of his two-year tenure in hiding.

Churchill stepped down from Parliament at the 1964 election and died within a few months. The state funeral was attended by more foreign dignitaries than any other. He was then despatched from the formal occasion to the little gathering in Bladon by means of Waterloo station. It was suggested that Waterloo was a personal preference – apart from any operation implications involved in “his” locomotive being a Southern Railway one – because it would really annoy General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French and by then President of France, to have to wave off Churchill from a station named after the adjacent bridge which is, of course, named after the battle where French ambitions to rule the world were suppressed by the Duke of Wellington and his Germanic allies.

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He is buried behind the church at Bladon in an area set aside for Spencer-Churchills, who have a certain fondness for box plants on graves. After his wife’s death the grave was remodelled to accommodate her. He is not to be confused with any other Winston Churchills, be they American authors or merely younger relations.

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Below the church, by the side of the main road, is the village war memorial. Churchill is of course not mentioned. Instead it provides a monument to the people whom he sent to fight and who did not return. Having fought as a soldier in the Second Boer War – with occasional bouts of curiosity about the Whole Point – he will have had some idea what they were being let in for.

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