THE crown jewel in Oxfordshire’s glittering crown, Blenheim Palace is justifiably Oxfordshire’s leading heritage attraction.

John Vanbrugh’s masterpiece of English Baroque architecture, which sits at the heart of Capability Brown’s sweeping park, is an imposing site which can’t help but raise the soul.

Exploring this most stately of piles and its acres of lawns, meadow, woodland, lakes and formal gardens is an endless pleasure but can leave one peckish. And there is no more satisfying way of filling up than to take afternoon tea in the elegant Orangery, which looks out on the gardens.

Searcys, who look after The Orangery, make an admirable effort of keeping things fresh with a differently themed tae each summer. And this year it is one which will go straight to heart of the sweet toothed, featuring classically-inspired cakes created exclusively by world-renowned chocolatier and patissier William Curley.

A former Oxfordshire man, having honed his craft in the kitchens at that other beacon of culinary excellence, Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, William returned to the shire to put his stamp on a tea so satisfying, it would please even that arch bon vivant Winston Churchill, who was, of course, born at the palace.

And the promise of quality cake and chocolate was all it took to get us up to the palace gates.

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After an obligatory walk around the lake to build up even more of an appetite (entry to the park – though not the palace itself – is included in the booking, which is nice) we headed to The Orangery on a blazing Saturday afternoon.

We were seated next to the mercifully open doors, with a view out at the impossibly perfectly primped box hedges of the formal gardens.

It may be a grand setting, but this light airy conservatory is certainly not stuffy – in any sense of the word. The dapper staff are attentive but cheery and seem to derive great pleasure from the delight their trays of sweet treats inspire in their diners. And what delight!

Our tea came on a triple-decked silver stand: with, in ascending order, a variety of elegant sandwiches, huge puffy scones with pots of strawberry jam and bowls of thick clotted cream, and, the crowning glory, William’s beautiful cakes.

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First the butties: We tucked into thin sliced fingers of sweet, vibrantly mustard-coloured coronation chicken, very good smoked salmon with dill and lemon, refreshing cream cheese with cucumber (of course!) and egg mayonnaise with a light crunchy cress. All were excellent, and evaporated quickly.

The scones were next, and quick work was made of halving and spreading –accompanied by the age-old Cornish/ Devonshire debate over whether to start with the jam or cream (jam of course... we are civilised after all).

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Then the cakes. The finest in appearance were Amedei chocolate sacher topped with gold leaf. They were so light and moist they were almost impossible to pick up, but packed a powerful dark chocolate punch.

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We also forced ourselves to try pleasantly smooth pistachio and raspberry financiers – with a deliciously sharp fruity topping, unusual but very tasty lemon and Earl Grey macarons and the most extraordinary black forest tarts, topped with shreds of chocolate.

They tasted even better than they looked.

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It was washed down with individual pots of tea (a delicate jasmine for me and English breakfast for the kids) and a cheeky glass of fizz. And not just any bubbly: Laurent-Perrier Champagne, no less, which is a very fine drop indeed and perfectly refreshing on a warm afternoon.

We were also invited to take a slice of cake from the table in the middle of the table. It was a close call, being full to bursting, but when the waiter winked that we could take it home, there was no real debate.

With the palace hosting a packed programme of events, from Shakespeare at the Rose Theatre to the forthcoming Countryfile Live,there’s no excuse for not popping into the Orangery – and putting the cherry (or gold leaf) on the top of your summer.

  • William Curley’s special Afternoon Tea menu will run throughout the summer at The Orangery.
  • Bookings for lunch or afternoon tea at the restaurant also allows guests access to the stunning parkland of Blenheim Palace. Tickets to the palace and the formal gardens can be purchased online or at the gates.
  • The William Curley Afternoon Tea costs £34 (£46 with a glass of Laurent-Perrier Harmony champagne. Book at searcys.co.uk.