Waddesdon Manor – Not Your Usual Stuffy Stately Pad
Old houses. I love them. The squeaky old stairs, the inch thick dust bunny population thriving under ancient chairs that haven’t seen a pair of buttocks since the owner died seventy years ago, the slightly disapproving expressions of long dead nobility staring down at you from grubby paintings on faded silk covered walls… so it’s a curious thing that even though Waddesdon Manor isn’t like that in the slightest, I’ve completely fallen head over heels in love with the place. But then Waddesdon isn’t your usual ‘run of the mill’ stately home.
One bright September morning, I set out under the watchful eye of the SatNav God on a mission to navigate my way to Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury. Aylesbury, I soon discovered, is one big roundabout (I was sure the satnav had developed a fault when it kept insisting I should ‘enter the roundabout and take the second exit’ every two hundred yards), but after a few miles I pulled up outside the giant black and gold wrought iron gates of the Waddesdon estate. All 3,000 acres of it. Waddesdon Manor was built between 1874 and 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild and the last Rothschild to own it was James de Rothschild who passed away in 1957. As James didn’t have any children to pass the estate on to, and the last thing he wanted was for the treasures he and his family had spent so many years collecting to be dispersed to random museums or other private collections, he bequeathed the Manor, its contents and 165 acres of land to the National Trust. And it’s because of that decision that I found myself standing at the foot of the interminably long driveway staring wide-eyed at the vast French Renaissance-style Chateau. Because that’s all you find you can do when you first set eyes on the Manor: stare. It’s vast, beautiful but also curiously homely. It pulls you in by the eyeballs and invites you to explore treasures that most of us would never normally get to see.
When You Haven’t Got Any Lego, Cards Have To Do
Purchasing a timed ticket to get into the house means only a few people at a time go in and you’re not herded around like cattle, en masse. You can wander at your own pace and examine marvels up close, such as the mechanical elephant in the East Gallery which can play four tunes when it’s wound up (although the warden was quite sure that the theme tune to Eastenders wasn’t one of them). Beautiful paintings litter the Manor and I spent a fair bit of time gazing at the latest acquisition, Chardin’s ‘boy building a house of cards,’ painted in 1735. I suppose the modern-day equivalent of this painting would be a photo of a kid in a hoodie building a Lego house. Refreshingly, the paintings aren’t tucked away behind sheets of glass and endless red velvet ropes (although I wouldn’t advise touching any of the antiques at Waddesdon unless you want security to rugby tackle you to the floor…).
A word of advice here – Waddesdon is a huge estate, so ladies (and guys, depending on what you’re in to) you’re not going to have a fun day if you arrive wearing stiletto heels. Apart from leaving with a new bunion, you’ll find yourself being issued with a pair of Waddesdon Specials (funky looking slippers) in order to protect the hardwood floors and you’ll have people like me wandering past you stifling giggles while you sit there complaining that you would have painted your toenails if you’d known and asking, “tell me, are these slippers clean…?’ (they are, of course).
I have to take my hat off to the wardens that are stationed in each room. They are founts of knowledge about the works of art and little treasures they look after (including the beautiful grand piano in the Grey Drawing Room that I must have asked a million questions about, was itching to play but sadly was not allowed to). The wardens exhibit endless patience when faced with bizarre questions from the public (of which there are many, I’m sure):
Visitor: “So, that painting over there – why’s it here?”
Warden: “Ah, yes, that particular painting was brought over from Ireland…”
Visitor: “So what’s it doing here then?”
Warden: “It’s… uh… well, it’s part of the Rothschild’s collection.”
Visitor: “Yeah, but what does it bring to the house? Why have it up on the wall?”
At a loss for words, the warden smiled politely as the man wandered off grumbling under his breath…
‘The Duet’ by Ter Borch
A respectful hush lies over Waddesdon Manor like a comforting blanket and the pretty blinds in each room are kept drawn to protect the valuable silks and textiles which will quickly become faded and fragile if exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods. The rooms are sumptuous and packed full of things to look at, from family photos belonging to the Rothschilds, personal nick knacks on bedroom dressing tables, tapestries that must have taken a lifetime to complete (I speak from experience here seeing as I’ve been known to spend months – okay, years – tackling a counted cross stitch project) and beautifully lifelike paintings, such as ‘The Duet’ by Ter Borch where the woman’s dress is so finely painted I’m convinced the canvas itself would feel like silk if I were to touch it (again, please don’t try to, security will frown most heavily in your direction). Walking around from room to room on the plush red carpets, it’s almost as if the Manor is still inhabited by Ferdinand de Rothschild and he is only just in the next room.
Generally I don’t like to write posts that are too lengthy as I believe short and sweet is best, but Waddesdon deserves more than the usual blog post. There’s just so much there. They host various exhibitions throughout the year (details of which can always be found on their website) and when I went they were showing works by Joan Sallas called “Folded Beauty: Masterpieces in Linen”. What Mr Sallas can’t do with a square of linen and a blob of starch isn’t worth worrying about. A gigantic linen lion and unicorn with manes of raw silk guard a little water fountain, a symbol of life, on the Dining Room table and other pieces of Sallas’ work can be seen throughout the Manor.
Just Look At All That Ironing…
The staff at Waddesdon Manor are helpful to the extreme. Security staff were more than happy to recommend specific areas of interest, such as the converted stable block where artist Bruce Munro has an ‘Exhibition of Light’ at the moment (it’s beautiful, you’ve got to see it to believe it) and even though the impressive cellars housing the Rothschild’s personal wine collection were about to close for a private event when I got there, the delightful Godfrey was kind enough to let me in for a brief look around before the wine tasting party got started. With six glasses of wine for each person to get through (and no spittoons in sight), I’d love to have been a fly on the wall to see the state of people by the end.
The Truth About Wine Tasting
If you find that you’ve wandered around the estate until you’ve lost feeling in your feet, you can always take a buzz around on the Land Train – a Land Rover that pulls a couple of carriages behind it – which will take you to the shops at the Stable Block and then down to the garden centre on the outskirts of the estate before looping back to Manor once again. There’s even a woodland playground where the kids can run riot for a bit. They’ve thought of pretty much everything at Waddesdon.
Hide, Mavis – Here Comes The Chef!
Of course, if you’re anything like me, after all that investigating and exploring, you’re going to need something to eat, so don’t forget to drop into the café/restaurant located at the front of the Manor where they serve a mean latte (accompanied by charming smiles and conversation) and delicious food. Even if you have an aversion to eating cute little duckies… I can highly recommend the confit leg and rare roast breast of Aylesbury duckling. Being a connoisseur of fine cuisine (I’ve seen my fair share of Master Chef) I couldn’t help but be impressed with the standard of the food – it had posh bits of red cress dotted all over it and all sorts.
Everything at Waddesdon invites you in, from the happy sound of ticking clocks in the beautiful bedrooms to the gorgeous gardens that are replanted with different plants every year. Take it from me, one visit just won’t be enough. As one visitor said to me: “This place knocks Versailles into a cocked hat!”
To find out more about visiting Waddesdon, click here to visit their website.
©Nicola Kirk and www.nicolakirk.wordpress.com 2013