12. Hughenden – 23/9/2013

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NB: This property was visited en route to a holiday in the Cotswolds during which I covered seven sites in six days! I didn’t have access to the web while I was away so have had to hold them back to load now that I’m home. However, I will try to post just one a day to avoid flooding you with all seven at once!

So, ready for my week away, I took a break from the motorway and veered off at High Wycombe to visit Hughenden. Again, this will be a fairly long post as Hughenden has not one but two stories to tell… and I have to say that it tells them very well indeed. The manor is perhaps best known as the long-time home of former Prime Minister and author Benjamin Disraeli (I’ve certainly had my share of both Prime Ministers and writers so far on this challenge!), but since 2004 a new story has emerged, a story that portrays Hughenden as a vital component in the RAF’s wartime successes. Over the course of the day, talks are given on both Disraeli and WWII and if you can manage your time effectively and listen to both, I am sure you won’t be disappointed. They do not overlap and they give some really interesting insights into both sides of Hughenden’s historic past.

I arrived with about 20 minutes to spare before the first talk on Disraeli so I had a quick walk around the gardens and that was all I really needed; although the wider estate offers a wealth of walking the formal gardens are a lot less extensive. The Walled Garden is yet another example of the NT’s commitment to growing its own produce and will reward fruit and veg enthusiasts. But avoid the scarecrow if you’re faint of heart, my slightly macabre imagination started to run riot as I walked by! And just to remind you that the produce is used in the Stableyard Café, the rear door of the kitchens backs onto the garden so you are treated to some lovely smells as you stroll past.

The South Terrace (from where I took my photo of the house) is a more structured combination of lawn and planted beds, with a few statues dotted around, including the Dancing Faun (more about him in a footnote below). At the end of the terrace are the beehives and supposedly further along still are the graves of the family’s dogs. If you find those, though, you’ve done better than me. After following some narrow paths under the trees, I eventually came to a locked gate and gave up. It’s possible that the graves can be accessed from the walking trails on the estate but at the end of my long day, I really couldn’t be bothered to try again. You will also have to beware of ankle-high electric wire around the border of the garden and some of the beds. Most likely a rabbit deterrent, although I let my imagination run wild again and kept my eyes peeled for super-sized snails and slugs. I was briefly excited to spot a peacock under the trees but it was only a cut-out and Disraeli’s actual peacocks are long gone. I wonder if any NT properties still have them? When I was a child, we always seemed to be coming across peacocks on our visits to stately homes but the closest I’ve found so far is chickens!

So, moving onto the story of the house, we have to start with Disraeli. I have to say I didn’t know a huge amount about him, except that he was a favourite of Queen Victoria and didn’t get on with Gladstone. I now know an awful lot more, much of which was gleaned from a 20-minute talk on the North Lawn outside the front of the house. The lady who gave my talk was a joy to listen to, articulate and entertaining and full of little gems that added much more to the story than I would have got simply from the house and the guidebook. I won’t go through Disraeli’s life history – other people have written that story much better than I – but here are a few little nuggets gleaned from the talk:

  • Disraeli closed in the porch of the house but not until more than 20 years after moving in. Why? Because it wasn’t possible to make plate glass large enough to fill the arches until the 1870s. (Several panes were later replaced after a bomb blast blew a couple of them out during the war).
  • Disraeli was terrible with money… interesting considering he was Chancellor of the Exchequer three times!
  • The Chancellor’s robes are supposed to be passed on from one Chancellor to the next, but Disraeli refused to hand them on to his successor. Why? It was Gladstone!
  • Disraeli would probably have been a pauper if he hadn’t had a way with the ladies. He married for money (although it later turned into a love match) and then inherited enough money from a Jewish widow to pay off the debts on Hughenden. This woman – Sarah Brydges Willyams – is buried in the Disraeli family vault at Hughenden Church alongside her friends Benjamin and Mary Anne as a reward for baling him out through her bequest.

While I was learning all this (and lots more) from the talk, a red kite casually soared overhead, a firm reminder that Hughenden is in the Chilterns.

I headed back to the facilities in the Stableyard (a much shorter walk than at Chartwell or Polesden Lacey) and had lunch in the café. I was writing up some notes from the talk while I ate and attracted some odd glances from a couple nearby. Maybe they thought I was a restaurant critic! If I were, I would have given five stars for my mushroom and thyme soup.

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Disraeli himself greets you in the entrance porch

Next stop, the house. General impressions are that it is more homely than stately, with no huge rooms or ostentatious decoration. It is also fairly gloomy, with its low wooden-ribbed ceilings. As usual, this was not helped by partly closed blinds to prevent light damage. Mind you, Hughenden has at least made good use of these blinds, featuring some of Disraeli’s quotes on them. Not quite as prolific as Churchill in his witticisms, Disraeli still came up with some gems. My favourite is on the blinds in the Bartolozzi Room, which is home to the Chancellor’s robes that Gladstone could never get his hands on. It reads: “The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. If someone were to pull him out again; that, I suppose, would be a calamity.” If only insults were that controlled and cutting nowadays. Not a swear word in sight but it really hits its mark.

Other items in the house that caught my attention include the chair in the Dining Room that had its legs shortened for Queen Victoria’s visit so she could sit with her feet planted on the floor (and her chin in her dinner?!). Meanwhile, the Disraeli Room offers some more insights into the man and includes the coach door that Disraeli kept as a reminder of his wife’s devotion: Mary Anne once trapped her thumb in the door but said nothing as her husband was preparing for an important speech and only fainted after he had got out. And still not a swear word in sight! The Dining Room is also home to a painting of Disraeli’s private secretary Montagu Corry and I have to say, if he lost the Victorian beard, I wouldn’t mind having Mr Corry as my own private secretary! (Sorry, but I was mentioning things that caught my attention and Monty qualifies!)

I was lucky in the timing of my visit as the top floor has only recently been opened and offers a wealth of further information about Disraeli and the house, separated into three key rooms. The first focuses on the Hughenden estate, complete with maps and binoculars to take in the views from the windows, including the sight of an obelisk memorial to Disraeli’s father on the opposite hillside (unfortunately, now dwarfed by a nearby telecoms mast). The second looks at Disraeli’s literary life and has armchairs and copies of his books to peruse, and the last explores Disraeli’s social climb, from Jewish boy to the Earl of Beaconsfield and member of the Order of the Garter. Like Chartwell’s museum rooms, this is also home to some of the items that were gifted to Disraeli over the years. This extra floor is certainly a valuable addition and enhances Hughenden’s role as a Disraeli museum.

To finish off your Disraeli visit, you can stop off at Hughenden Church on the drive out and have a look at the family vault, which is surrounded by a blue fence and features plaques dedicated to the deceased on the church wall.

IMG_0444The other displays in the house, located in several basement rooms, are dedicated to the other side of Hughenden’s history, namely its wartime activities. Known as ‘Hillside’ during the Second World War, the property was a mapping centre for the RAF, bringing together military personnel and civilian artists to create the maps that led to some of the most successful bombing raids in Germany. The artefacts in the basement are interesting and include some fascinating photos of how Hughenden’s rooms looked during the war and how they appear now that they are returned to the way they would have been in Disraeli’s time.

Once more, though, I learnt more from the afternoon talk on the subject than I would have done from the exhibits alone. The same lady who had spoken so eloquently about Disraeli hosted the WWII talk (and was later dashing off to talk about Disraeli again, a highly dedicated volunteer with healthy vocal chords!). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the RAF story is how it came to light in the first place. In 2004, a volunteer overheard a visitor telling his companion about his time there during the war and got into conversation with him. When the Trust began to explore they started to realise just how secret the project had been and how many of the people who had served there were still holding their tongues. Declassification was needed before the Trust could really start to piece together the facts about life at ‘Hillside’. Later, staging the Antiques Roadshow at Hughenden also helped as more people came forward when they heard that the Trust was looking into the story. It’s a fascinating addition to the history of Hughenden.

Highlights: Learning about Disraeli; learning about the secret wartime activity

Refreshments: Mushroom & Thyme Soup, crisps

Purchase(s): Guidebook, child’s gift

Companion(s): None

NT Connections: Basildon Park (Disraeli had an affair with Henrietta Sykes, the wife of a former owner of Basildon, and a wardrobe from Hughenden is now housed there)

PS: The DancinIMG_0440g Faun: at Polesden Lacey, there is a miniature version of this statue in the Lavender Garden but the guidebook says it is the Discus Thrower. My Dad picked up on this and we’re sure that the Polesden guidebook is wrong and that it is actually the Dancing Faun. The Hughenden guidebook doesn’t name him but here’s a picture just to show that he’s not throwing a discus, or if he is, he’s going a strange way about it, with one in each hand!

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