I have just returned from a weekend in Cambridgeshire where I managed to visit Anglesey Abbey and Wimpole Hall with my friends in the Dusty Jackets book group. I will cover them in order so Anglesey Abbey first; I am still reading the rather hefty guidebook for Wimpole so my entry will follow in the next few days.
One of the interesting facts about Anglesey Abbey is that it was never technically an abbey at all! It seems to have begun life as a hospital in 1135 before being converted to an Augustinian priory in the early 13th century. Although the building that stands on the site today is very different from the ancient priory, the Dining Room is said to date from that period so traces of its history can still be found.
The National Trust’s strategy for Anglesey is to focus on the last and perhaps most influential owner, Lord Fairhaven, whose belongings can be viewed in the house today and who left the property to the Trust in 1966. Earlier owners are either fairly nondescript or made little impact on the property, but there are a few picked out that are worth a mention for specific reasons. These include the 17th century Thomas Hobson from whom the term ‘Hobson’s Choice’ came into being as he kept a stable of riding horses for hire and would let customers ‘choose’ only the horse standing nearest the stable door. Later, there was Sir George Downing whose grandfather had given his name to Downing Street and whose own name lives on in Downing College, Cambridge, which was founded from a bequest made in his will. Finally, in the 19th century, we come to the Reverend John Hailstone who made many changes to the building and who was probably responsible for the introduction of the name Anglesey Abbey.
However, any visitor to Anglesey could be forgiven for never hearing any of these names. Instead, the name that crops up throughout any visit is that of Huttleston Broughton, Lord Fairhaven, and yes, he’s going on the list of striking names along with his father Urban Broughton. The Broughton money came from Urban’s father Henry Huttleston Broughton, an American who made his fortune in the oilfields and was one of the founders of Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon), and our Huttleston made excellent use of the family money, filling Anglesey Abbey with his collection of art and investing heavily in garden improvements. Originally acquired as a base from which to hunt, go racing and visit his stud farm in Newmarket, Huttleston Broughton gradually turned Anglesey into a gem of a country house.
I can always tell that I really like a property when I wander around picking out the pieces that I would like to take home with me or walking into rooms with an almost visible ‘wow’ thought bubble over my head. Anglesey Abbey satisfied on both counts. From the very first room, I was selecting items for my wish list… first of all the Rysbrack painted plaster goat, then the Landseer painting of Dash (Queen Victoria’s Sussex spaniel, see left), another Landseer of a goat, the two Claude Lorraine paintings from the Lower Gallery (built especially to display these and an Aelbert Cuyp), and a series of moonlit scenes painted by various members of the Pether family who specialised in these types of landscapes (see entry for The Vyne). The quirky amethyst mineral specimen in the library that had two stone eyes attached so that it looked like a frog was also added to my growing list.
The ‘wow’ thought bubbles popped up in the Dining Room, which is a very atmospheric location for a candlelit meal with its vaulted stone ceiling (see right), and in the Library, thanks to the sheer number of books (around 9,000) and the clever use of mirrors to make it look as though there are even more. I would also like to add here that there were some very friendly and helpful room guides throughout Anglesey and one of them kindly pointed out the Library window that is engraved with the names of Anglesey’s royal visitors. So, Anglesey Abbey is being added to my list of regal locations, with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II both apparently visiting while incumbent on the throne.
The clock collection is another notable thing to look out for at Anglesey. Children are apparently challenged to count them all as they go around and although we were reliably informed of the number, I’ll keep it to myself in case you want to give it a go. Meanwhile, the fancy tune and mechanical displays of the pagoda clock in the Living Room are shown off at specific times of day and we were in the area at 3pm so we popped back in to watch the show.
Lastly, for any fans of Windsor Castle, this is definitely a place to visit as Lord Fairhaven got a little carried away with his collection of Windsor art and ended up with 100 oils, 150 watercolours and 500 prints of the castle! A two-storey art gallery was added on to the house in the 1950s and while the Lower Gallery has the Lorraines and Cuyp paintings as a centrepiece, the Upper Gallery is simply stuffed to the gills with Windsor Castle.
During our visit to the house we discovered many things about the foibles of Lord Fairhaven (above and beyond his obsession with Windsor Castle). The house opens at 11.03am every day, which we thought was decidedly odd, but we later learned that this is done to commemorate Huttleston Broughton’s highly regulated lifestyle. A typical dinner at Anglesey would have been preceded by cocktails in the Library at 7.50 (usually Salty Dog, a mix of gin and grapefruit), then dinner at 8.03 precisely, with guests given three minutes to transfer to the Dining Room after dinner was announced at 8. And then at 9, everything would stop when the radio was delivered to the room in time for the news. There are many similar anecdotes to be picked up on a visit to Anglesey and it is no surprise that the National Trust is focusing so much on Lord Fairhaven as he was clearly as interesting a character as he was a dedicated collector.
The last thing I need to talk about at Anglesey is the gardens. There is something for everyone, from wild flower meadows to imposing structured avenues, and a selection of more formal gardens for every time of year. There is even a working watermill nearby, which is open to visitors several days a week. We spent a long time sauntering around the grounds, visiting the Lode Mill and discovering unusual treasures like the Temple Lawn and the Emperors’ Walk with its statues of Roman emperors. Our timing was almost perfect for the Formal Garden, as the white hyacinth beds were blooming nicely, but we were just a little too late for the blues.
However, it was the Winter Garden that blew us all away. We had left it until last, thinking that we would just pop down quickly to look at the silver birches for which Anglesey is renowned. Although the Winter Garden is a relatively recent creation by the National Trust and not one of Lord Fairhaven’s additions, I’m sure he would have appreciated its somewhat eccentric feel, with its weaving path and dedication to plants best seen in winter, a season that many gardens ignore. There was a pause during our walk when we came across a copper birch that was a beautiful sight with the sunlight shining on the almost polished bark. But a little further on, around another twist in the path, we finally came to the spectacular silver birches under-planted with Little Beauty dwarf tulips; definitely one of the highlights of our day at the very end of our visit. I don’t think I need to say anything more about them… simply enjoy them for yourself.
Highlights: Winter Garden silver birches; Landseer and Pether paintings; Library and Dining Room
Refreshments: Pot of tea with banana and dark chocolate loaf cake; Squash and thyme soup with a roll, crisps and homemade lemonade; Pot of tea and a third of a chocolate brownie and a third of a summer berry slice (shared with willing companions!)
Purchase(s): Two guidebooks, one each for the house and gardens; I sadly couldn’t find anything that appealed in the secondhand bookshop (a rare occurrence!)
Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets
We spent the following day in and around Ely and managed to squeeze in an afternoon stroll at Wicken Fen, another NT property (although not on my list as it is a Coast & Countryside location). I thought I’d mention it here and encourage readers to check out the NT website where you can donate to the latest appeal, which is looking to raise funds for a bridge to help wildlife travel across the fens without crossing roads. We had a pleasant enough walk at Wicken but I was a little disappointed that, having been promised an abundance of wildlife, actual sightings were very thin on the ground. We were about to give up with a grand total of two butterflies and some pond skaters, when a muntjac deer saved the day by hopping over the boardwalk just in front of us. After walking the easy (and breezy!) boardwalk trail, we had a cup of tea and a biscuit before heading back to our hotel.