Any visitor to Waddesdon Manor could be forgiven for thinking they’d taken a wrong turn on the motorway and accidentally hopped on a ferry to France. Either that or that someone had magically picked up a 16th century French chateau and deposited it in the Buckinghamshire countryside. And just as surprising as the location is the fact that the building is in fact a Victorian country pile, having been built in the late 1870s and not many centuries ago.
This is the first truly grand stately home that I have visited for some time (although that might be slightly unfair to Tredegar, which stakes a strong claim in that regard), and having borrowed the 143-page Companion Guide to study before my visit, I knew I was in danger of ending up with the longest blog entry to date. I’ll try not to do that but I’m afraid it might get away from me!
To try to cut things down a little bit, I’ll start with a few practical tips:
- Bus stops: Waddesdon has recently had a brand new car park built, complete with a modern visitor reception (not yet open) and if you don’t want to walk the 3/4 mile to the house, you can get a free shuttle bus. However, be aware that there are two stops: the first will drop you at the bottom of the front drive, but there is another stop at the Stables block so stay on board if you want to go there first. We weren’t informed of this so got off when the bus stopped and then followed it down the hill to the Stables on foot!
- Catering: Waddesdon’s catering is run privately and not by the National Trust so you won’t find the usual fare. I was also a bit disappointed with some of the options. The Stable Café didn’t open until 11.30 (why so late?) so on arrival our only option was to have a takeaway drink from the outside kiosk. There are two similar kiosks nearer the house and the only other choice is the waiter-service Manor Restaurant, which is very nice but quite expensive. We had a lovely lunch there (great food, ambience and service) but later in the day when we came by, it was packed (perhaps with people taking advantage of the set afternoon tea) so it might be worth booking if you want to make sure of a table. When all’s said and done, the ‘Trusty’ pot of tea with a slice of cake is nowhere to be found (unless of course the Stable Café obliges once it finally opens!).
- Guidebook: I would highly recommend Waddesdon’s Companion Guide, which is more detailed than many guides and is actually very good value at £5 for over 140 glossy pages (I have paid almost as much for far smaller guides at other properties). It is not too wordy, with a good range of photos, and gives the right amount of background and information on all the major highlights of the collection. I borrowed a copy to read before my visit, which was really useful, but unfortunately it is not available from the NT online shop so if you can’t find a handy family member with a copy you will have to wait until you arrive. It’s slightly unwieldy for reading as you go around the house, however, so you might be better off relying on the information sheets and volunteers for general insights and dipping into the guide only when you want more detail.
Now, that’s some of the functional stuff out of the way, I’ll move on to what Waddesdon has to offer, and it’s quite a lot! Thankfully, owing to its relatively recent construction (recent compared with many NT houses at least) and single family ownership, I can hopefully get through the background quite quickly.
The house owes its wealth of treasures to the wealth of the de Rothschild banking family. From its roots in Frankfurt in the 18th century, the family quickly extended its influence to the financial centres of four other major European cities: Paris, Vienna, London and Naples. The family’s heraldic badge is formed of five interlocking arrows, denoting the founder’s five sons who ran the operations in each of the five key cities. If you are taking children to Waddesdon, you could set them a mission of finding as many examples of the five arrow insignia as they can (hint: they can even start this on the shuttle bus from the car park!)
It is Ferdinand de Rothschild, a fourth-generation member of the family, who is responsible for the existence of Waddesdon. Although he was a descendent of the Vienna branch of the family, his mother was a London de Rothschild so Ferdinand had strong ties to England and strengthened these by falling in love with an English cousin and deciding to settle here. Unfortunately, his young wife died in childbirth after only a year of marriage so she never saw the house he would later have built at Waddesdon.
After Ferdinand, there have only been five other owners of Waddesdon, all Rothschilds. On Ferdinand’s death, the house passed to his sister Alice, then she bequeathed it to her great-nephew James. It was James who offered Waddesdon Manor to the National Trust in his will and his wife Dorothy who oversaw the transfer and subsequent opening of the house to the public. On her death, the current Lord Rothschild inherited the estate and took over a management role. This hands-on arrangement gives Waddesdon a fairly unique feel but has also ensured that it has not suffered from a lack of investment over the years. It was actually closed for almost five years in the 1990s so it could be improved and updated and improvements are clearly continuing, as demonstrated by the new car park.
There is so much to see at Waddesdon that I can’t go into everything here. To summarise what the outside has to offer, I would recommend a trip to the Aviary, which is an unusual building and home to some unusual birds (the Companion Guide explains about the conservation work undertaken by Waddesdon so those who don’t like seeing caged birds should be assured that the Aviary conducts breeding programmes to help replenish endangered species by returning birds to the wild). En route, you should see the three-dimensional bird planting, which is quite spectacular. There is also a rose garden, lots of park walks and of course the absolutely stunning parterre, with its mounded flower beds, a real must-must-must-see. I actually cheated a bit with my top photo and featured the back of the house so it could be seen alongside its parterre.
Another highlight of the grounds for me was the spectacular bronze statue of a horse in the stable courtyard. Unfortunately, somebody has seen fit to put two benches on either side of its plinth so it is impossible to get a photo of it without random heads popping into the bottom of the shot, while the stripy awning over the covered seating area is another unwelcome backdrop. It’s an impressive piece that really deserves to be given greater individual prominence.
Now, I really ought to move on to the inside of Waddesdon as this is what most people go to see and it is certainly packed to the rafters with art and antiques. For my tastes, some of the French furniture and Sèvres porcelain is slightly too flamboyant and some of the rooms just screamed ‘too much’ at me! I am well aware, though, that many other visitors will be blown away by the self-same things.
Another reason to buy the Companion Guide is that the presence of valuable textiles throughout the house has led to often very low light levels, which as usual detracts a little from the experience. However, the colour photos in the guide were taken in full daylight so you can get a better view of some of the items lurking in the gloom.
It would be impossible to list everything you can see at Waddesdon, but I imagine the highlights for most people would include the 18th century portraiture, French furniture, tapestries and carpets, the Sèvres and Meissen porcelain and the George III silver service. As far as the portraits are concerned, these include some by Gainsborough and Reynolds as well as two of Lady Emma Hamilton, who I am currently reading about in a biography of Nelson. It was nice to meet her face to face and amusing to see that she is painted in a couple of fairly provocative poses. The kind of woman who would cheat on her husband with a famous naval officer? On the evidence of these paintings… most definitely!
Fans of porcelain will be in raptures about the Sèvres Rooms on the first floor, which hold two important dinner services, the Starhemberg and Razumovsky sets, of which I preferred the former thanks to the depictions of different birds on each (based on engravings by Englishman George Edwards). As indicated by these rooms, from the first floor up, the house occasionally feels more like a museum than a home. As well as the porcelain, there are exhibitions about the Rothschild family, its houses and its role in Jewish causes as well as many other pieces of the family’s vast collection of art and artefacts.
One of the exhibition rooms, the Goodwood Room, actually hides one of my own personal favourite items, an enormous malachite urn. Unfortunately, this is tucked away behind the door of a small anteroom and I am sure that many visitors never see it as they follow the main route through the house. I might have missed it myself if my Mum hadn’t remembered it from a previous visit and told me where it was. The Bakst paintings of the tale of Sleeping Beauty are also a little tucked away in a turret room alongside the Family Room so make sure you don’t miss those as they feature members of the Rothschild family standing in for princes, princesses and fairies, as well as a couple of family pets.
You certainly need stamina for a visit to Waddesdon and by the time I headed upstairs to the second floor I found antiquities fatigue was setting in. There are some bedrooms and bathrooms to be seen, as well as several more exhibition rooms showing treasures from the collection. I have no real interest in armoury so those cases were passed very quickly, but I was more struck with the George III silver in the White Drawing Room, one of the brightest rooms in the house. I was also slightly dazzled by the Porca Miseria modern chandelier made of broken porcelain, which can be seen in the Blue Dining Room. I am not usually a fan of modern art but this really appealed to me and seemed to fit seamlessly into its much older surroundings. I certainly didn’t arrive at Waddesdon thinking that one of my highlights would be something that is only 12 years old!
I have gone on far too long now so I will finish with the news that Waddesdon adds not one, not two, not three, but four new regal visits to my list, having been graced by the presence of Queen Victoria (1890), Edward VII (first as Prince of Wales and later as king), George V (1926) and Queen Elizabeth II (who opened the Sèvres Rooms in 1995).
Highlights: Parterre; malachite urn; the three-dimensional Bird planting; the ‘Porca Miseria’ (surprisingly!); ‘meeting’ Emma Hamilton; and if I had to pick a room, probably the Dining Room.
Refreshments: Tea and half a slice of Chocolate & Almond Cake; Courgette flowers stuffed with lemon and peas, summer vegetable salad, cream cheese croûtes and sauté potatoes; Tea and a tub of strawberry ice cream
Purchase(s): None (my Companion Guide was donated by a former visitor!)
Companion(s): Mum and Dad