“Have you heard of Waddesdon Manor?” asks my hostess Diane, as she hands me a cup of tea across the breakfast table.
I venture a guess. “One of those stately homes of England?” Diane nods. “It’s not too far from here.” “Shall we take a look?”
Taking a secondary road while driving over to Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, I’m once again enchanted by the English countryside — rolling meadows and village lanes where houses crouch under thatched roofs and wild roses trail over stone walls. At first sight, the honey-coloured baronial mansion at the end of a broad driveway is like something out of a romantic Victorian novelette.
Cupolas, spires and tall windows give it the appearance of a chateaux set amid spacious lawns and arbors of yew, cedar and chestnut trees. Waddesdon Manor — according to the booklet from the front desk — was built by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, one of Europe’s leading financiers, in 1889.
After his death, the estate passed to his spinster sister, Lady Alice de Rothschild. It was eventually bequeathed to the National Trust of Britain by her successor, James de Rothschild, on condition that it be managed by the Rothschild Foundation. The Foundation is now chaired by Lord Jacob Rothschild, a connoisseur of art and culture. Baron Ferdinand Rothschild invited the crème de la crème of English and European society to Waddesdon, and they, like me, would have entered first into the Red Room, and found themselves surrounded by rich textiles, red damask walls, portraits of noblemen, and the room’s dramatic painted ceiling.
I am gawping, but they were probably fashionably blasé, and the room would have been filled with the sound of conversation — perhaps the latest society gossip. Baron Ferdinand spared no expense in collecting the finest Sevres porcelain, French 18th century furniture, paintings (including those of Gainsborough and Reynolds) and, as I walk through the Manor, I am overwhelmed by the sheer opulence of my surroundings. The dining room, for example, with its tapestries and its elegant banquet table decorated with a magnificent centerpiece of fresh flowers, is breathtaking. The bedrooms, with their four-poster beds and dressing tables, remind me of scenes from Downton Abbey and I half expect Lady Mary Crawley to appear and ask me what I’m doing wandering around her suite. Which makes me wonder — are there any ghosts living in Waddesdon?
I pose the question to one of the staff in the Blue Drawing Room. She shrugs: “They say Lady Alice can’t stay away from Waddesdon,” she adds. “She was a regular martinet, that one ... and some say that she comes back to oversee the staff.” Ghosts aside, there are some very real curiosities at Waddesdon that halt me in my tracks. A chandelier called Porca Miseria (a polite translation is “Oh My Goodness”) on display in the Blue Dining Room is an artful accident. The chandelier made of broken cutlery and crockery was glued together from shards of porcelain dropped (on purpose) by its sculptor Maurer, and then mounted onto a metal frame.
To my eye, it appears to explode above an elegant tea table setting. Even more intriguing is an elephant automaton designed by French clock maker Martinet in 1774. The ornamental pachyderm plays a tune, waves his trunk and tail and moves his eyes (rather ghoulishly) from side to side. The Maharaja on his howdah on top and the musicians below move back and forth and then the entire piece comes magically to life with rotating flowers, images of diamante studded stars and Indian costumed figures and scenes that appear in windows.
Intrigued by accounts of Waddesdon Manor, Queen Victoria reputedly invited herself over, and was so amazed by the electrical switches in all the rooms, that she spent several minutes flicking them back and forth. However, she drew the line at riding the newfangled elevator.
Other guests included Winston Churchill who was apparently banned from smoking inside his room by the formidable Lady Alice. He would stay in the Portico bedroom so that he could step out on its porch to enjoy a stogie or two. To wrap up our visit, we linger in the gardens — Lady Alice’s pride and joy. This being a sunny summer day, the beds are alive with colour — purple asters, dahlias as large as plates, borders of lavender, fat peonies, phlox, and of course, roses.
A gardener working at one corner tells me more than 50,000 flowers are hand-planted during spring and summer. Three-dimensional large bird sculptures, in addition to marble statuary, add a whimsical touch to the landscape.
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