The day dawned fair, and as so often this summer, Steph and I took full advantage of the weather last Wednesday to take in yet another National Trust property. Heading 73 miles southeast from our home just south of Birmingham, our destination was Waddesdon Manor, built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1874. Surrounded by mature parkland (these house builders from previous centuries certainly had a long term vision) full of majestic trees, Waddesdon Manor sits on a hill with magnificent views over the Vale of Aylesbury, the Chilterns, and west towards Oxford and the Thames Valley.
Designed in the style of a Renaissance French chateau, the property comprises the main house (with its separate ‘bachelor’ wing), overlooking an impressive parterre that the National Trust gardeners maintain to an impressive standard, a rococo aviary stocked with many species from Southeast Asia that we are familiar with from our nineteen years in the Philippines and, at some little distance from the main house, a stable block that now houses visiting exhibitions and dining outlets.
The National Trust has recently built a car park for 1000 cars, which goes to show just how popular visits to Waddesdon can be. We were quite lucky, and it was not too busy during our visit. There’s a regular shuttle every 10 minutes from the car park to the house. The walk takes a suggested 15 minutes (but we think much longer). Entry to the house is by timed ticket that can be booked online ahead of your visit.
There’s no doubt that Waddesdon Manor is one of the most impressive houses we have visited. Everything has been cared for, and the house certainly does not have the feel of a museum, even though it’s stacked to the rafters with the most exquisite objets d’art – but more of that later. Even as early as the last years of the 19th century Baron Ferdinand’s sister Alice was aware of the effect of sunlight on the furnishings, and from then till now, the house contents have been shielded in good part from the worst effects of light. Surprisingly, photography is permitted throughout the house (unless indicated otherwise, but there were no restrictions during our visit), but as with all National Trust properties, the use of a flash is not permitted. Thank goodness for the advanced settings on digital cameras that permit photography even in low light levels.
But it’s the interiors of Waddesdon Manor that leave one feeling rather slack-jawed. The opulence – and ostentation – is overpowering. Priceless clocks, ceramics, silverware, and sculpture adorn almost every available surface. Old Masters cover the walls. There is magnificent furniture dating back several centuries in almost every room. This is a Rothschild expression of wealth and power, kept in the family by a series of astute marriages between quite close relatives.
While you can’t help marveling at the wonder and beauty of the enormous collection assembled by Baron Ferdinand, I came away from Waddesdon Manor with a sense of unease. I have now visited quite a few National Trust properties over the past three years, many of them built and furnished by individuals who, in their time, were fabulously wealthy. Was Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild any different, or is it that the construction and furnishing of Waddesdon Manor is comparatively recent compared to many of the other properties? I read that Baron Ferdinand built Waddesdon to house his collection of fine objets d’art, to show off to his friends. So I got the feeling that he somehow assembled such a fantastic collection just because he could, not because he really appreciated their beauty. They were there to be displayed, not to add to the aesthetics of the Manor. Certainly there is so much to see, so much to take in, that it really is challenging to appreciate everything there.
Waddesdon was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1957, but the family still have an interest in the property. And one of these is the sale of fine wines from the Rothschild vineyards in the Bordeaux region of France. A visit to the wine cellars under the west wing is fascinating, with one of the galleries stretching for many tens of meters, and stacked, floor to ceiling, with boxes of wine ready for sale.
So although I’m glad I visited Waddesdon, and did marvel at the beauty of the many things we saw, it won’t be high on my list for a second visit any time soon.