Sunday 20 April 2014

Waddesdon Manor

There are some National Trust properties that are very understated. An old mill. A crumbling tower. A piece of moorland.

And then there are some properties that come into view doing high kicks and going "YOO-HOO! HERE I AM! A FRENCH RENAISSANCE-STYLE CHATEAU BUILT BY BARON FERDINAND DE ROTHSCHILD!". 

Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury belongs in the latter category. In fact it IS a French Renaissance-style chateau built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild: 

Waddesdon Manor

It's almost like a tornado ripped through the Loire Valley, picked up a chateau, and then deposited it just off the M40.

Waddesdon Manor was actually built in the late 1870s. Ferdinand de Rothschild bought the land from the Duke of Marlborough and commissioned a French architect, Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, to create a brand new build in the style of the French chateaux he admired so much. 

Waddesdon Manor

As you have no doubt worked out for yourself, Ferdinand was a member of the Rothschild family. My limited knowledge of the Rothschilds comes from the Evening Standard, a highly reliable source of 'news', if your idea of 'news' is enough gossip about London-based rich people/celebrities to fill the 20 minute train journey from Waterloo to Mortlake.

But once again the National Trust has rescued me from ignorance. Here's what I learned: the Rothschild family stems from Mayer Amschel, who set up a successful financial business in Frankfurt in the late 18th century. He had five sons - James, Carl, Salomon, Nathan, and Amschel - all partners in the business, who spread out across Europe. Our Ferdinand was the grandson of Salomon. Ferdinand was born in Paris and raised in Frankfurt and Vienna, before settling in England after he fell in love with his cousin, Evelina, granddaughter of Nathan - the Rothschilds were VERY keen on marrying within the family.

Ferdinand seems to have used Waddesdon for two things: 1) housing his collection of art, furniture, china, clocks, mechanical name it, Ferdinand seemed to collect it and 2) entertaining kings, queens, politicians, archbishops etc etc etc and showing them his collections. 

The rooms are exquisite - each one is a treasure trove of beautiful items. And because Waddesdon was left by Ferdinand to his fastidious sister Alice, and then passed to their nephew, James, before being handed over to the National Trust, much of the house and contents are as Ferdinand had them.

Waddesdon Manor White Drawing Room

But it's not just the beautiful facade or the sumptuous rooms that made today so enjoyable. I would go as far as to say that Waddesdon is one of the best National Trust properties I've been to. Here's why:

1. Waddesdon has an audio guide 
God, I LOVE audio guides. I love them. I wish every National Trust property had one. They make a visit so much easier - you notice 10x more than if you try and walk round reading a guide book and you learn 100x more than if you walk round with nothing. There were visitors today walking round unaided and I was most concerned for them. Did they know that Evelina died in childbirth? Had they seen that the mechanical elephant can swing its trunk about and flap its ears when it's wound up? I'm still worrying now.

2. Waddesdon is extremely well organised
My heart sank a bit when I saw a shuttle bus taking people from the car park to the house but there are at least 3 buses and they whizz discreetly round the place, giving you a real 'WOW' moment when you first pull up opposite the Manor. The timed tickets also work really well, the restaurants run like clockwork, the car park is huge, and the staff are very knowledgeable. I really could not fault one bit of it. 

3. Waddesdon has an excellent guide book
If you decide not to part with £3 for the audio tour (WHY?) the 'Waddesdon Companion Guide' is very good value for money; £5 for 144 pages telling you all about the contents of each room in great detail.

4. The Waddesdon scones are superb
Yes indeed, scone fans, Waddesdon also delivered when it came to the main event. The scone was fresh - I'd estimate it'd been out of the oven for two hours, tops - and it was quite simply delicious. Even the scone sidekick gave it a five. 

Waddesdon Manor scones

I'd always suspected that Waddesdon would be one of the National Trust's star properties and I wasn't disappointed. I highly recommend it. 

Waddesdon Manor: 5 out of 5
Scones: 5 out of 5
All-round National Trust Visitor Experience: 5 out of 5 

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