Waddesdon Manor is one of the most visited of National Trust properties and the gardens and parkland have free access to members of Historic Houses. So what is the attraction of this extravagant weekend retreat of the de Rothschild family?
We went to investigate on a drizzly Sunday afternoon in late October. This was just before the second lockdown, so we were able to tour the house, although only part of the lower floor.
The gardens and parkland were fully open and included a special Halloween Trail.
Due to the pandemic, we had to book our visit in advance. We could also have booked a bus ride from the car park to the house. However, since we consider ourselves sprightly seniors, we decided to take the 20 minute walk. This was quite steep towards the end, but gave great views of the house as we approached.
Waddesdon Manor House
The French château style house was completed in 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to serve as a weekend retreat for entertaining his guests and to house his arts collection.
It remained in the de Rothschild family until 1957 when the house was bequeathed to the National Trust, although the family still manages it through the Rothschild Foundation.
We were only able to see just a few of the ground floor rooms (normally more than thirty rooms are on view), but this included some of the finest rooms in the house and their displays of paintings and antiquities.
The tour started in the Oval Hall and passed along the East Gallery with a marvellous black elephant musical automaton. Passing the spiral staircase, one of a pair at each side of the entrance, leads to the Breakfast Room and the light and airy Conservatory, with stylish statues guarding the external doors.
The tour then passed through a series of three rooms – Dining Room, Red Drawing Room and Grey Drawing Room – with some of the finest English and Dutch paintings in the house. Unfortunately much of the furniture was covered with dust sheets when we visited as the rooms were being used for filming.
As is often the case when touring stately homes, we found it difficult to take in all the fine artwork and furnishings adorning the rooms, so just concentrated on a few items that caught our eyes, such as the French panelling in the drawing rooms.
In the final rooms on the tour – Small Library, Baron’s Room and Morning Room – we were particularly impressed with the exquisite Jean-Henri Riesener roll-top desk (1774) and the Joshua Reynolds painting Thaïs (1781).
The Gardens and Parkland
Late October is not the best time to view gardens and that proved to be the case on our visit.
A few flowers were still in bloom in the Victorian parterre in front of the house and in the borders at the back of the house. However the fountains and statues proved to be more eye-catching.
The steps down from the parterre towards the lower Pleasure Grounds had banana plants along the way, but the leaves were rapidly browning.
A plaque by the steps commemorates the Cedar Boys and Girls, a group of Jewish children from Frankfurt who were offered sanctuary in 1939 by the de Rothschilds.
The Pleasure Grounds contain a decorative Aviary used in rare bird conservation projects. However we missed out on seeing it on this occasion as we had no paper map (not supplied as a pandemic precaution) and were rather swept along by the crowds towards the woodland Halloween trail, which meandered down a sloping bank.
The Woodland Playground near the end of the trail proved to be very busy and we noticed a sign indicating that a massive slide will be installed in the New Year.
Our route back to the car park took us past The Stables, where refreshments were available on a takeaway only basis, and along the northern edge of the parkland with views of the Dairy.
For us seniors probably the most appealing aspect of visiting Waddesdon Manor was touring the house and admiring its artworks, even though at that time the house tour was quite limited.
We found the gardens a bit disappointing, in part because of the time of year, but also because there is no walled garden – often a major feature of stately homes that were full-time residences. The parkland is extensive with pleasant woodland walks, but the lack of a lake or other water feature rather took away from our overall impressions.
On the other hand, I think Waddesdon Manor is great place for families to visit with the extensive parkland, woodland walks, Woodland Playground and Aviary providing plenty to keep children occupied and interested – hopefully!
Annual membership of the National Trust gives free entry to the house, gardens and parkland. Annual membership of Historic Houses gives free entry to the gardens and parkland, with additional payment to visit the house. See our special offers on annual membership of heritage organisations.
Waddesdon Manor is normally open throughout the year, but restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic have affected opening times and made pre-booking necessary. Please check with the Waddesdon Manor website before setting off to visit.
POSTED 17th NOVEMBER 2020 by STEVE HANSON. The photographs were taken by BARBARA HANSON.