We arrived at the Duke of Wellington’s country pad at 10.10am on a Sunday morning. The website says the gates open at 10.30am. We circled the perimeter passing locked gates but following the sign for ‘ride’, we and over 50 horse boxes found ourselves parked in a field behind the stables. D thought this was the back of the house: “the stables are always out back” and so “we had definitely come through the wrong gate”. The Kimblewick Hunt knew nothing about the house. They were there for a sponsored ride.
I went on a recce and found someone who confirmed indeed we were in the right place.
Interestingly, the stables at Stratfield Saye were built out front on purpose. The house we were to visit was intended to have been demolished and replaced by a grand “Wellington Palace”. Knowing this one fact explains a lot about this house and its interesting history.
Reasons to visit: exquisite André-Charles Boulle cabinetry in the 18th century gilded print room & the hearse that carried the 1st Duke to St Paul’s. For horsey types like D, the chance to pat the grave of Copenhagen, the 1st Duke of Wellington’s horse. The stables here are still used: I’ve tried to remember another house of the nearly 200+ that I’ve visited recently where the stables remain in full use and I think this may be the first.
During 2011 the house is/was open 21-25 April and 14 July- 8 August inclusive. It really is worth visiting but obviously you need to plan in advance. My guess is that at some point an offer in lieu has been accepted in payment of inheritance tax and this explains the limited opening. [Note: Update – see my comment below]
Entrance to the house is by guided tour only and Neville, dapper in blue blazer and pink trousers, took us around.
In short, this Jacobean/Stewart H-shaped house (probably built circa 1630 by Sir William Pitt, Comptroller of the Household to James I) was modified and extended in the 18th century, given a coating of render and lived in ever since. It’s squat and intimate, but feels damp. It didn’t help that we visited on a rainy day, as you’ll see from the sky on the picture I took. If I had been extending the house, I would have built up instead of out.
The garden is mainly lawn, though to the front left corner is a domestic-scale fenced garden with herbaceous borders. Not really a plantsman’s house.
The house was originally red brick, showing the owner had the wealth to afford such a building material. (See an interest blog here on the lengths those some went to in order to create the appearance of a brick frontage). Pitt, 1st Baron Rivers, however, decided stucco was more suiting and a white icing was applied to the exterior during a programme of extensive work to the house and park in the 18th Century. Today the colour is more golden honey. A bit “Disney”.
After Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, had the enviable task of choosing a country house for himself – a gift from the State. He wanted somewhere close to London and Windsor, with good land. He rejected Uppark Park (poor land) and settled on Hampshire. The estate, accumulated by the Pitts, was sold for £263,000 by George Pitt, second Baron Rivers, to Parliamentary trustees for the use of the first Duke of Wellington in 1817-18. I’m sure the intricacies of how this ‘sale’ came to be would make interesting reading.
The estate remains vested in these statutorily-appointed trustees (who include the Prime Minister, ex-officio) rather than in the Dukes themselves; the Dukes pay an annual rent of a flag, presented to the sovereign on the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Location Location Location was the key. ‘Waterloo Palace’ would be built in the grounds in the north-east of the park and Stratfield Saye demolished. This explains the location of the stables.
Wyatt’s plans for Waterloo Palace are framed on the walls of Stratfield Saye. It would have resembled Blenheim and then some. In the events that happened, Wellington seemed to have had more lust and resources to purchase the furniture for his intended palace than he did building it. In 1821 the plans were eventually abandoned as being too expensive, in favour of extending and improving the existing house: turning the entrance hall into a double-height space (creating a rear wing with new bedrooms above) and adding a conservatory (1838 – now housing an indoor swimming pool) and outer wings (1846). The house has a very ‘Regency’ feel.
The first Duke introduced central heating (two of the original radiators
can still be seen at the foot of the staircases), sound-proofed water-closets in many of the rooms, and reputedly added the first indoor toilets in England.
Stratfield Saye would remind you of grannies’ house with bows on: stuffed to the brim with (principally French) furniture, busts, paintings, porcelain and china.
Wellington certainly took advantage of the French furniture that was going cheap during the late 19th century and he built quite a collection. He also received over 200 pictures from the Spanish Royal Collection, which had been looted during war. At the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 they were captured from Joseph Bonaparte: some had been ripped from their frames and used to protect horses from the rain. They survived remarkably well but the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, thought it more befitting that Wellington took them. 80 are sited at Stratfield Saye (including a series of reproduction Van Dykes), the rest at the Wellingtons’ London home, Aspley House.
The result is an interesting dilemma for the modern country house owner. What to do with the ancestors’ collections? The Duke of Devonshire had an attic sale, the Duke of Wellington-in-waiting (the present Duke now lives elsewhere on the estate) has preserved his predecessors’ collections and added the odd bronze face mask of the children, put his son’s painting of a horse on the wall, commissioned some new carpet, placed hot plates on the side tables (to keep the breakfast warm!) and added that swimming pool.
Rooms on the tour are limited to the ground floor:
- entrance hall;
- library: with elaborate, gilded paper mache ceiling;
- morning room: now the study with a very well-used Chippendale desk;
- breakfast room;
- print gallery;
- dining room: added circa 1775 by Lord Rivers and housing pictures of many ladies who took the eye of old Arthur;
- sitting room: with the ‘stolen’ Spanish Royal paintings and original wallpaper.
Part of the stable block houses the hearse and an exhibition, which shows some effort has been put in to create an attraction here.
The visitor reception/cafe and toilet block are found in the grounds near the field where cars park. On offer is quiche and potatoes, cake and a pot of honey. Given they’re limited opening, it’s nice to see they go to the effort of producing hot food, though I’m sure they’d do better offering really good scones and clotted cream with a pot of tea for £5. I certainly would have bought that.
Do visit & if you have time, try to visit the Farm Shop, go to Wellington Park & even take in a riding holiday – all on offer here!
When visited: July 2011
House (out of 5*): ***
Garden (out of 5*) **
Theme tune: The Grand of Duke of York, He Had 1000 Men...