Woburn Abbey: I’ve found where I’d like to have breakfast every day

When I posted my itinerary taking in Woburn I said it was the starting point for that weekend.  Why?  Simple answer: I like the art of Canaletto and at Woburn the Duke of Bedford has the single largest private collection situated in a single property in England.

Only the Queen has more Canalettos in private hands, but her pictures are spread amongst her properties.

I was a little bit in heaven.

Reason to visit: to see the dining room with 21 Canalettos commissioned by the Duke of Bedford and still in the room they were designed for.  The other 3 he owns are in other rooms.  No only that, there’s some very important Elizabethan and Tudor art on show too.  I would have paid the £12.95 entrance fee just to see the art.

I have recently visited both Longleat and Beaulieu, other examples of country estates that were opened in the 1950s to tourists in order to finance their futures. I was keen to see how Woburn compares and whether like Longleat and Beaulieu the tourist attraction has taken over the ‘country house’ that is Woburn Abbey.

In Woburn’s case the fourth side of the house, riding schools and tennis court were pulled down in the ’50s because they were decaying and retaining them was not deemed financially viable. This gives us the u-shaped house one sees today.  I’ve just about gotten over this demolition and can understand why against this background the decision was made to open to the public.

In my opinion, of the three (Longleat, Beaulieu and Woburn), Woburn Abbey is the house that sits most comfortably with its exploitation as a tourist attraction.  From the house there is no sniff of the safari park (it’s somewhere else in the grounds), and the dip in which the house sits and a high wall around it means that the ‘Duchess’ Cafe’, the gift shop and antiques centre (in the old stables) are not visible from the house.

The approach is along a 2 mile drive from the ticket box, admiring the sweeping vistas of the parkland, dotted with deer.  The house is a combination of 17th century (the north range) and later additions (by Henry Flitcroft in 1746-61 and Henry Holland in the early 1800s).

The Bedfords can access the house from a more direct route, thus bypassing the tourist invasion into their beautiful setting.  Do try and get there early, so you too can enjoy a less crowded visit.  When we arrived at 10am we had the house virtually to ourselves.  Maybe most people visit the safari park first?  D isn’t keen on zoos – says animals are the same everywhere – and as I was planning to create an animal-based detour to see white tigers and lions on a future trip to Vegas, we stuck to the house.

While the Dukes have redesigned and restyled some of the rooms to create more of a tourist attraction and the visitor entrance is firmly through the side door in the earlier part of the building, there’s a sense of order to the display as one passes through the:

  • entrance room (with ticket desk and small shop);
  • book room (created by the Duke as he thought that would be what visitors would like to see as their first room (instead of a boot room that was there originally));
  • Duke’s bedroom (he moved downstairs due to illness)
  • narrow hallway “Paternoster Row” displaying large oils one cannot admire properly as one can not get far enough away;
  • grand stairs strangely positioned in the corner of the U shape of the building;
  • picture gallery (running above the hallway below);
  • guest bedroom, now containing impressive original chinoisary wallpaper and a good collection of eastern art;
  • Flying Duchess’ rooms (more a museum exhibit – the 11th Duke’s wife was rather a go-getter, flying, observing sea birds and educating herself, until she never returned from a flight to Cambridge);
  • yellow drawing room;
  • room dedicated to horses (the last Duke & Duchess had a successful stud);
  • state rooms (Queen Victoria’s bedroom and state saloon with its barreled double height ceiling and relatively fresh late 20th century wall murals, the Canaletto dining room, and the Long Gallery);

before going down to the cellars (where there are silver and gold vaults and masses of display cabinets containing sevre) and coming back upstairs to the grotto and back into the entrance room.

The gardens are laid out behind the stables and chinese pagoda.  They consist of flower beds, lawn, rockery and parkland, surrounded by a fence to keep the deer out.  Nothing special to report home about here.

A Chinese influence is seen throughout the gardens at Woburn.

The newly planted dry garden

Woburn is exceptionally well-kept.  It is impressive, in a ‘presented for the visitor’ way.  It’s probably too large to attempt to suggest the rooms one visits are actually lived in by the family.  Save for the entrance used, I’d say ‘job well done’.  Hope they’re never tempted to sell those Canalettos!

House * out of 5: ****

Garden * out of 5: **

Nearest town: Milton Keynes

When visited: 2011

Website: http://www.woburn.co.uk/abbey/

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