I wonder if there are a lot of crashes on the road that runs parallel with the façade of Audley End?
It smacks you in the face, grinning at you across its wide, open lawn. No one could help staring; hence the chance I would have swerved and crashed had I not been on “direction duty” and therefore free to stare myself and direct “keep your eyes on the road” to my driver.
This was my initial thought about this house and only when later reading Simon Jenkins’ “England 1000 best houses” did I see he says almost exactly the same thing in his opening line about his visit.
Reason to visit: to see the 17th century stable block.
This was an English Heritage frolic, courtesy of free entrance from the Art Fund card. It came with a WWII battle being played out on the front garden. That’s what one gets I suppose on an August bank holiday weekend.
A 1950s band where also playing live music in the main hall. Given our relative lack of experience with English Heritage, we parked in the wrong place – in the overflow car park for the miniature railway across the road rather than in a field behind the house. Thankfully no one seemed to notice.
I spent my whole time going “where’s the Robert Adam”? I had seen the Robert Adam bridge over which we had driven to get in but I knew somewhere there was more. There are some Robert Adam rooms here, right at the end of the tour, but they are over-restored to such a degree that my eyes, used to the faded grandeur of a couple of centuries of dust and light damage, didn’t quite like what I saw.
Aside from the Adam rooms, this Jacobean house (built between 1603 and 1614) has some extensive walled gardens, a formal parterre garden, a wing of Victorian servant kitchens, 17th century stables that are still used and actually had horses in them (big bonus point for EH here) and a whole lot of weird interiors than grate a bit against each other – wood painted white where it should be naked, Jacobean ceilings, 1930s window seats…
Recently, when I was reading James Lees-Milne’s book “Some country houses and their owners” (on the recommendation of someone who read one of my other diaries) and while watching a recent programme on the BBC (Heritage! The struggle for Britain’s Past – at 56 minutes in), I learned about the struggle for this house between the body that preceded English Heritage (the Office for Works) and The National Trust.
Once they got over the fact they weren’t going to just save the countryside and had decided houses were on their agenda too, the National Trust was deemed to be the saviour of country houses and the Department of Works for ruins and castles.
The story goes that nevertheless, EH wanted to have the best dozen houses within their portfolio. Indeed they got this house, built by a courtier of James I (and bought by Charles II in 1666).
Audley End is much smaller today than it once was. I would have liked to have seem more about what the house looked like in the 1600s and learned about its royal connections. Sadly, there wasn’t a single information sheet, video playing or (worse of all) a guide who could answer my questions. I was very confused about the Victoriana and the OTT Adam restoration but not a single guide shared my enthusiasm. They seemed more interested in the military goings on. When I asked about the fabrics that looks to date from the 1930s and the painted wood, I was repeatedly told the fabrics are 18th C and the wood in its original Jacobean form. My arse I thought. Sorry, for the language but this ignorance makes me annoyed (a bit like the man in a NT castle who was misinforming everyone about Belloto and Canaletto’s relationship). I may be an annoying visitor in some room guides’ eyes, but I can’t help it sometimes when everywhere is dumbed down to the extent that each visitor is treated as though they had never in their lives before been inside an historic house and wouldn’t know a tea caddy if it was thrown at their head and tea leaves went flying everywhere.
James Lees-Milne was secretary of the Country Houses Committee of the National Trust during the 1930s and 40s, primarily responsible for smoozing with country house types with the aim goal being to entice the posh but penniless to pass their great houses to the National Trust. He’s worth a read.
I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside so sadly I’ve already forgotten too many of the rooms. Sad face.
When visited: August 2012
House * out of 5: ***
Garden * out of 5: **
Theme Tune: Dad’s Army