There was a time when the Rothschild family owned so much land in Buckinghamshire that the county was cheekily referred to as ‘Rothschildshire’. At the height of their fortune, the family owned seven vast estates clustered around the Vale of Aylesbury, each adorned with a grand house and ostentatious gardens enveloped by rolling parkland.
It’s a sign of the times that only one house remains in family ownership, Eythrope, home of the present Lord Rothschild. The family’s other residences and gardens have met with differing fates; one was demolished after the Second World War (Aston Clinton), another is now used as an officers’ mess (Halton), one is a school for the performing arts (Tring) and a further has been mothballed by foreign property developers and is considered a building at risk (Mentmore). My grandfather, who knew most of the Rothschild estates late in their heyday, would have considered this a sorry state of affairs. Even between the two wars, the family’s estates were sufficiently well-staffed to put together cricket teams that competed with those from country estates where he lived and worked. This was a privileged world that rapidly unravelled in the aftermath of war, leaving wealthy families such as the Rothschilds unable to afford the upkeep of their magnificent estates. Being Jewish, the Rothschilds suffered more than most monied families, losing almost all of their villas and estates in Europe during the Nazi occupation. It cannot have helped that they had so many properties – perhaps as many as a hundred. Rationalisation was the only way forward.
Waddesdon Manor, the jewel in the family’s crown, found its way into the hands of the National Trust, as did my favourite Rothschild house, Ascott. Unusually for a National Trust property, the family of the donor, James Rothchild, manage Waddesdon and continue to invest in it. Hence the visitor experience feels quite different, with the Rothschild emblem of 5 arrows, crossed and tightly bunched, appearing on signage and publications. The house is no longer lived in but is open for the public to marvel at the interior’s extraordinary grandeur and opulence. A visit at Christmas is a must for the fabulous festive displays that hint at the extravagance of Waddesdon’s golden age.
The word manor conjures up an image of a small, cosy, ancient country seat but in the case of Waddesdon, you’ll already have gathered that nothing could be further from the truth. Waddesdon Manor is a grand country house quite unlike any other you may have visited, incongruous, uncompromising and designed to impress and entertain. It has more in common with one of America’s great houses, Villa Vizcaya in Miami, than it does with olde England in that it’s the vision of a single, wealthy man intent on recreating a historical and cultural fantasy for the sake of pure enjoyment and indulgence.
Prior to its purchase in 1874, Waddesdon was nothing but a bare hilltop. There was no pre-existing house, nor garden or park, just a scattering of farms and villages. The tragically widowed Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild threw himself into the creation of Waddesdon with enormous vigour, stopping at nothing to realise his vision of a great Renaissance château akin to those in the Loire Valley. Having spent three years levelling the summit of the hill – no mean feat in itself – he chose Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur as his architect, requesting him to design a house fit for lavish weekend entertaining. This Destailleur did with gusto, masterminding a mansion that was not only magnificent to look at but also endowed with all the modern conveniences of the day including central heating, electric lighting and hot and cold running water. On a daytime visit in 1890, Queen Victoria was so impressed with the electrically powered chandeliers that she asked for the room to be darkened so that she could appreciate their sparkling light. In less than ten years Baron Ferdinand had the house of his dreams, but what of the gardens?
The land that Baron Ferdinand had purchased was virtually treeless thanks to its previous owner. The Duke of Marlborough, impoverished at the time, had stripped Waddesdon bare in order to make a fast buck from the timber. Needless to say, a grand house perched on a windswept hillock did not fit with the Baron’s aspirations. Fully grown trees were moved from elsewhere in the county using horse-drawn carts to create an illusion of immediate establishment. The enormity of the task is not hard to grasp even today. Moving mature trees is not easy, even with modern equipment and the aftercare must have been phenomenal. Telegraph poles and wires had to be moved in order for the trees to be drawn along the roads from the village by a team of 20 specially-bred Percheron horses. What the baron wanted, he got: money was no obstacle.
100 years later, according to Miriam Rothschild, ‘the spruce and cedars had grown so luxuriously that they had formed a solid shroud of dark green gloom round the house and garden ….. the house seemed to be sleeping in deep mourning’. Then along came the great storm of 1987, felling hundreds of trees. It was a blessing in disguise, opening up views and vistas and giving the remaining trees room to develop fully.
Baron Ferdinand’s tree-planting escapade presents the current custodians with a unique and ongoing challenge in that many of the trees in the garden, park and surrounding woodland are of a similar age. Although his sister, Alice de Rothschild, planted many more trees after his death, little was added afterwards. Hence, many of the current specimens are between 100 and 150 years old. The Victorian fashion for brightly-coloured, contrasting foliage and exaggerated form was taken to new levels at Waddesdon, evident in the preponderance of golden cypress, blue spruce, copper beech, white poplar, weeping lime and redwood. It’s not a look we have much sympathy for in the 21st Century, but when one has a house as fantastical as this, one may as well go the whole hog and plant the gardens to match. As a set piece, one cannot deny Waddesdon’s Disney-like appeal, which is probably why it remains one of the nation’s most loved and visited houses.
Baron Ferdinand and Miss Alice (as she was affectionately known) liked to collect, whether it be art, sculpture, plants or animals. The grounds of Waddesdon quickly developed an eclectic and somewhat eccentric appearance with goats on the rockery and an aviary filled with exotic birds. The goats were dispatched, owing to their antisocial odour, but the birds continue to inhabit what must be one of the most extravagant and well-appointed aviaries in the country. The design is similar to aviaries built at Versailles and Chantilly. Destailleur’s iron structure was originally painted white and the current Eau de Nil and gilt scheme is a recent update. A small but important breeding programme now helps to conserve bird species on the brink of extinction, including the exceptionally rare Rothschild’s Myna (Leucopsar rothschildi) from Bali. On our visit, the rococo structure was being carefully re-decorated: nevertheless, the collection of birds was impressive. Back in Baron Ferdinand’s day, macaws were allowed to fly free, no doubt returning to their des-res when they needed food and water.
In front of the aviary, a layout of formal beds is planted twice a year with colourful displays of annuals and flowering bulbs. The earth is heavily mounded to accentuate the display when viewed from a distance – a Victorian contrivance requiring a great deal of effort to maintain, especially in the British climate.
The combination of dazzling new French château surrounded by fabulous gardens and exotic animals must have charmed even the hardest-hearted of the family’s weekend visitors. The highest standards of horticulture were observed, with backup plants kept in one of 50 glasshouses should anything fail to impress. 53 gardeners were employed in Miss Alice’s day, under the careful supervision of her head gardener George Johnson. Waddesdon was a showcase of horticultural excellence, Victorian taste and an overt expression of newly-minted wealth.
Waddesdon’s standout feature was and still is the parterre laid out on the terrace behind the house. It’s the epitome of the great Victorian tradition of carpet bedding and one of the finest remaining examples in the country. In her book, ‘The Rothschild Gardens’, Miriam Rothschild notes that the pattern of beds changed a number of times. When restored by the National Trust in 1989 the layout was simplified to allow the grass to be mown by machines rather than cut by hand. A system of pop-up sprinklers was installed. In the Baron’s day, summer bedding was replaced two or three times during the summer (and after poor weather) in addition to displays of spring bulbs. Tens of thousands of plants were required every time and watering was done by hand. Today the planting is changed only in spring and autumn, and recently perennials such as salvias have been introduced into the outer beds to reduce maintenance further. Victorian carpet bedding is the throwaway fashion of gardening so it’s right that new practices and materials are explored to lessen its environmental impact.
Unlike Chatsworth, another great garden I have visited recently, lofty Waddesdon did not have the advantage of unlimited water to feed fountains and pools, or to create lakes. There are waterworks, but they are modest in comparison to many other country estates and there’s no great river to be gazed down upon from the Manor’s lofty turrets. The garden lacks the layers of history and conflicting influences apparent in older gardens so, uniquely, what you witness at Waddesdon is pretty much the pure and unadulterated vision of one generation. As a young boy, I always thought it was remarkable that my grandfather had met other gardeners that had played a part in its making and that the house was a mere 100 years old.
Absent from today’s experience is a view of the kitchen gardens and glasshouses that once provided fruit, flowers and vegetables for the house. They were so extensive and so expensive to run that they became unsustainable after the war. Very little evidence of them remains. The high standards demanded by Miss Alice, whom even Queen Victoria called the ‘All Powerful’ are revealed in a current exhibition at Waddesdon.
I confess to having omitted descriptions of the approach drives, rockery, daffodil valley and Miss Alice’s rose garden. The latter, reinstated in the 1990s, is definitely of the Edwardian age – a frothy, almost fragile roundel filled with scent and guarded by towering redwoods. It feels a little impermanent, if I may be so bold, as if it has every chance of disappearing without a trace. The roses, although pleasant enough, seemed to be struggling in parts, perhaps through drought, age or rose replant disease. On the whole, I think we struggle with rose gardens in this day and age – rarely do I see one that truly delivers the romantic vision we all carry in our heads.
Every garden lover should visit Waddesdon once in a lifetime for no other reason than it’s one of a kind – it represents the pinnacle of a certain style, a moment in time that will never be repeated. It’s a fairytale made possible by fortunes quickly won and lost, meticulously preserved for us all to marvel at. TFG.
For information about visiting Waddesdon Manor visit the Rothschild’s website here or the National Trust’s website here. Note that the new car park is around a mile from the house requiring visitors to walk, mostly uphill, or take a bus. On hot and wet days it’s an exposed walking route so cover up appropriately!
The garden at Eythrope is open on Wednesdays for pre-booked tours including lunch. Details can be found here.
The beautifully produced videos embedded in this post fill in many of the gaps I’ve clearly left. If you can track down a copy of ‘The Rothschild Gardens‘ by Miriam Rothschild, published in 1996, do grab it for further insight into the banking family’s fortunes.