Owners of two Bordeaux first growths, Mouton-Rothschild and Lafite-Rothschild, the wealthy banking dynasty also owns one of Britain's national treasures. AMY WISLOCKI visits Waddesdon Manor
Waddesdon was built to impress. The vision of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild some 125 years ago, the manor took 15 years to build and transformed what had been a barren and unremarkable hill north of Aylesbury into a magnificent estate fit for one of the wealthiest families of the era. Since it was lovingly and painstakingly restored by Lord Jacob Rothschild in the early 1990s Waddesdon is once again attracting the glitterati and cream of society to the Buckinghamshire countryside. Guy Ritchie and Madonna have been shooting there – she’s not the bad shot that the papers have said, say staff – and the likes of the Prince of Wales, Joan Collins, Elton John and Kylie Minogue partied on the lawn last summer at Vogue’s It’s Fashion party.
It’s all an echo of an earlier age, when the social and political elite of the day, including the then Prince of Wales Edward VII, would visit Waddesdon for a weekend in the country as guests of Baron Ferdinand. Built solely as a rural seat for entertaining, the manor was modelled on the châteaux of France and was filled with an outstanding collection of French decorative art. Visitors to the manor will marvel at the sumptous French interior decor, and the collections of paintings, books, manuscripts and textiles. A feast for the eyes in every direction, the same, lavish attention was extends to the beautiful gardens. Today the famous Parterre has been restored, and the elaborate flower displays that would have taken an army of gardeners hours to complete can now be planned and carried out in no time, using new computer software. While the original glasshouses with their collection of rare orchids have long disappeared – as well as the mountain goats, deer and llamas – the Aviary still houses the feathered species that were introduced in the 1880s.
Thanks to surviving literature, and a detailed record of life in the house kept by one of Ferdinand’s descendants, we have a vivid picture of what life must have been like as a guest at Waddesdon in its heyday. The usual number for a Saturday-to-Monday party (the term ‘weekend’ wasn’t used back then) ranged from 14 to 20, though there could be up to 30 guests. The house would be very full indeed when you consider that each male guest would bring a valet and each female guest at least one maid. This is in addition to the 24 staff living permanently in the house.
From the moment guests arrived at the manor after being collected from Aylesbury station six miles away, the visit was a procession of elaborate meals, broken up by walks around the grounds and, for the ladies, a visit to the family pavilion on the River Thame for tea. The men, meanwhile, would sit and discuss the affairs of the day on the front lawn. The cosseting of guests was such that when they made their choice of tea, they would then be offered milk, cream or lemon, and having opted for milk, would be asked whether they preferred Jersey, Hereford or shorthorn.
Dinner was a formal affair. Every female guest received orchids from the glasshouses for her corsage, and the table would be banked high with Malmaison carnations grown at Waddesdon – so high it would be difficult to see guests across the table.
A typical menu would include consommé and crayfish, pullet, veal and beef, and apricots and peaches from the garden. Champagne and wines would be served throughout. After dinner the baron might show the male guests his most recently acquired treasures or paintings, while others retired to the billiard table or the Smoking Room in the Bachelors’ Wing. A guest’s every whim would be catered for by an army of staff, and the high standards of attention were praised even by Queen Victoria herself when she visited the estate in 1890.
In its 125-year history, Waddesdon has entertained a procession of artisocrats, writers, politicians, royalty and – since 1957 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust – a steady stream of paying visitors. The café may only offer one type of milk, but the house and grounds are more splendid than they have been for years. When you stroll through the treasure-filled rooms or skirt the Parterre, spare a thought for the army of staff who kept Waddesdon shining for future generations.