Not far outside London in the middle of the English countryside is a grand manor house that looks like it belongs in France.
This is Waddesdon Manor, built between 1874-89 for the fabulously wealthy Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in a classic French Châteaux style, as a home for himself, and as a home for his huge art collection.
And while it looks like a conventionally old stone mansion, it was built using the modern method of using a steel frame, had hot running water, and even came with electricity, generated using the estate’s own power generator.
The curious thing about the house is that despite its scale, it’s never been lived in by a family with children — as the three generations who lived here were childless. The final owner, James de Rothschild gifted it to the National Trust, although it’s run separately by the Rothschild Foundation.
It opened to the public in 1959 and is pretty much everything you expect from seeing pictures of the building’s exterior – big, grand, and packed full of treasures.
A visit to the Manor is to flow around the building, taking in each of the richly decorated rooms, and a helpful booklet points out the key objects that are worth being pointed out. Not all of the original collection is here, as some of it was gifted to the British Museum, but there’s enough left to send a head-spinning at times.
There are two floors to wander around, the upper being mainly accommodation, and up one of the spiral turret staircases is the treasures room full of their jewels.
It almost feels like a palace, so richly decorated are the rooms.
Having been around a lot of grand mansions that have centuries of art collected, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the bulk of what is at Waddesdon Manor was acquired in one person’s lifetime. It’s been added to by subsequent generations, but not by much.
One thing that was added after the house was built is a wine cellar. Odd that one wasn’t added originally, as the Rothschilds are noted for their wine estates in France, but down a narrow staircase and into a series of brick rooms with some secure vaults to house some of the rarest vintages. As an ex-wine seller, I spent more time than usual for me watching the video talking about the French vineries.
And behind the video wall, a more utilitarian space looking very Raiders of the Lost Ark that’s said to be the largest private collection of Rothschild wines in the world.
The grounds outside the house are a mix of the ornate garden at the back that drops off suddenly down the steep hill, and a grand processional approach to arrive by. The woods that were planted when the house was built are a delightful mix of specimen trees, so not at all like a typical English woodland. Dotted all around the estate is a large collection of statues.
There’s an aviary to see, a rose garden, the stables at the bottom of the hill (which are now mainly a cafe), a lovely woodland walk, and the powerhouse, which houses an old original lift and the switch unit for their second-generation electricity supply.
I also more than a little geeked out when I spotted that the front entrance is laid with wooden cobbles, a relic from the times when the best streets in the cities were paved with wood. Naturally, there’s a shop, or rather there are two shops – one a large wine and food store (which can deliver), and there’s also the generic National Trust style store full of tea towels and jams, and where I topped up my collection of souvenir mugs.
I wouldn’t say this is a house to visit to learn about centuries of history, as it hasn’t been here long enough for that, but it undeniably is a house to visit to see what can be done when a person which a massive passion for collecting art is also a person with an equally massive bank account to pay for a building to house it.
In 1897, Ferdinand de Rothschild wrote “A future generation may reap the chief benefit of a work which to me has been a labour of love, though I fear Waddesdon will share the fate of most properties whose owners have no descendants, and fall into decay.”
Thanks to a decision to gift Waddesdon to the nation though, not only is its future secure but it can now be seen by vastly more people than would have been possible during the Baron’s lifetime.
Visiting Waddesdon Manor
For everyone, it’s £11/£5.50 to go into the House.
Tickets need to be booked in advance from here.
Getting to Waddesdon Manor
If driving, there’s a free car park at the bottom of the hill and you can either walk up the hill (not advised on a hot day) or take the free Shuttle Bus if you’ve pre-booked tickets.
If coming by train, then the easiest way on the Chiltern Railways line to Aylesbury Vale Parkway station, then there’s a dedicated “greenway” walk to the Manor. That’s about an hour, but much better is to hire an e-bike from the station for £1.50 (book in advance) and cycle to the Manor in about 15 minutes.