About an hour outside London is a grand house that would impress anyone, except its original builder, as what you see is missing two-thirds of the original house.
Like most grand houses, this one owes its origins to the Dissolution of the Monastries, when the lands were granted to Sir Thomas Audley in 1538. A modest house was built, but that was demolished and a huge Jacobean palace was built instead by Thomas Audley’s grandson, Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk.
Known as a “prodigy house”, a palace in all but name, it was renowned as one of the finest Jacobean houses in the country. It later became an actual Palace when King Charles II bought it, but King William III sold it back to the Suffolks in 1701. A grand house needs a grand budget to run, so in 1708, a grand frontcourt was demolished, and in 1753 the East Wing was also torn down opening up what is now the back courtyard. Externally it’s remained little changed since then.
The main changes are internal, and also what was the back of the house is now the front.
The house gained a wartime function during WW2, as it was used as a training camp for Polish members of the Special Operations Executive, and although returned to its owners after the war, the ninth Lord Braybrooke sold it to English Heritage’s predecessor in 1948, leaving the pictures and furnishings on loan.
It’s now open to the public to visit, and very much ticks the boxes you expect to tick if visiting a grand house and gardens.
Although English Heritage owns the house, as the artwork inside is on loan from Lord Braybrooke, they don’t allow photography inside, which is a pity as the building itself is quite stunning.
A grand two-storey high entrance hallway with an enormous wooden carved screen on one end and a double set of stone stairs up to the 1st-floor at the other.
Upstairs a series of large rooms bigger than most people’s houses lead around the house, and in most of them, it’s the ornate ceilings that constantly draw the eye upwards. Not all of them are Jacobean though, as various previous owners have chopped around the rooms a bit and in places added later replica ceilings instead.
The living room was once three rooms leading to a stately bedroom, but now it’s a living room, with a fireplace borrowed from elsewhere. The dining room has two fireplaces, as it was two rooms. Two libraries line the walls with books instead of wallpaper.
Further upstairs is something odd. A coal cellar is on the third floor. The effort of hauling the coal up a winch outside the house presumably being vastly offset by the lesser effort during the rest of the time of carrying coal downstairs instead of up them from the cellar. A long gallery in another house would be lined with works of art, but here it’s a menagerie of stuffed animals that would not look out of place in a Victorian natural history museum.
There’s not much in the way of interpretation, a few discrete signs and staff in each room happily answering odd questions you might ask. It’s more of a soaking up the atmosphere of a grand, and very much altered house.
Down to one side are the kitchen gardens and woodland walks. A raised lake cascades down to the lower levels, and feeds a couple of ornamental ponds.
As with most of the estate, the kitchen garden has undergone a lot of changes over the centuries, and is in a different location to its original as landscaping the grounds near the house rose in importance for the Lords of the Manor, so they sent the kitchen garden somewhere less visible.
It’s a proper old mansion house walled country garden, and today as then, it’s not for show but is a fully functioning garden still growing crops for the table and flowers for decoration. Fruit trees are surrounded by beds of wildflowers to attract pollinating bees, who actually seemed far more interested in feasting on the long rows of lavender plants outside the greenhouses.
The Vinery on for the grapes and peaches was restored in 1995, and the rest of the kitchen gardens were restored to a classic manor house kitchen garden at the turn of the Millenium. I can also note that going into warm greenhouses on a very hot day is a bit of a challenge.
A nearby walled garden is much more wild and ornamental flowers, and known as the Bothy, as apprentice gardeners would live in bothies next to the garden. Nearby are the stables, in a grand building that would probably be pretty decent housing for humans in any other setting.
The grounds are largely open to then wander around, and if you want to feed the ducks and geese at the lake, the shop will sell you some feed. Large lawns face the front, but to my mind, the best view of the house is the back, with a long sloping lawn leading up to a hill to get better views.
A temple at the very top of the hill is currently off-limits, but looks impressive as a Victorian folly.
Getting to Audley End House
The nearest station is Audley End for Saffron Walden, which is about an hour from London Liverpool Street. Audley End station is then about a 20-30 minute walk to the House.
If you drive, then you can park in the grounds of the estate itself.
Tickets to visit both the House and the gardens cost: Adult £19 | Child £11.40 | Concession £17.10 | Families (2 adults) £49.90 | Families (1 adult) £30.40
Tickets currently need to be booked in advance from here.
Alternatively, entry is free if you join English Heritage as a member, which costs £64, so you only need to visit a few places to save money.