Before the year's up I wanted to visit English Heritage's three most expensive properties, because by themselves their admission prices exceed the price of annual membership. I did Dover Castle back in March, Stonehenge a fortnight ago, and now I've completed the trio with Audley End. As an actual stately home it's an unusual property on English Heritage's books, possibly the closest EH members get to an National Trust experience, complete with drawing rooms, cream teas and gardens for pottering. [10 photos]
Built to impress by the Earl of Suffolk around 1610, Audley End used to be much larger, stretching symmetrically down to the river. When fortunes changed it got knocked back to an inner court, then rose to prominence again with rooms by Robert Adam and a dash of relandscaping by Capability Brown. Key owners included the wonderfully named Sir John Griffin Griffin, the 3rd Baron Braybrooke and the Ministry of Works. So what we have here is a Jacobean mansion with Georgian extras and a Victorian service wing, set amid Palladian gardens, co-opted for the Polish Special Operations Executive during the war. Should be enough to be getting on with.
The main house is a camera-free zone, which'll make you itch the minute you step into the Great Hall and see the roof. The shields, the portraits, the ancient timbers - you'll just have to remember them rather than share. The Robert Adam reception rooms are on the ground floor, fashionable at the time but a bit lah-di-dah now. Nothing's labelled so the trick is to engage with the volunteer in the room, else you'll simply wander through and wander back.
Upstairs are more private chambers, lofty and over-decorated, including a saloon, an inconveniently located dining room and a library with a first edition of Dr Johnson's two volume dictionary (A-K and L-Z, since you ask). Here too is the luxurious fourposter Lord Howard dearly hoped King George III would sleep in, if only he hadn't fallen ill shortly before the visit and never followed up. The coal gallery is likely unique, a long corridor stashed with bunkers for dispersing coal down into the main house in scuttles. And the top floor houses the recently-reopened nursery, which kids will like, and where I enjoyed looking out of the window.
That bubbly topiary is a 'cloud hedge', planted to screen the servants' quarters from visiting guests. The Service wing comprises a kitchen, dairy, and 'wet' and 'dry' laundry. This is set out as it would have been in 1847, when it was rebuilt after a fire, so all the names and ages of the servants are known, as well as their relative wages. You can wander round willy-nilly, or take an excellent 30 minute guided tour which explains what all the tubs are and how butter was made, and which two servants were the only ones left behind when the rest of the household decamped to London in the spring.
The gardens are splendid, with more formal beds closer to the house and the walled kitchen garden farther flung. To get there requires crossing an ornamental river which turns out to be the upper reaches of the Cam, decoratively rechanneled for stately perambulation. At this time of year leaves are on the turn, the last of summer flowers remain ablaze, and the year's harvest is starting to be arrayed. The gardeners have staged some magnificent displays of apples, of copious varieties, as well as a carpet of gourds and squashes to make any Hallowe'ener wildly jealous.
Cheaper than Dover Castle, more expensive than Stonehenge, that's the wonder of Audley End.