Talk to almost any local about England’s countryside and watch as a sweet glazed expression washes in, then my desire to visit ensues. Since I always want the fullest possible experience of any place I visit, I began to wonder how I might visit London but experience both town and country without losing too much time traveling between the two. Fortunately, Buckhinghamshire County located within an easy hour and a half by car, or train, from central London answered my question with style and luxury to spare. The area boasts numerous attractions including: Claydon House, Blenheim Palace and Stowe Landscape Gardens. I visited Waddesdon Manor and stayed at nearby Hartwell House where I enjoyed pleasures both contemporary and timeless.
I spent the early afternoon touring Waddesdon Manor, a home built in the late 19th century, by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, avid collector and member of the famous de Rothschild banking family. He intended the home to be a showcase for his collections, which range from fine art, to Sevres porcelain to furniture and as a place to entertain his circle of society. Ferdinand built Waddesdon as a pastiche to emulate the style found in the French Loire Valley during the Renaissance. It's true sensory overload. I entered the mansion and lost all track of reality and time. The lights are kept low to help preserve the world-class collection of textiles and art, which, for me, enhances the mystique and the depths of decadence created by liberally used reds and golds. Negative space doesn't exist; every corner is crammed with sights and gadgets meant to delight. Our tour guide was able to explain the intricacies of the de Rothschild family as well as offer insight into the history of the collection's pieces. The novices as well as the avid art buffs among our group left satisfied and entertained.
After visiting the country life of days gone by, I stayed at Hartwell House. The property's history extends back to the Doomsday Book when it was listed as belonging to William Peverel the son of William the Conqueror. It's a place that even when booked to capacity gives the feel of space and solitude. I enjoyed walks around the grounds, chased the rabbits, and investigated the remains of a little chapel and other lost looking statues scattered about the grounds. Some of these statues were out in the middle of the fields with the grazing cows. No need to worry about the cows interrupting your game of croquet, they have been separated from the main lawns by cunningly disguised ditches comically named, Haha's.
Haha's or not, after my adventures about the grounds, it was fun to order a cocktail in the dark wood paneled bar and sit sipping it on a fluffy down filled couch next to a cozy fire in one of the public reception rooms. Hartwell has furnished the public rooms with a mix of antiques and original art with comfortable and more functional pieces mixed in. The effect is welcoming and it's the perfect prelude to dinner in the dining room where the dishes also reflect a mix of formality and the comforts of home. Although there were delicacies presented with much flair, the item I most remember was a chocolate pudding that reminded me of a dessert my mom sometimes makes. It was delicious!
After dinner I was led to the King Louis XVIII suite. Yes, an exiled French King once held court at Hartwell House and it is now possible to sleep in the room that he used as his bedroom during the summer months. I wonder if he too woke up in the morning, as I did, to the sound of cows mooing in the distance? I'm told he fell in love with this country. It's easy to believe that. The hills slope, but are not too steep. The grass is green, but is not too dense. Even the trees seem to hold their own genteel secrets.
Hartwell is as authentic as an upscale English country weekend can be, but it has, for me, created a pastiche that truly compliments Waddesdon Manor. The Baron de Rothschild was a naturalized Englishman from Vienna creating his idea of the perfect French Renaissance experience. Hartwell House is creating the quintessential "traditional" English country experience. Yet, this story involves an exiled French Court taking on all things English. English history includes so much movement of differing cultures over its land, and it all seems quite appropriate really — especially from my American conception of what a traditional, but pampered, visit to the English countryside should be like. There is that perfect mix in Buckinghamshire, the perfect country counterpart to nearby London town.
As winter and Christmas season approach it's worth noting that both Waddesdon and Hartwell offer special programs during these seasons. Specific details including pricing and menus can be found by visiting each venue's home page.
Written by Kimberli Waack