The grand facade of Hughenden. Photo: Nicola Tann © 24 Hour Museum
Spring is nearly here and National Trust properties all over the country are gently stirring, getting ready for the new season. Nicola Tann went along to Hughenden Manor to find out how the people behind the scenes bring this magnificent venue back to life.
At Hughenden, the home of English statesman and literary figure Benjamin Disraeli, (1804-1881), there is a strange and magical feeling of time echoing and layering upon itself, of the present living on top of the past. It is a feeling that is calming, occasionally surprising and momentarily unsettling.
Not quite yet open to the public, it is wonderfully peaceful when I arrive. I end up wandering across the north garden, wondering exactly how lost I am, before two kind gardeners help me on my way. I finally manage to meet with Louise Slater, the Visitor Service Manager at Hughenden, who shows me around the house.
Queen Victoria's pony, Flora, and John Brown. Photo: Nicola Tann © 24 Hour Museum
As she does, she tells me about Queen Victoria and Disraeli’s friendship. Despite Prince Albert’s dislike for Disraeli, he quickly became a favourite of the Queen, whom he referred to as ‘The Faery’. As I am led around the rooms of the house, past ghost-like dust sheets, evidence of their fondness for each is everywhere.
Among Queen Victoria’s gifts to Disraeli is a statuette of John Brown with her pony, Flora, which stands in the entrance arcade. When Disraeli told her he was anxious to have an image of her in his ‘Gallery of Affection’, she also gave him a copy of her 1875 portrait, which hangs in Buckingham Palace.
“He really had a bit of a way with her,” Louise tells me. “He had a real way with women in general. He really was a bit of a character – slightly bonkers, I think! But a fantastic chap. And fascinating.”
Close the curtains, I'm still asleep! Photo: Nicola Tann © 24 Hour Museum
In the dining room, when Louise points it out, I can just make out that the legs on one of the chairs are slightly shorter than the others’. Queen Victoria was a tiny lady and Disraeli cut down the legs on her chair to make sure her feet didn’t dangle above the floor.
“He did everything he could to make her as comfortable as possible when she came to visit him,” says Louise. In many ways the Trust is going to similar lengths for its younger visitors and their families.
Preparing for the Royal Visit. Courtesy the National Trust
Hughenden is embracing the idea of family friendly events at the house with weekly activity days. At the recent Royal Visit event more than 300 children from local schools helped staff prepare for an imaginary visit from Queen Victoria. Activities included table laying, woodturning and mucking out the stableyard, before they assembled in front of the house to practice bowing and curtseying.
“The Royal Visit is a great opportunity for local schools to learn about life in Victorian times in a truly historic setting,” explains Community Education Officer Jessie Binns. “The activities really bring the estate to life during the event, and most importantly everyone has lots of fun!”
Housework, National Trust style. Photo: Nicola Tann © 24 Hour Museum
Louise then introduced me to Kate Brocklehurst, the Conservation Assistant, to explain more about the processes used to lay the house to rest over the winter before its resurrection each spring.
Special equipment such as soft brushes and a low powered vacuum cleaner, worn strapped round the waist, are used to clean and prepare the items as they are packed away and brought out again. Light is shut out almost completely through the winter months to avoid damage to the artefacts.
In the study, as we open the shutters and the first shafts of light for months fall across the room, it does feel as if the house is waking up, yawning and rubbing its eyes as it prepares for another summer of work. Sheets and acid-free tissue coverings are carefully removed from furniture and objects and the room slowly comes back to life.
The study wakes up under the first shafts of daylight for several months. Photo: Nicola Tann © 24 Hour Museum
Frank Parge, Head Gardener, meets me on the forecourt of the house and I ask him about the hibernation and reawakening of the house. He tells me it’s a different story for the garden.
“Winter for the gardens is not sleeping time at all – it’s project time for the gardener,” he informs me. “Things like installing new pathways, or replanting – all these things – they have to be done at a time when the house is closed.”
The first thing he shows me is the view from the library – a spectacular lookout through a natural corridor past the gardens to the park. Frank tells me this is a typical 18th century feature – something that Capability Brown or William Kent would have included in their designs – and that, in Disraeli’s time, cattle would have been seen grazing in the park beyond the garden.
The natural corridor that takes the eye to the park. Photo: Nicola Tann © 24 Hour Museum
Mary Anne Disraeli, Benjamin’s wife, was the keen gardener of the two and many of her original design features have been kept. By all accounts she had a very original approach and there is no doubt that Frank has grown fond of her style here in the gardens.
“Being a German landscaper I had a completely different approach myself to the refurbishment,” he says. “I can always see that normality can be good but, if you ask me, I am the first one to break the norm. I like people who do that – they leave a special imprint.”
Here in the garden the feeling that I had in the house, of the layers of time, returns, right here under my feet. While Mary Anne would organise great parties for the servants, Benjamin would organise school feasts for the village children and, like the character that he was, start their races by blowing loudly on a trumpet.
The garden was Mrs Disraeli's territory and many features she put in place remain. Photo: Nicola Tann © 24 Hour Museum
Now a vegetable garden has been established in one of the walled gardens for use by local school children. They will be able to grow their own beans, peas and strawberries and then use the kitchen to prepare the food before eating it. “From plot to plate,” as Frank puts it. I can’t help being caught up with his enthusiasm for the whole scheme.
“It is important to us to spread the knowledge through modern young generations,” he says. “Instead of reinstating a static feature from the past we are reinstating something that is very much vivid and alive and doing lots of brilliant things!”
The tour is now over and I can’t resist taking Frank up on his offer of a cup of tea and a biscuit in the office with the force of volunteer gardeners. As we talk and eat I am reminded of Disraeli’s words about his gardeners, with whom he loved to chat:
“Their conversation is racy, and the repose of their natural manners agreeable… I don’t know any men [and women in this case] who are so completely masters of their business, and of the secluded but delicious world in which they live.”
The bunker-cum-apple store. Photo: Nicola Tann © 24 Hour Museum
As we finish (without too much racy talk!), Frank offers to show me the apple store room on my way out. It turns out to be an old stone bunker, used during the Second World War to make maps from aerial photographs taken of Germany.
As Frank is putting half a dozen apples in my bag he explains how it was set up: “Here on the floor you can see where the table was set to put the projections up on the wall here,” he gestures.
“Back then they made maps to help to invade Germany and now a German man keeps his apples here. Just as history should be!”
I couldn’t agree more.
Nicola Tann is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer for Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.