Audley End House and Gardens, Essex

Birds of PreyI was inspired to look for a place to visit by a discussion we were having on the forum about some of the events being held for Halloween in stately homes, manors etc.  We also had some good friends staying who were keen to explore Saffron Walden, so the "Game" event being held at Audley End House and Gardens seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

An English Heritage property situated in Essex close to the border with Cambridgeshire, this Jacobean mansion built between 1603 and 1614 is arguably one of the most magnificent houses in England.  We started with a birds of prey display in the gardens where the very articulate presenters, wonderfully dressed in period costume, explained the role of the birds in supplying game for the table in the house.  A truly impressive display followed that saw the birds soar to impressive heights then fold back their wings and plummet in a seemingly terminal dive, only to pull up and take the lure at the final second.  When they asked for volunteers & chose a small girl to run across the field, I feared the worst but they had her trail a lure and soon the bird was arrowing in to take it down with ruthless efficiency. Even with the splendour of the costumes and the plumage of the birds, the performers couldn't resist a cheeky photograph with the bag.

Head GamekeeperOutside the house was a shed where the game was hung to mature and after seeing this we entered the service wing, presented as it was in 1881.  Here the head gamekeeper was plucking a pigeon.  When I saw the ring of children watching him pluck the bird and explaining his technique so as not the tear the bird’s skin, as that would let all the fat out during roasting, I felt sure these kids would faint or be traumatised for life.  Oh no they loved it, shuffling in for a closer look and hanging on to every word the gamekeeper said.  Revelling in the story of hunting game with the master, he was also in period costume but more importantly kept brilliantly in character.  In the kitchen, ruled by the fearful cook Mrs Crocombe, (her bark was worse than her bite I'm sure) was a demonstration of how the post plucked or skinned animals became a crusty game pie.  The smell as they came out of the oven was mouth watering and I was sad I wasn't staying for dinner.  Sadly one of the pies didn't want to come out of the tin cleanly and the result was surely destined for the staff table rather than the Lord’s.  Recipe sheets were available, so despite her brusque manner, she was really a kindly soul, sharing her recipes with us amateurs.  The Tearoom was serving some of the pies, together with soups made from vegetables grown in the organic kitchen garden.

We next took a guided tour of the house, visiting the great hall and grand reception rooms.  On display was fine works by Holbein, Lely and Canaletto and there was an 18th century gothic chapel.  The outstanding feature for me though was the natural history gallery that had an absolutely tremendous display of stuffed animals, all so perfectly done you feared to put your hand too close in case they still bite.

Tea House BridgeThere is much to see outside the house.  The Parterre is the 19th century formal flower garden that radiates symmetrically out from a central fountain and was designed to be admired from the first floor rooms of the house.  Clearly not at its best at this time of the year, I can imagine it's quite a spectacle when in full bloom.  Roman style columns are an important feature of the landscape design and an example can be found at the Temple of Concord, which carries plaques extolling the virtues of George III.  Columns can also be found at the Tea House bridge, one of the elegant garden buildings designed by Robert Adam. Here the family and their guests would take tea and play cards. There is also an urn as a memorial to the Polish soldiers who trained here (it was a secret at the time) during the Second World War.

Adam BridgeSadly the 17th century stables and yard are devoid of horses now but it houses a multimedia exhibition where you can follow the development of the estate and listen to the estate workers of the 1880s.  Horses do make an appearance on special demonstration days throughout the year.  The garden is very much alive, however, growing organic fruit and vegetables in partnership with Garden Organic.  They have some quite amazing varieties of apples here and some old names you never see in the supermarket anymore.  The Orchard House was based on a design by Thomas Rivers, one of the greatest figures of Victorian horticulture.

To complete our visit we took a stroll around the grounds to admire the views of the beautiful countryside and Adam Bridge running over the river Cam is a definite "Kodak moment".

This was an excellent trip and we had enough time to head for a quick tour around Saffron Walden & have a sumptuous dinner at the The Ickleton Lion  What a satisfying day out, savouring some of the great things England has to offer.

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Steve Aldridge

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