Hughenden is on Window Wednesday this week
With the gorgeous weather recently we decided to make the most of it (and our National Trust membership) and head to a property we haven’t been to before: Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire. Not only is the house steeped in political history due to it being the home of former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Diserali from 1848 to 1881, but during the second world war the property was the secret base for Operation Hillside that saw the hand drawing of maps from photographs taken by RAF reconnaissance flights.
As well as being situated in a stunning location with a formal garden, there is a recently restored kitchen garden with fruit and veg for sale, Sitting a short walk from the house there is also an unusual ice house that was used as a dark room for the development of those secret photographs which gives a real insight into how clandestine the operation was and how life for the personnel living at the house during the war might have been.
We started off in the house, with a self guided tour of many of the rooms open to the public. Laid out as it would have been when Disreali lived in the house, with many of his (and his wife’s personal effects) on display. Queen Victoria visited (Disreali was her favourite Chancellor so you could say they were friends) and there is even a chair that was specially modified for her to sit on so her feet would still reach the floor at the table! After his death Queen Victoria visited the house to spend time in his study and “feel close to him”. She also a erected memorial to him in the church just down the hill from the house, the only instance a reigning monarch has ever erected a memorial to a subject.
As a lover of windows I was in my element in this house! So many of them, dressed beautifully, many with quotes written on the blinds, and all of them with stunning views out on to the garden. The house was designed in such a way that High Wycombe and the towns beyond are all obscured from view.
There is a story behind thes robes below. They were Disreali’s and when there was a change of Prime Minister they were meant to be passed on to the successor, following a tradition started by William Pitt. Disreali was replaced by Gladstone and the men had, it is safe to say, history. On taking over, Disreali wanted Gladstone to pay him for some furniture at the official residence in Downing Street. Gladstone refused so Disreali kept the official robes and brought them to Hughenden where they have remained ever since.
Since there was no love lost between the men, their insults to each other are the stuff of legend. Rumour has it that Gladstone quipped:
You, sir, will certainly either die upon the gallows or of a social disease.
and Disreali replied with:
That depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress
It is said that the lion and the unicorn characters in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass are based on Disreali and Gladstone so there is an Alice in Wonderland theme at Hughenden, with a display of pictures and items from the book in one of the rooms. They also featured in Punch quite often so it is interesting to see how these two political heavy weights were turned into cartoons.
Having retired from politics Disreali then became a novelist, and so his desk sits as it may have done as he wrote his many books. There is library of those that he wrote, alongside the hundreds his father collected (who lived in the house before him and his wife, Mary-Ann).
Though the room below was his favourite as it was the warmest in the house and he really didn’t like the cold. Apparently when it was really cold at the Houses of Parliament his wife would have warm boots and coats delivered to him. She also lost a thumb in a carriage one evening as they went to House for Disreali to deliver a speech. She was so determined not to distract him that she didn’t even tell him the carriage door had been shut on her hand! When he found out he had the door removed and it now sits on the wall here.
The Ice House was extraordinary, and a really lovely display of how it may have looked during the war. These buildings were quite common and used as cool larders and pantries, though I have never seen one this size before. It was the dark room for Operation Hillside, the photos being brought back from the flights out of RAF Benson, developed in a dark room set up in here, and then delivered into the basement of the Manor where they were turned into maps. Including those used in the Dambuster attack.
Sadly it isn’t very wheelchair friendly as much of the displays are in the basement or upstairs, though if stairs are not a problem but a bit of extra assistance is needed with walking, there is a free buggy service from the car park as it’s a good ten minute walk down to the house.
But well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area, there is a lovely picnic area too if you want to make a day of it. And there is something for everybody. It really brings an important part of our history alive in a way that many other houses we have seen haven’t really managed to achieve.
And of course it also has those fab windows!