Audley End. The name has a certain ring to it –
romantic, historic, sombre perhaps. Alan Jamieson went to Saffron Walden to absorb its unique atmosphere.
The Audley who gave his name to the house was Sir Thomas, one of Henry VIII’s courtiers who presided over the trial of Anne Boleyn. His marriage took him into the powerful Howard family (later Dukes of Suffolk), one of whom was a sea captain who served with Sir Francis Drake. But the house is not Elizabethan, except in its origin. It was rebuilt a century later in a solid style, fit for a king – and indeed Charles II stayed at the house in 1668. He must have been impressed: walls panelled in oak; plaster ceilings criss-crossed with beams; massive fireplaces with gargoyles; crowned with carved chimneypieces; heavy, solid Jacobean furniture. And on every wall are portraits of kings and queens, lords and ladies, scowling sternly at visitors as they pass below. The families who lived at Audley End are all here – the Howard, Griffin, Grey, Neville and Cornwallis clans. The art collection is magnificent, with portraits and landscapes by Holbein, Lely and Canaletto: as good as any municipal picture gallery.
The pictures, furniture, the formidable Great Hall, the elegant bedrooms and dressing rooms, drawing room and butler’s pantry all contribute to the ‘atmosphere’. You’re taken back in time. It is the 1820s, when the 3rd Lord Braybrooke and his young wife furnished Audley End in Jacobean style. Many famous architects and designers such as Sir John Vanbrugh, Robert Adam and Capability Brown have all left their mark on the house, and its rolling parkland grounds and gardens.
The first glimpse of Audley End sets the scene. The house gleams gold in the sunshine; it has turrets, high chimneys, pinnacles and parapets, colonnaded gateways, bay windows of gleaming glass. The house was started in 1582 by the Howard family and not finished until 1614 when James I was King, hence its Jacobean style and reputation. However, the Howards, who were court and seafaring absentees, never lived there and the estate slipped into grievous debt. Among its owners was Sir John Griffin Griffin (he had to change his name to inherit the house – and was either particularly fond of ‘Griffin’ or highly lacking in imagination). He did employ Capability Brown to lay out the parkland, though, so he can’t have been entirely dull. The imaginative inspiration came later: it was in the 19th century that Lord Braybrooke smartened the house, furnished it and hung the portraits. His intention was to honour the families who had owned it and lived in it before him.
Inside, it’s a 17th century mansion with Victorian dressing. The Great Hall lives up to its name, rising through two storeys and lit by five huge windows. The oak screen has grotesque masks and faces, and mounted on the walls are firearms, shields, pikes and banners. The grand dinners that Lord Braybooke hosted in the Hall would have impressed any visitor, royal or plebeian, with portraits of the Cornwallis and Neville families staring at them from the walls.
A fine staircase leads from the Great Hall to the saloon where all is Regency, except for a 1740 mahogany sofa and a massive Elizabethan fireplace. The drawing room was Lord Braybrooke’s pride and joy, and is immaculately presented in its 1820s style. On the red flock wallpapered walls hang works by Dutch masters and Canaletto’s scenes of Venice. A black-gowned Lady Braybrooke smiles benignly on visitors. Equally impressive is the library: people’s eyes tend to wander from the rows of books to grotesque masks on the plaster friezes. In the dining room, set for dinner in 1872, stern portraits of the Nevilles, Howards and Cornwallises clutter the walls. A ‘normal’ dinner party was for about 14 people but on one day in July 1872, 95 sat down to dine. In the course of the same month, about 900 people enjoyed the Braybrooke hospitality, although most of these were the servants. Times have changed at Audley End, then.
Deeper into the house is a picture gallery (more portraits), a private chapel, numerous bedrooms and dressing rooms (exquisitely furnished with heirlooms) and Lady Braybrooke’s sitting room, laid for tea. Nearby is the butler’s pantry with crested plates stored in cupboards; there’s also a tapestry room and an immense collection of stuffed birds and animals, in cases. (One of the later Braybrookes exercised his eccentricity by stuffing birds).
The gardens are superb. There’s a lake, a parterre with mini-hedges and flowerbeds, sweeping parkland, a ‘temple’ built in honour of George III, a ‘teahouse bridge’ and a thriving walled kitchen garden.
During the summer, there are picnic concerts in the grounds (ideal for those mourning the sad demise of the open-air concerts at Kenwood). Furthermore, the house itself also holds special ‘theme’ days such as Victorian toys, falconry, inventions, and dance.
Details of regular opening times and special events can be obtained by logging on to www.english-heritage.org.uk or by telephoning the house on 01788 522842.