It was a beautiful day and there were a couple of hours to kill before my visitor’s train was due to leave, so I took him to the big house in the village to wander round the gardens for a while. A couple of hours is nowhere near long enough, to be fair; the grounds of Waddesdon Manor cover some 200 acres, and the house itself may seem a little familiar, having featured in many films and TV programmes, including Downton Abbey, The Mummy; Return of the Dragon Emperor and The Tenth Kingdom.
The village is one of the less chocolate boxy villages in the area, being strikingly lacking in the thatch and picket fences department. We do, however, have a magnificent Lodge at the crossroads, and the set of gilded gates in the centre of the village see the best part of half a million visitors a year wander through them in search of a fairytale chateau… a little bit of France in middle England, or so it seems.
We walked the route from the car park rather than take the little bus, passing through stands of huge trees that were a marvel when they were planted, being brought in as mature trees, rather than saplings to complete the landscaping by Elie Lainé. Queen Victoria was invited to view them, but found the newly installed electric lighting a far more fascinating subject. Apparently her Majesty couldn’t stop switching the lights on and off. Still, we weren’t going to have time to go inside the house and our attention was on the gardens, and that lovely mixture of wild and tended that characterises the place.
The first glimpse as you come through the trees is along the path that divides the house from the parterre, where the cool green shade gives way to the golden glow of ornately carved stone. You really could be forgiven for thinking yourself in France, as so many of the details here were inspired by the chateaux of Maintenon and Chambord. Graceful turrets and towers punctuate the skyline and even England’s eternal banks of chimneypots have acquired the gloss of elegance.
From the Proserpina fountain, brought from the Palace of Colorno in Italy, to the statues that grace the glades, you can see the famous Gout Rothschild spilling out of the house and down the hillside. The Manor was built in the late 1800’s to house the art collection, and I know the treasures it houses… from Sevres to Boucher and Gainsborough… and the wonderfully theatrical Sleeping Beauty paintings of Leon Bakst, that set me thinking last year and which are housed, appropriately, in the tower with its trellis of ivy.
New works of art are still added to the collection, yet the Manor no longer belongs to the family that built it; it was given to the National Trust in 1957. It has provided employment in the village for a long time now and the villagers’ Christmas gift is a pass to the grounds for the year.
It has seen many things, this place. A Roman road ran through here once upon a time and there was a settlement here… the traces of their vineyards remain beneath the village school by the Manor gates. Long before that, Iron Age huts dotted this landscape… and further still Neolithic man hunted here, leaving his axes in what are now the ploughed fields of the Home Farm. In WWII small children from London were evacuated to the safety of the Manor and today children laugh in the woodland playgrounds.
Even though the Manor is fairly new in the flow of history, you can see so much reflected in the interpretations of the lovely chateaux, classical motifs and sheer artistry of the building that time seems a meaningless thing here. Greek Gods grace the woods and lawns, side by side with ultramodern works of art and technology.
Every year new installations are invited and new works add a different dimension to the gardens. This year there is the Julius Popp water sculpture Bit Fall in the Aviary… a wrought iron filigree that houses rare birds as part of a serious conservation and breeding programme. Down the hillside snakes another… more organic… a wildflower sculpture by Philippa Lawrence, inspired by the textiles in the Manor.
The resident gardeners bring a sense of fun with their own flower sculptures… precision planting at its best, with not a weed to be seen… yet two great birds draw only smiles from the children, while the design of the ancient Roman mosaic on display in the house is echoed in the long flower bed behind the fountain.
There is art of all kinds here, yet for me it is not the precise beds that draw me, but the winding paths through the trees; not the manicured lawns with their neatly mown stripes, but the hillside where long grasses tumble in waves, carrying a foam of wildflowers. The marble children of the sculptures do not laugh like the ones who run through the glades and the frozen forms of carved animals do not have the same warmth or joy as the wary squirrel, poised for flight that watches from the tree.
It is true that the formal borders and soaring pinnacles are beautiful. There is something in that symmetry that cannot help but impress. But the ordered perfection of artifice is just that… artificial; a display of status and control… even over nature. The stones are carved into foliate forms, the ivy caged in geometry, yet around this little oasis of aesthetic perfection nature blooms. The landscaped park gives way to native trees and fields, then onwards to the rolling hills and the wild places.
In this place it seems that all ages are brought together, by every type of art, and laid out before us in a single tapestry of flowering creativity. Here too the natural world blends gently with artifice, the edges blurring together and illuminating each other by their very differences.
It is said that a garden is the quest for paradise… that we bring in close those things that speak to us of beauty and try to attain an ideal of perfection, though perhaps there is a deeper yearning still, as we set our gardens under the blue of the sky, reflecting it in our pools, emulating the rain with our fountains. Perhaps there is, deep down, a knowledge that we already have perfection all around us, even though we may not see it or touch it through the veils of our human focus on our own place in the social world in which we live.
Maybe all our efforts to create beauty are only an attempt to capture it and pin it down in a small enough measure that we can begin to understand it and reach through its form to its soul. Maybe what we seek to create is a mirror of something we sense but dimly; a beauty that is real… and which has always been our own.