The beautiful county of Buckinghamshire offers country estates and glorious gardens, and has intriguing wartime connections
Bordering Greater London to the southeast, Buckinghamshire’s proximity to the capital made it a prime spot for the building of grand country estates – the grander the better, so as to impress any visiting dignitaries. The Prime Minister’s country home, Chequers, is located in a quiet corner of this leafy county, and there are many other fine examples to discover.
Waddesdon Manor, arguably Buckinghamshire’s most impressive country house, was built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in the late 19th century to entertain guests and show off his impressive collection of Old Masters, Gobelins tapestries and Sèvres porcelain.
A fairy-tale French château, complete with whimsical towers, turrets and external staircases, it was the perfect setting for extravagant parties, and Ferdinand’s hospitality was legendary, with glamorous guests and socialites descending for summer-weekend house parties.
Queen Victoria requested a private visit in 1890. While dining at the Manor she was fascinated by the electric lights in the chandeliers, asking for them to be turned on and off repeatedly, with the curtains drawn, so that she could see the full effect.
The Queen didn’t entirely trust Ferdinand’s newfangled technologies, however – he’d installed a small elevator in honour of her visit, but she declined to use it.
Nearby Claydon, a splendid 18th-century house in idyllic countryside, appeared in the 2015 lm adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. It was originally intended to be much larger, but construction stalled when the owner, the second Earl Verney, failed to pay his bills.
Lord Verney eventually fled to France to escape his creditors. When he died in 1792, his niece inherited Claydon and demolished part of the building, leaving the single wing that stands today.
Inside the house, still owned by the Verney family, carved Rococo architecture and an impressive library give visitors a feel for how the house might have looked in its heyday.
The mahogany staircase has decorative ironwork depicting ears of wheat designed to rustle as you ascend the stairs, though sadly the staircase is currently closed due to its fragility. Another staircase takes you to the Chinese Room, with intricate fretwork and an astonishingly elaborate Rococo pagoda.
Just outside the county town of Buckingham are the famous landscaped gardens of Stowe.
Stroll through Capability Brown’s enchanting landscape and you’ll pass tranquil lakes and rolling lawns dotted with statues, temples and follies; in one of them, the Gothic Temple, you can even stay the night.
Look out for the Temple of British Worthies, a commemoration in stone of 15 great men from history, including William Shakespeare, John Locke and Isaac Newton. Queen Elizabeth I is the only woman, so the National Trust has commissioned a new installation in the garden for 2019, depicting 15 great women from history and one man, to redress the balance.
East of Stowe, and providing a marked contrast to its landscaped lawns, is Bletchley Park, a Second World War codebreaking centre. Alan Turing famously cracked the German Enigma code at Bletchley – with a little help from his groundbreaking Bombe machine.
The codebreaking at Bletchley Park turned the tide in the Allies’ favour and is said to have shortened the war by two years. Visitors can get up close to Enigma and replica Bombe machines, test their own code-cracking skills and see the offices laid out as they were in wartime.
Another top-secret wartime location was Hughenden Manor, further south. Codenamed ‘Hillside’, it was a base for map-making operations, supporting the pilots of nearby Bomber Command.
Hughenden is best known, though, as the former home of Victorian statesman Benjamin Disraeli, who bought this magnificent estate in 1848 to impress his peers and be taken seriously in politics. He became Prime Minister in 1868 and again in 1874.
Inside the manor, there are plenty of insights into his life: his wife, Mary Anne, 12 years his senior, was a wealthy widow. He married her for money, but then fell deeply in love and was devastated when she died in 1872.
Disraeli and Queen Victoria were very fond of each other, and he wrote to her up to eight times a day. In 1877, the Queen dined with Disraeli at Hughenden Manor, and he had the legs shortened on one of the chairs for the occasion; you can still see the chair in the dining room today.
On the Buckinghamshire-Berkshire border, the last stop on your tour has to be Cliveden, a handsome Italianate mansion founded in 1666 and rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry in 1851. For the first half of the 20th century, the house belonged to American businessman William Waldorf Astor and his wife Nancy, the first woman elected to parliament in 1919. The couple were known for their lavish parties, with guests including Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi and Henry Ford.
Today, Cliveden is a grand country-house hotel with exquisite grounds that are open to the public. Unspoilt woodland anks the River Thames, and the acres of formal gardens include a dramatic parterre as well as rose gardens, tinkling fountains and topiary.
Just a short drive from Windsor Castle, it’s perhaps no surprise that Meghan Markle thought Cliveden the perfect spot to spend her last night before her wedding to Prince Harry, and we’d hazard a guess that she chose the Lady Astor Suite. A sumptuous boudoir once owned by the lady of the house, it’s certainly fit for a princess.
Words: Susie Kearley