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My visit to Stratfield Saye
the Country House of the 1st Duke of Wellington

Thursday 1st May 2014

We started our visit with a welcome coffee and shortbread biscuit break in the cafe.  We had been given timed tickets for our visit to the house as we descended from the coach.  Our ticket was for twelve o’clock , this gave us time to explore the other attractions of the estate. 

We started in the stable block.  This housed a collection of artefacts related to Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington.  A series of display boards gave us a potted history of his life including a family tree.  The highlight of the exhibition was his magnificent funeral carriage.  It is twenty one feet long, ten and half feet wide and weighs about eighteen tons.  This carriage was drawn by twelve black dray horses on the day of the funeral.  It was a grand occasion attended by many dignitaries including some of the Crowned Heads of Europe.  However the size and weight of the carriage posed many problems on the day partly because it got stuck in The Mall and on Ludgate Hill on its journey to St Pauls Cathedral. The problems were added to when the swivelling mechanism that was designed to slide the coffin on to a ramp built over the steps of the Cathedral failed to work properly.

After leaving the stable block we visited the attractive if somewhat damp gardens.  The gardens have been undergoing restoration since 1975.  They include a rose, kitchen and several walled gardens one of which contained a very contented looking flock of chickens.  Under a spreading Turkey oak tree we were able to see the grave of Copenhagen, the much loved but unpredictable charger ridden by Wellington during the Peninsula Campaign and the entire day of the Battle of Waterloo.

In front of the east side of the house is the main lawn.  Here the River Lodden has been widened to form a small lake, the aim being to attract wild fowl to the area.  On the left hand side of the house many varieties of trees are growing including a stand of Wellingtonia, the trees named in honour of the Duke a year after his death.

It was now twelve o’clock and it was time to make our way to the house.  After his success at Waterloo the grateful nation gave Wellington 600,000 to buy a house worthy of a hero.  In 1817, after an extensive search the Duke chose to buy Stratfield Saye.  The Duke preferred to live in a more modest house rather than Waterloo Palace, a large mansion that he was being encouraged to build which would have been similar in size to Blenheim Palace.  When the Palace had been completed the plan was to demolish the original house.  Instead Wellington used a lot of the allocated money to purchase Apsley House in London (now managed by English Heritage) in order to display many of his valuable paintings.

Before entering the house, our guide explained how the original house had been extended over the years by adding extra wings, a portico, a cupola and an orangery complete with swimming pool.  There is evidence that the Duke had installed secondary glazing, a novel innovation that he had picked up during his travels in Russia.  Central heating was another comfort installed by the Duke. Queen Victoria had initially dismissed this idea but she later installed central heating in her own homes.

The entrance hall was a complex mixture of styles – a mosaic pavement rescued from Silchester, a Romano British town near the house; a large array of family portraits; embroidered banners, marble busts on marble pedestals; elaborate large green malachite tazza.  The original colza oil lamps are now adapted to be powered by electricity however there are also some wooden pillars painted to look like marble.  Our guide explained the ceiling had been raised so the gallery had been constructed to link the upper rooms of the house.  We proceeded to walk along a corridor containing a rare painting of Wellington and Nelson together.

This brought us to the library, a stunning room reflecting the Duke’s love of books and reading.  The walls were surrounded by beautiful bookcases containing about three thousand books.  In addition they have the Duke’s folding travelling bookcase also filled to the brim.  The ceiling in this room is magnificent; it is based on a copy of an illustration of the ruins of Palmyra in Syria.  The ceiling is made of papier mache.  It has been repainted and gilded set off by complementary silk wall paper hung in 1963.  The arms of the chairs in this room have small round holes drilled in them, this feature was designed by the Duke so that a book rest can be inserted in to the holes, the book rest can also be adjusted to form a table top.  The proceeds of this invention are still paid to the Chelsea Hospital, an institution that supports elderly military service people.  On the wall were portraits of Napoleon and George Washington, these gentlemen had a mutual complaint – the discomfort of wearing their wooden false teeth!

The music room houses many excellent paintings notably one of Copenhagen, the aforementioned horse, and a hunting scene in front of Windsor Castle with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  This is evidence of the high regard shown to the Duke by the Royal family.  The Duke later became Godfather to Prince Arthur.  Later in the tour we were shown The Servery where we saw more pictures that showed the close links between the Duke and the Royal Family.

The house had a ‘lived in’ feeling illustrated by the study used by the current occupant of the house, Lord Douro.  Apart from the Chippendale desk and the antique furniture there was plenty of  the paraphernalia to be found in a modern study.  Even more surprising was the huge television to be found in one of the front drawing rooms.

Next we mounted the beautifully carved oak staircase part of the original house, dating from 1630.  More paintings again this time including one painted by Tintoretto.

What do you expect to find in the guest bedrooms of a stately home?  A four poster bed?  Heavy fringed curtains?  Delicate bedside tables?  Large wardrobes? All of this was as expected but not the surprise in a corner ‘cupboard’ – a fully working plumbed in toilet.

Back down the stairs and into the Gallery, a room added to the front of the house in 1745.  It has a stunning view over the lawn and lake with a hill rising in the distance.  This hill is the site where the proposed Waterloo Palace was supposed to be built.  Originally this room would have been unfurnished so that the ladies could promenade up and down after the evening meal.  Now it is quite full with a purpose made carpet, Shakespearean prints and gilding on the walls with many ornate pillars supporting bronze busts.  It would be stunning when illuminated in the evening.

The objects that caught my attention were the two chests either side of the door, they were made in France.  They are example of metal marquetry; a sheet of metal would be expertly and delicately cut out in an intricate pattern, this would be attached to the front of the first chest.  The pieces of metal that had been cut out would then be inlaid on the front of the second chest thereby producing a negative repeat of the pattern.  This craftsmanship was of the highest possible standard.

We enjoyed a welcome sit down in the china room while we admired the top quality china on display.  They have sixty place settings of some of these services.  In one cabinet was some porcelain produced in China for one of the Duke’s brothers when he was the Governor of India.  It was simply beautiful.

Next into the spacious airy dining room, yet more family portraits, the largest picture was of the 1st Duke when he was serving in India as a young Major General.  The mahogany table can be extended to seat thirty people.  Apparently the family owns a teddy bear that is always seated in place thirteen.

By this time we were feeling quite weary but we still had enough energy to admire the wallpaper, the gilded furniture, the ceiling, the elaborate French mirrors and furniture in the main drawing room.  The Guide told us the intriguing tale of how the Duke came to own so many valuable paintings.  Apparently Emperor Joseph had looted the paintings from the Spanish Royal collections during his travels in Spain.  When Joseph decided to retreat the goods were packed on a mule train over a mile in length.  When the British cavalry caught up with this train they captured these goods.  The soldiers did not realise the value of the items and they even used some of the canvases to protect their pack mules from the wet weather.  When the true identity of the haul had been discovered Wellington ordered them to be returned to their rightful owner but the King of Spain very generously said that Wellington would be allowed to keep them.

After an hour and a half touring the house we were pleased to make our way back to the cafe to partake of a first class ploughman’s lunch.  While enjoying our lunch we sat and watched the heaviest downpour of rain of the day.

The outing was concluded by a visit to the Wellington Farm Shop.  I think a coach load of customers making their careful selections from a wealth of top quality produce must have gladdened the heart of the shop manager on a grey, wet Thursday afternoon.

We thoroughly enjoyed the visit, there was plenty to see and admire in the company of pleasant well informed guides.  I for one am pleased that the 1st Duke of Wellington refused to have Stratfield Saye razed to the ground.  Thank you to Gwen for organising this trip.

Heather Head

Related Links (open in new window):

Stratfield Saye
Wellington Farm Shop
Apsley House - Wellington's London home