When Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild plonked a somewhat edited copy of the 16th century Chateau Chambord in the middle of traditional English Buckinghamshire in the 1870s, the neighbours were aghast.
Even as late as the 1940s, when a Rothschild heir offered the house, Waddesdon Manor, to the National Trust, the Trust wasn’t sure it really wanted it. Afterall, the house was hardly English; it looked like it belonged in the Loire.
Fast forward to the 21st century and Waddesdon Manor is now one of the National Trust’s most popular attractions.
One reason – apart from the sheer fabulousness of the house and its contents – may be the regularly changing exhibits from the collections of Ferdinand de Rothschild and Alice de Rothschild (his sister); a dazzling array of paintings, furniture and Renaissance objects d’art. Another is, undoubtedly the steady stream of guest exhibitions, art commissions and special events supported and organised by the Rothschild Foundation (who manage Waddesdon).
And every year this fabulous treasure house – built to show off Baron Ferdinand’s collections and to entertain his friends – becomes the backdrop for a Christmas spectacle that’s worth a special trip.
We went along this week for a preview of what the creative team at Waddesdon Manor got up to for Christmas 2016.
Christmas 2016 at Waddesdon
A shuttle from the public parking dropped us off at the North Fountain so we could walk up The Avenue while enjoying Waddesdon bathed in a changing array of coloured lights. Music, from a dramatically good sound system, filled the grounds with familiar classics. What we didn’t know until later is that most of the music played for the “Winter Light” son et lumiere was chosen from the works of composers and musicians who had a connection with the Rothschild family. Chopin taught piano to several Rothschild children. Rossini was a frequent visitor to the house. And there were others – but that was all just the warm up. The best was yet to come.
Inside, an entry passage beside the Manor Restaurant – once Waddesdon’s kitchens – was a sparkling tunnel of coppery trees, twinkling lights and copper painted pots and pans.
The theme within the house in 2016 is Magical Materials. Broadly interpreted, that ranges from a giant ammonite fossil resting on a nest of brightly colored, polished stones to a ten-foot tree created entirely from sculpted paper flowers, an ethereal passage lined in illuminated lace and decorated with lacemakers’ bobbins, and 12 different decorated trees.
Paper roses reach a height of ten feet in one of the most original trees © Ferne Arfin
Dress Up Warm for the Pièce de Résistance
The corridor of lace may have looked chilly but was just an illusion of light and colour – the magic of magic materials. The star of this year’s Christmas at Waddesdon is Bruce Munro’s outdoor installation, Field of Light. And we had to bundle up and find our way through darkened woodland paths to find it (word of advice, bring along a little LED torch or charge up the flashlight on your smart phone).
It was well worth the effort. The international artist, known for light-based immersive installations, has filled Waddesdon’s Aviary Glade with 9,000 glass globes topping slender stems like enchanted, glowing flowers. They’re linked and powered by optical glass fibers and cover acres of gently rolling landscape with ever changing waves of light and colour.
After, we warmed up with flatbreads topped with grilled meats and salads (£6.50) and very gently mulled wine (or hot chocolate for teetotallers and designated drivers) in the Wigwam Café. It’s tucked away in a little forest glade, lined with twinkling lights and surrounded by trees decorated with more lights.
The Gingerbread Dollhouse
Down in the Stables Gallery, The Biscuiteers, Notting Hill-based icing artists, had been busy creating a two-metre long gingerbread model of Waddesdon itself. We were hit by a wave of sweet, gingerbread scent as soon as we entered the gallery.
This extraordinary (edible but who would dare) masterpiece will be on display at Waddesdon until March. Compare these pictures of the gingerbread dollhouse rooms with their actual equivalents, to judge the skill and craftsmanship involved.
The State Bedroom, above, and the gingerbread State Bedroom, below.
The Dining Room, above, and the gingerbread Dining Room below.
Gingerbread Dining Room ©Ferne Arfin
Essentials for Visiting Waddesdon at Christmas
- Where: Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP18 0JH England
- When: Christmas at Waddesdon, including Dazzle@Waddesdon – the outdoor sound and light experience, Bruce Munro’s Field of Light and the decorated Bachelor’s Wing will be on from now until January 2, 11am to 6pm Wednesdays to Sundays and Tuesday December 27.
- Admission: Adult admission for the grounds and the house is £20, for the ground only, £10. Advance booking to tour the Bachelor Wing is required and sells out long before Waddesdon’s Christmas opening. But, don’t be discouraged. This year, Waddesdon is holding back 100 house tour tickets every day for sale on the day. These tickets go on sale at Waddesdon at 11am and must be purchased at the Waddesdon ticket office in person. National Trust members are admitted free but must book for the house tour.
- Visit the Waddesdon Manor website for directions and information about other holiday events and shopping.