We left Chelmsford promptly at 8:30 am, on a damp Thursday morning, for the non-stop two hour journey to the country home of the Duke of Wellington, near Reading. Presented to the first Duke, hero of Waterloo, by a grateful nation in 1817, Stratfield Saye remains a family home for the present Duke and his family. Our group of thirty-three was privileged to have the house opened especially for us, ahead of the opening to the public the following week.
On arrival at the modest Visitor Centre, we met the team of knowledgeable guides and were divided into four groups. My group went straight to the former stables, to a section called the Elephant House. Seems the Duke became annoyed that the hooves of the animal pulling his horse-drawn lawn mower were damaging the turf, so decided the big, flat, wide feet of an elephant would be less damaging! The building where the animal was housed now houses the Duke’s funeral bier, a vehicle of truly elephantine proportions.
Our guide gave us a long and detailed account of the Duke’s funeral procession. The bier, made from melted down French cannons, was huge, ornate and an unwieldy carriage which encountered several problems on its journey to St Paul’s, resulting in the Duke being late for his own funeral!
After lunch we moved to the house, where two splendid gentlemen guides supported each other in giving an hour and a half’s tour of the downstairs and the two upstairs rooms. Every room was full of family portraits, and the guides had a dizzy-making knowledge of who had married who, run off with somebody’s wife, had a French mistress, etc.
We were shown two dining rooms, one a family room, the other for formal occasions, with the table set for a dinner party. An intriguing feature was a small glass bowl at each place, with a wine glass tipped sideways in it. The guide explained this was to save having several glasses for different wines at each place. The small bowl would be filled with water in which the guest would rinse his emptied glass before having it filled with a different wine.
One room was lined with cabinets in which were displayed dinner services presented to the Duke by grateful nations - Portugal, Spain, Russia and others. Perhaps a set of wine glasses would have been more useful?
In mid-afternoon we left the house for the ten-minute drive to the Farm Shop. The wide variety of products available included beef from the cattle raised on the estate, honey from its hives and olive oil from the Duke’s Spanish Estate.
We had enjoyed a delightful day at an unpretentious family home, with no commercial trappings, not even a gift shop!