With Christmas fast approaching I decided to get into the festive season by visiting the Victorian Weekend at Audley End House and Gardens near Saffron Walden, Essex.
An English Heritage administered property Audley Mansion House was once one of the largest and most opulent houses in Jacobean England.
I decided to visit the house before exploring the attractions of the service wing, stable yards and extensive gardens and lawns.
I was impressed with the Great Hall dressed for Christmas with wreaths and beautifully decorated Christmas trees and the rest of the house was equally imposing with grand state apartments and resplendent rooms. There is also an impressive art collection which includes work by the German master Hans Holbein the Younger and a notable Venetian cityscape by Canaletto.
The taxidermy display showing hundreds of stuffed and mounted birds is reputed to be one of the best in the country and includes a female and male Great Bustard which had been extinct in the United Kingdom. One of the house guides informed me that the bird was being reintroduced back into the country by the RSPB on Salisbury Plain.
Being a regular viewer of Downton Abbey I was captivated to see and hear the `downstairs` of Mrs Crocombe`s kitchen with actors providing an authentic demonstration of what life must have been like for workers below the stairs. Pies, biscuits and cakes were actually being prepared and cooked in the kitchens by the staff who continued their discussions throughout as though it were a working Victorian kitchen.
Outside I was treated to a demonstration of how to pluck a pigeon ready for cooking and there were several dead rabbits and pheasants strung up waiting to be prepared for the kitchen ovens. There was also an informative talk and display of falconry showing how hawks and falcons were trained alongside Labradors to kill and fetch the `game` birds across the extensive hunting grounds of the estate.
My three year old grand-daughter loved the `free` mini-carousel and swing boats and enjoyed walking with the ponies from the Stable yard back up to the house delivering some of the presents from Father Christmas. She was even more thrilled and elated when she got the chance to meet the great man himself inside the house and collect a small present of a cuddly reindeer. Father Christmas told the children who were all seated on soft cushions around the room the story of `The Night before Christmas` to attentive young ears.
There were a number of other activities taking place in and around the service yard including music and the singing of carols. There is nothing quite like singing carols at Christmas with a large group of people to get you completely absorbed with the Christmas spirit.
Having walked around the house and grounds for over two hours we stopped for a break in the Servants Hall Tea Room and enjoyed freshly baked cakes and a warm cup of tea to round off our wonderful pre – Christmas day at Audley End.
I was so impressed with my visit to Audley End House I am planning to make a further visit after when the house opens up fully.
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