Would you like a nice English abbey? A great house in the Palladian style, spreading its wings in a setting of a few thousand acres of groomed parkland? Does it contain centuries of family treasures, each room outdoing the last in paintings, silver, porcelain, furniture? If so you'd like Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire.
And you can have it. For the price of an airline ticket and a modest admission charge, you can cast your eyes on the real stones, tapestries, paintings and glittering dinner settings and use your imagination to see yourself as the lord or lady of all you survey.
The Duke of Bedford, owner (more or less) of Woburn Abbey, is the acknowledged pioneer of financing the operations of great estates by opening them to the public. He credits his Game Park (in which the animals are leased) with bringing Woburn out of the threat of bankruptcy to which death duties left him open. Despite the Duke's business acumen, the Woburn trustees thought him too absent-minded to be trusted with the keys even to his own apartment. In his book, How to Run a Stately Home, he writes that when arriving home at the Abbey he had to ring the bell and wait, "As a rule they open the door and let me in."
When the Duke of Bedford inherited Woburn Abbey in 1953 he had to pay £5.5 million in death duties. It's hard to think of the owner of an immense stately home, the surrounding 30,000 green and fertile acres, an assortment of estate properties in Scotland and England, including some remnants of the choicest London real estate, as being poor. However, in cash terms at least, he was. Some estates were sold but the decision was made to keep Woburn in the family and to make it pay its way.
This country seat of the Dukes of Bedford was among the first to link its continued survival to its success as a commercial venture. The formula, which now applies to hundreds of stately homes in England, seemed innovative to some and crassly commercial to others when the duke adopted it.
The estates had been in the family since 1522 when Henry VIII endowed his translator, John Russell, with property in Scotland, England and a good deal of land around the small city of London including Covent Garden, the Bloomsbury district, and dock lands. Edward VI gave him Woburn, an abbey which dated from 1145 and was confiscated from Cistercian monks who objected to Henry VIII installing himself as the head of the church in England.
Nothing remains of the original religious abbey, many of the family estates have been sold. But family trusts still keep a percentage of their original holdings, and of course the 30,000 acres at Woburn, 3,000 of which is surrounded by a stone wall, enclosing the herd of rare Chinese deer and the other Woburn inhabitants.
With modesty and good-humour the Duke declares that he is not the father of the stately homes business, pointing out that tours of many such homes have always been available to gentlefolk who found themselves in the area, and that Woburn itself was open in the 19th century every Monday to "gentlemen and foreigners".
One of the many artworks at Woburn is a set of watercolours depicting the visit of Queen Victoria in 1841. That was probably the moment you would fantasize about as the height of the good life at Woburn. Wouldn't you like to have been the Duke or Duchess that met Victoria and Albert at your door?
Chances are that the present Duke would not join you in that fantasy. He loves having his home enjoyed by everyone who makes the effort to come. The suite of rooms the dukes kept ready for visiting royalty are now a part of the normal tour of the premises for everyone. At Woburn there are thirty-two sitting rooms, all furnished in different themes: Chinese, a room kept in tribute to the Flying Duchess who died in 1937, the Reynolds Room, etc, but as the Duke so sensibly remarks "I have never felt that I really need thirty-two sitting rooms."
There are rooms for every mood and style, stocked with furniture that's Louis Seize, Elizabethan or Georgian, paintings by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Albert Cuyp, Paulus Potter, and a whole room of Reynolds. There are crypts overflowing with treasures of silver, gold and porcelain which make mere museums look barren and empty. There are twenty-two dining rooms, one is hung with twenty-one Venetian scenes all by Canaletto which were commissioned by the Fourth Duke when he visited Venice, and Canaletto, in the 18th century.
The abbey grounds are used for golf tournaments, the Game Park, a Neil Diamond concert (60,000 people on the front lawn) and an annual fly-in of Tiger Moth bi-planes. The Duke's ancestors would undoubtedly be surprised by the state of Woburn today, but they would probably be impressed. The family motto for hundreds of years has been Que sera sera.
The fantasy of the immensely rich aristocrat living in a great and beautiful house on vast grounds is still intact - but only as a fantasy. For those of us tempted to shed a tear over the plight of the sensitive patrician forced to share his family heirlooms with the likes of you and me, the last words belong to the 13th Duke of Bedford:
I know that I have learnt the most important lesson of my life from opening Woburn. It is that the pleasure you give to other people is the most rewarding thing in the world. And there are few things which give more pleasure of many different kinds, to more people, than a well organized and generously shared Stately Home.