History is a game of addiction, and England has enough of it to turn one into an Anglophile. England is where it lives, extravagantly proud in the palaces, broodingly stark in the castles, with gravitas and sanctity in monuments, museums and the hallowed halls of famous colleges. England is also the first nation to break away from Rome, driven by a king’s lust which could never be satisfied with any of his seven wives. Coursing through Bedfordshire, Woburn Abbey hardly feels monastic. It is the address of one of England’s most powerful families since 1620s, the seat and home of the Dukes of Bedford.
Summer is almost on its last leg as we make our way to the Woburn Abbey, crisscrossing through well laid-out tracks, with the green that stretches on both sides as far as the eye can see. Deer roam the 3,000 acres of the abbey, once a matter of life and death for poachers in the days of absolute aristocracy—the punishment for a poacher was death by hanging. Once inside, the 400-year-old Abbey gardens are full of fragrant ghosts of boughs past. The gardens were commissioned by the 6th Duke of Bedford and designed by the famous landscape artist Humphry Repton. Later architects Henry Holland and Sir Jeffry Wyattville added their imagination to the original enterprise. My eyes dazzle—lavender, lily, rose, petunia, camellia, chrysanthemums escort the border paths, hanging negligently over bowers, or resting in tidy little circles or squares. Sturdy walking shoes are a must for walking the length and breadth of the 30-acre garden, though you could rest your tired limbs at intervals at the Doric temple, the rockery, and the Jeffry Wyattville seat. The trees might well be Brobdingnagian—birches, weeping beeches, oaks, pines and a cedar from Lebanon that was planted at Bedford somewhere in the 18th century. One walks along a wide genus of foliage until the odd one out claims the eye: a great white cherry tree from Japan. Of course, the Chinese Dairy, a storehouse for the fifth Duke’s collection of Oriental porcelain, dishes and plates follow the Bedfords’ passion for the Orient.
All over England, the centenary of the Great War is being celebrated in myriad ways: red poppies in the Tower of London grounds, or exhibitions like ‘Valiant Hearts’ at Woburn Abbey. Both the Duke and Duchess of Bedford had helped with Britain’s war effort. Duke Herbrand had set up a training camp for the troops at the nearby Ampthill Park (the ‘Duke’s Own’) and the Duchess Mary established a makeshift hospital for the wounded soldiers. Reproduction of the letters soldiers wrote to the Duke, the military hospital, the Bedfordshire Training Depot, the ‘dug out’ and the Ampthill Memorial are poignant reminders of the over 100,000 dead—the flower of England’s youth as the pores tragically called it. The war also claimed over 70,000 Indian lives, since the country was part of the British Empire.
The Abbey itself dates back to the mid 15th century, when it started life as a monastery. It was gifted to Sir John Russell by King Edward VI. The current Duke and Duchess of Bedford, Andrew and Louise Bedford, are proud of living in their ancestral home, though a section of the abbey was thrown open to the public for the first time in 1955. It is a stunning edifice, massive and imposing, favouring the Palladian style of architecture. Meandering through the many rooms, famous and priceless art—including the famous Rembrandt work, The Old Rabbi that hangs on the duke’s library wall—is a testimony to the taste and wealth of the owners. The house has one of the world’s largest private libraries, namely the Holland library. Apart from the Dutch Master, the Abbey is home to 10 paintings by Van Dyck, 12 by Reynolds, three Gainsboroughs, and 24 Canalettos—all bought by the 4th Duke while on the Grand Tour in the 18th century. Of the three Armada portraits that exist in the world— celebrating the Virgin Queen’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by Sir Francis Drake—one is at home at Woburn Abbey.The power of a lord or a great house was leasured by royal visit—the room where Queen Victoria stayed with Prince Albert is immaculately preserved.
Some things never change in England. As the tour lapses into the afternoon hour, it is time to gather in the Duchess’ Tea Room to partake of that famous English tradition, afternoon tea. Like the legend of the cards game-obsessed Lord Sandwich who supposedly invented the sandwich by munching on meat packed between two slices of bread because he was too absorbed in the game, it is said that Duchess Anna Maria Russell, a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria and wife of the 7th Duke of Bedford, invented the afternoon tea in the 1840s by clubbing a light snack with tea in the mid-afternoon to bridge the long gap between meals. The snack is hardly light: at Bedford, it is a noble repast of pastries, desserts, tarts and muffins. Of course commerce is king even in a lord’s manor: the Duchess’ gift shop and pottery for sale offer mementos of a trip taken through time.