So, Benjamin Disraeli: two-time Conservative prime minister, dandy, and favourite of Queen Victoria. Well, that’s what I knew about him going in to Hughenden Manor, and unfortunately, that’s about all I knew after leaving Hughenden as well (the biographical details mentioned in this post that don’t involve actual artefacts come from reading his Wikipedia entry). I realise most of my National Trust posts start in roughly this way, so I really should have learned by now that if you want to learn more about a person, odds are against you being able to do it somewhere they actually lived – if it’s owned by the National Trust. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, Red House and Coleridge Cottage among them, but for the most part, you’d be better off just reading a book (actually, I’d almost always be happier staying home and reading a book than leaving my flat, but I do have this blog to maintain). Still, I made the effort to go up to Wycombe, so I should at least tell you something about the place, right?
Well, for starters, it’s got the usual jacked-up National Trust prices. £11.50, including Gift Aid, to be exact. The reason I had to visit in the less-than-ideal time of winter is because our membership expires at the end of February, so I’m trying to get some “last hurrah” properties in whilst I can (which is harder than it should be because so many of them close for the winter. So I STILL didn’t get to see Waddesdon Manor, which is only about half an hour away from Hughenden, because it was closed. I’m never going to get to taste their damn honey fudge).
I’m used to the information they provide in these properties being pretty lame, but this was notably REALLY lame. To the point where even my boyfriend was commenting on its lameness, and he’s normally MUCH more easygoing than I am about these things (not hard to do). It was just one of those stupid laminated map things, with like one sentence on each room. I did find a few informational binders here and there, but they were more about the paintings in the rooms than anything to do with the history of the house or the Disraeli family (except in the one room where I actually wanted to know more about the paintings, because there was a portrait of some dishy guy who definitely wasn’t Disraeli or any other obvious Victorian, and there was of course no binder to be found). And the volunteers just stared at me blankly every time I walked in a room, so they were no help.
The house consisted of three floors (I was kind of amazed we were allowed on all of them, what with “winter housekeeping” and all), plus a basement, of which more later. It was a standard Victorian house I guess, but it is probably technically more “Victorian” than most, since Victoria actually visited it and gave Disraeli signed mementos of her and Albert and junk. She ate in his dining room one time, so Disraeli had the legs of one of his chairs cut off so her feet could touch the floor (you may be able to see it in the picture above. It’s the chair on the left), which seems to me a bit counterproductive, because then how would she reach the table? Wouldn’t it have been better to give her a higher chair than normal, and some kind of footstool? But what do I know, I was never prime minister (twice).
There was also this ceremonial robe there that kind of proved what a petty jerk Disraeli was (though I probably am too, so…). It originally belonged to Pitt the Younger, and was passed down through each successive Lord Chancellor, right up until Disraeli. However, he was pretty salty about Gladstone taking office, especially because Gladstone refused to pay him for some furniture he’d had installed in 11 Downing Street, so he just hung on to it, and Gladstone had to have a new one made, which is apparently the one still used today. But Disraeli’s spite robe is right here, in Hughenden, where you can attempt to peer at it inside a very dark room (ok, so I may have picked up a couple of pieces of trivia, but not really enough to justify the drive).
The third floor was surprisingly more spacious than it looked at first glance, with nice views over Disraeli’s estate, and a collection of objects belonging to him arranged in a couple of “museum rooms” that discussed his rise from somewhat humble beginnings (I mean, not really, his father was a historian and he was sent to good schools, but he wasn’t actually nobility or anything) to becoming BFFs with crabby ol’ Victoria. This floor also showed how egocentric Disraeli must have been; when he first ran for office in Wycombe, he had a special chair made (because that’s what Wycombe is known for) in his colours of pink and white, so his supporters could carry him on their shoulders after he won. He lost, and the chair ended up here.
And now to the basement. One of the reasons I was keen to visit Hughenden (other than Disraeli being a dandy) was because during the Second World War, the house was used as a secret map making headquarters. The National Trust website made it sound really good, promising me I could “discover more about their secret wartime past” in their “immersive” cellars. Yeah, well, about that…
My god, but this was poorly put-together. I’m still honestly not sure whether the house was used by British Intelligence, or American soldiers, or both, because there was some mention of the US Army, but also something about local artists being brought in. It was just a display of cheaply laminated pictures with short, vague captions spread out over the hallway and a couple of rooms, with no actual narrative connecting them. They had some of the cartoons produced by the mapmakers, but there was no good explanation for any of it. Maybe some things are still classified?!
The only reason I’m glad I came down here was because that Hitler dartboard inside a facsimile bunker was probably the funniest/best thing in the whole house. There also appeared to be a recreation of a 1940s living room, which may or may not have had authentic smells (it stunk, but I’m not sure if that was intentional, or just basement funk). I think this part of the house really needs some new signage and re-organisation.
There are quite a few trails around the property (or so I’m told), and a tea room AND cafe (no millionaire’s shortbread in either though, boo), but it was quite cold when we were there, so we didn’t fancy much walking. We did check out the “parterre” (a back garden, only pretentious), which was attractive enough, and apparently was designed by Mrs. Disraeli and installed by a crew of navvies that she enjoyed bossing around. Disraeli had some pet peacocks; his favourite pined itself to death a few days after he died. And there was a very cute fat old lab hanging around one of the trails when we arrived; I kind of wanted to steal her.
But yeah, the experience in general was not great. The house was perfectly nice, and I’m assuming must have had some quite interesting stories behind it, but no one shared them with us. The bits of information that were available, frankly, just made Disraeli seem like an asshole (and they managed that while barely mentioning his politics; his personality was enough to do it). And the war stuff in the basement also has potential, if they could be bothered to tell us what actually happened here (their website is also incredibly vague, so no help there). As it stands now, Hughenden is lucky to get a 2.5/5, and that’s really only because the interior was attractive, and there were nice views. This place needs a lot of work, especially if they actually expect people to pay 11+ quid to see it.