Number three in what’s obviously a very very occasional series on stately homes, if you click the label.
It’s very frustrating when the infinite resources of the internet fail to yield up what I’d call basic information. So I can’t tell you when Hughenden Manor was originally built, by whom, or why. These probably quite boring facts have been overwhelmed by two items of history: Disraeli, and mapmaking.
Dizzy bought it in 1848 (from whom, I wonder), with a heavily leveraged mortgage (he was, and remained, on the verge of bankruptcy) granted by some of his aristocratic chums, and immediately gave it a complete makeover. It shows. The house looks big from the outside, but feels small inside, because it consists of a bewilderingly large number of rather poky rooms. Clearly the idea was to give the impression of a Chatsworth or Cliveden; but the result is more like several posh suburban terraced properties, haphazardly knocked through. This is part of its charm: I imagine it reveals a lot about the man’s character. (I want to know more about him – can anyone recommend a good biography?)
The National Trust have curated it beautifully; they seem to be at their best with smaller places. You can see objects – furniture, artifacts, pictures – close up. You can touch them, and are trusted not to when it’d be silly or damaging. Children can even play with a fragile Victorian zoetrope. (I suspect the picture strips aren’t original though.)
So far, so stately. They all have their quiddities. The surprise, though, is downstairs. Hughenden was, from 1941, the top secret base of Operation Hillside, the mission of which was to produce accurate maps of key targets in Germany so that Bomber Command could achieve ‘Bomber’ Harris’s objective of blanket-bombing the enemy into smithereens. In 1932 Hitler had, in an early indication of his long-term plans, barred the production of up-to-date maps of Germany. So once war broke out, squadrons of spy planes, Mosquitoes mostly, were sent over to take photos, which would become the raw material for a team of skilled map-drawers to create the best possible guidance for the bombers. (See this fascinating first-hand account for much more.)
All this was classified until only last year, and the NT have done a superb job of reconstructing what it must have been like to be doing that work. So much information seems to be coming out quite recently about the nitty-gritty of wartime operations. You have to wonder why it’s been kept secret for so long.
Anyway, the gardens and woodlands of Hughenden are lovely. The walled garden contains more healthy rhubarb than anyone could possibly eat, and some well advanced redcurrants. And the views are wonderful.