On a brilliantly sunny morning 45 members left Ipswich for Woburn. The journey was swift and pleasantly uneventful, though as the morning grew hotter it was hard not to envy the cows standing in the shallows of the flooded workings as we crossed into Bedfordshire. Once on the far side of the MI our coach soon began to run alongside the brick walls and extensive woodlands of the Woburn estate and, passing through the spick and span village of Woburn, we came to the gates of the Abbey.
The approach to the house was intended to impress the visitor and impress it did, as we drove through Humphrey Repton's park (watched from the shade of the trees by handsomely antlered deer) up the long curving drive and caught our first sight of the house, its elegance slightly marred at present by restoration work being carried out in places on the porous stonework.
We took a coffee break in the Flying Duchess Pavilion, named for the 11th Duchess of Bedford whose many interests included aviation and who lost her life in 1937 when her Gypsy Moth disappeared over East Anglia. We then split into three groups for a guided tour of the house.
The story of the Russell family's association with Woburn begins with John Russell who served at the court of Henry VIII and was left the buildings and land in the King's will. It had been a Cistercian monastery until the Dissolution and remained a fairly modest house until extensive rebuilding in the 18th century, when the four wings surrounding a huge quadrangle transformed it into one of the greatest houses in England. Unfortunately its timbers became riddled with decay and in 1950 the then Duke took the drastic step of demolishing the indoor riding school, the real tennis court and the whole of the east range of the main house. His successor, however, decided to take advantage of advances in the treatment of timber and the house was saved from further destruction. To finance the work, the house was opened to the paying public - one of the first stately homes to do so.
The treasures of Woburn Abbey are so many that you will simply have to go and see them for yourselves, but it was good to see - among the Chinese wallpaper, French and German china, and paintings from the Low Countries and Italy (28 Canalettos!) - that the building and its interior decoration were largely the work of British architects, designers and craftsmen and that the wonderful ceilings, mantlepieces, plasterwork and carvings are now in splendid condition.
Perhaps it is the number and quality of the portraits which is most striking. Mainly of family members - from a 17th century duchess in a gown designed by Inigo Jones to Lord John Russell holding in his hand a copy of his great Reform Act - all the paintings are unusually lively, whether they are Van Dycks, Gainsboroughs and Reynolds or by lesser known artists. As an admirer of the beguiling portrait of Anne of Denmark, wife of James I which hangs in Christchurch Mansion, I was interested to see a later portrait of her which looks, sadly, rather less vivid.
In the crypt can be seen an astonishing collection of porcelain and silver; the wealth of possessions owned by the family is illustrated by the fact that an entire Sevres service (the gift of Louis XV) lay forgotten until it came to light recently still in its original wrappings. The silvery, shelllined Grotto contains many curiosities, not least the pale green and delicately painted coffin which the 15th Duchess (still a young woman) has had made - as the caption says "for future use".
After lunch we had a choice of Woburn's many attractions and I visited the Antiques Centre which conformed to the general style in being extensive and expensive. Those who visited the Safari Park sighted animals from all the continents - Canadian bears and wolves to elephants and tigers - but I gather it was the hippos, enjoying a good wallow, who were most happy in the afternoon's heat. We left with many of us hoping to return for a second viewing and all feeling grateful to Joyce Peck, who organised the visit and shepherded us kindly throughout the day.