Nicola here. Every year as Christmas approaches, I try to visit one of my favourite stately homes to see it “dressed” for Christmas. This is an official term, apparently, and involves a lot of decorating which puts my own Christmas tree and lights to shame! (For a start, I don't have four model trumpeters outside my house to welcome visitors!) It hasn’t been possible to keep this visiting tradition going during the pandemic, so this year it was a real treat to be able to go to Beaulieu in the New Forest and enjoy some spectacular decorations that totally put me in the Christmas mood.
Beaulieu is probably best known for its famous Motor Museum and whilst I did pop in to have a look at an Aston Martin or two (there was a James Bond exhibition on) my main interest was in the ruins of the abbey and Beaulieu Palace itself.
There isn’t much left of the abbey, once the largest Cistercian building in England. The ruins are rather atmospheric though. Like so many other monastic buildings, the abbey’s downfall came in 1538 with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries when it was sold into private hands and much of the stone was taken away and used for other building projects. It’s still possible to see the scale of the whole estate and imagine it surrounded by a 12 foot high wall that stretched for a mile, with the great gatehouse (which still stands) and the river and quay where boats would unload their supplies.
The Palace is an interesting mix of 13th century elements from the original monastic building and 19th century Scottish baronial style modernisation. I loved finding lots of little bits of the “old” stuff incorporated into the later building, archways and alcoves and secret stairs! I also loved that Lord Montagu of Beaulieu had written the guide book and interpretation panels himself and so they incorporated personal touches and family details that made the whole experience feel very warm and friendly. Plus the staff were absolutely lovely!
A couple of the personal stories I really enjoyed – there was a display of the suit worn by the 10 year old Edward, 3rd Baron Montagu, at the coronation of King George VI in 1937. The ensemble contained a black velvet bag which had held sandwiches to sustain him through the long ceremony! And a rather splendid portrait of the Georgian Isabella, Countess Beaulieu, described how she would take breakfast with her parrot, monkey and lapdog, and took her sister to court to contest their father’s will. The two daughters, never of good terms, became greater and greater rivals, trying to gain various titles for their rival branches of the family. There’s definitely a book in that…
In the kitchen there was a blackboard with the Christmas menu from 1898. There were shirred eggs (otherwise known as baked eggs) for breakfast, followed by ham, duck, trifle and Christmas cake for lunch, and a dinner that included oysters, fried smelts with tartare sauce, turkey, pheasant, partridge and salmon, followed by plum pudding and cheese with port! I don’t know about Lord and Lady Montagu but I would not have been able to eat for several days after that feast!
The Christmas decorations in the palace were captivating. I loved the trumpeters welcoming you at the door, and inside there were open fires and lights twinkling and gorgeously decorated trees. It was a gloomy day outside so it made the interior feel even more warm and lovely. However I did manage a brisk walk around the grounds to keep the chill away and later had the fun of riding on the monorail and seeing the entire site from above which was great!
As if that weren’t enough, we were staying just down the river in the village of Buckler’s Hard, where Navy ships were built during Nelson’s era. Buckler’s Hard has a timeless feel to it and it was entirely possible to sit on the quay and marvel at the thought of enormous warships being constructed there in what now feels like a pretty little backwater. Our cottage had been converted from the Duke’s Bath House, which was built in 1760 for John, Marquis of Monthermer who suffered from arthritis. As we know from Georgian and Regency novels, salt water was considered to be a very beneficial cure and there was a tidal pool created in the cottage garden which filled with water from the river where the family could bathe. To be honest the water in there looked pretty unpleasant – even Angus wasn’t that keen to go in it! However, our gorgeous little cottage had its own Christmas decorations so all in all it was a festive visit!
Do you "dress" your home for Christmas? Have you ever visited anywhere with particularly special decorations? And will you be having turkey, pheasant, partridge and salmon on your Christmas menu?!