It was a most enjoyable visit. We weren’t quite the only people going round the house, but, except for the room stewards, we were the only people in the rooms as we toured the house. Although it belongs to the National Trust, most of the contents of the house still belong to the Verney family. Sir Edmund Verney, who inherited the baronetcy in 2001, lives in the east wing with his family. I’ve heard that Lady Mary Verney, the widow of Sir Ralph (who died in 2001), is a concert pianist and although she is now in her mid 80s, she still gives concerts and takes her own piano with her. Apparently she’s known in the nearby village as a bit of a madcap driver and one day last summer she was giving a recital at Claydon House and arriving late she drove up to the house, spinning the car round in the car park, making the gravel fly as she pulled up. As we left the grounds an elderly lady drove in and politely waited for us to go out, as the drive is only wide enough for one car – we’d like to think it was Lady Verney, but, of course, it could have been another visitor.
One of the most interesting rooms is Miss Nightingale’s bedroom. Florence Nightingale was Sir Harry Verney’s sister-in-law and often stayed at Claydon House between 1857 and 1890. Sir Harry had first asked Florence to marry him but she declined and he married her older sister Parthenope (they’re named after the places they were born – Parthenope, being the Greek name for Naples. That’s like the Beckhams calling their son Brooklyn – I wonder if that’s where they got the idea? Somehow I don’t think so, but you never know!)
Florence Nightingale slept in this room, but the furniture is not necessarily the furniture she used, although it is furniture that was found in the house. It’s very unlikely that the four-poster bed is the one she slept in, as she wouldn’t have thought it was hygienic - the dust would collect in the fabric and the curtains wouldn’t have allowed the air to circulate. Sir Harry was devoted to Florence and as he championed her cause in Parliament, he was known as the ’Member for Miss Nightingale’, rather than the Member for North Bucks.
Before seeing Florence’s bedroom you pass through the Museum. This is a fascinating room, chock full of objects that the Verney family collected and placed there in 1893. I love such old fashioned museums as this is, with artefacts displayed in glass cabinets and labelled in spidery handwriting – the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is the most interesting museum I know (another post some day maybe). The Verney Museum displays amongst other items, tribal artefacts from British Columbia collected in the 1860s, masks, native clubs and other weapons; British army uniforms and the Colours of the 14th Regiment of Foot, carried at the Battle of Waterloo. There are also some of Florence Nightingale’s personal items, including her little, travel communion set and a lock of her hair – a rather striking, brown chestnut colour. Taking up centre stage in the room is the gamelon, an orchestra of gongs and other instruments used in religious ceremonies from Java.
The library is the only other room that is fully furnished. Parthenope converted this room into a library in 1861. I love seeing the books in libraries like this and these were obviously the personal collections of generations of the Verneys, being a mixture of different subjects and looking as though they had been read and weren’t just there as decoration.
There is so much more I could write about –the beautiful mahogany staircase, with its balustrade of fine ironwork that rises the full height of the house ending on the top floor, which is inlaid with coloured woods and ivory (needless to say the public can see but not use this staircase); about the intricate, painted wooden carvings that looks like delicate plasterwork; the intricate and rich decorations in the Chinese Room, which are unbelievably also carved wood in the chinoiserie style; and so on and so forth.
At the end of our visit we went to the tearoom, which is in one of the outbuildings. The entrance is the single blue door on the left next to the hanging basket. I had Afternoon Tea, comprising a pot of tea (enough for two cups), two scones, with clotted cream and jam and a strawberry, whilst my husband had a cup of coffee and an enormous slice of chocolate fudge cake.
Suitably refreshed, we then visited the Secondhand Bookshop, opposite the tearoom. The entrance is the dark doorway shown in the photo. It's a treasure trove of books and we bought The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning – the first novel in her Balkan Trilogy (for The Outmoded Authors Challenge), rather a dusty copy; The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke (mentioned by Ann); and One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, a Virago Modern Classic.
Finally we went into the Church of All Saints, Middle Claydon, which is next to the House. This doesn’t belong to the National Trust and is still in use as the parish church. It’s a little church dating from 1231 and contains monuments to the Verney family, including one to Sir Edmund Verney, the Standard Bearer to Charles I, killed at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. The story goes that Sir Edmund was killed clutching the Standard and as they were unable to prise it from his hand the soldiers had to hack off his hand. You can just see the representation of the hand holding part of the Standard in my photo of the church interior.
The Verneys: a true story of love, war and madness in Seventeenth-Century England by Adrian Tinneswood is on sale at the ticket office, where I was told that he is currently writing a further book about the family history. I’ve borrowed the book from the library and have just dipped into it – it looks as though I should have bought it.