SLIDESHOW: Audley End House brought to life as previously hidden rooms are opened to the public for first time
PUBLISHED: 22:01 28 March 2014 | UPDATED: 22:36 28 March 2014
Rooms left untouched since the Second World War will be opened up to the public at Audley End next week.
Described as a “mammoth task” by English Heritage’s interpretation manager Sarah Tatham, the £1.1million project is set to revolutionise the viewing experience for visitors.
Instead of a museum-type vibe with ‘no-touching’ signs, families will be encouraged to get a hands-on feel by transporting themselves back in time.
The nursery rooms and the coal gallery will showcase what life was like in the 1800s – without the need for a time machine!
Ms Tatham was instrumental in the ambitious scheme to transform Audley End House. “We’re trying to give the house a live in feel, as though a family had just left,” she said during a sneak preview tour today (Friday).
“Visitor numbers went up six per cent last year but only 40 per cent of those who came to Audley End actually went into the house.
“We found one of the obstacles was the organised tours – which people found too formal – so they’ve been scrapped, apart from in the Adam rooms because they’re not very big and need a bit more explanation.
“The house wasn’t as welcoming as it could have been but we knew it had potential if we could broaden the experience.
“We decided the nursery rooms would offer a unique experience, and appeal to families, while the coal gallery would reveal how servants heated the house from an engineering and technological point of view.”
Asked whether English Heritage had seen an uptake in numbers following the popularity of TV shows like Downton Abbey, Ms Tatham said: “I think it’s attracted a new type of visitor.
“Before we had more traditional visitors who were interested in the furnishings and the layout, whereas now people want to know about the stories behind the house and the characters who lived here.”
Ms Tatham added: “There is a mosaic of stories here and we want people to immerse themselves in the history of the house.”
The key message of the new visitor experience is to remove the shackles and get people to take part. The nursery rooms, where the 3rd Lord Braybrooke’s eight children grew up, include Victorian costumes to dress up in, games to play and a hobby horse.
The five brothers – Richard, Charles, Henry, Latimer and Grey – grew up there until they went to Eton at the age of 11 or 12, and their three sisters Mirabel, Louisa and Lucy, remained at home in the charge of governess Mary Dormer until their education was considered complete at 17 or 18.
The original dolls’ house stands tall in one of the never-before-seen rooms, along with a meticulously copied replica that children can play with.
“The attention to detail that has gone into this project is incredible,” said Ms Tatham. “Nothing is left to chance because everything is researched thoroughly. With the sums of money involved everything had to be spot on.”
Pupils from Katherine Semar Junior School were invited along to the exclusive unveiling. They were given an insight into what it was like as a privileged child in the 19th century as the nursery was brought to life by actors playing the governess and a male tutor.
The suite of rooms has lain abandoned since the 1940s when it was last used by the Army during the Second World War.
As part of the move to make the house feel more like a home, a roaring fire will now be lit in the Great Hall’s fireplace. Visitors can play the grand piano in the library and the re-dressing of the bedrooms has been done to evoke the family’s return after a night out.
The State Bed, made for Sir John Griffin Griffin in 1786 in anticipation of a visit by George III, now “shimmers” when you go in, according to Ms Tatham, as the gleam from the gold embroidery has been magnified by improved lighting.
“That bed almost bankrupted him,” she said. “Unfortunately the King and Queen never came to sleep in it but eventually the American ambassador and his wife did.”
Now the renovation, which has been 12 months in the making, is complete, English Heritage is hopeful the stately home will see a spike in visitor numbers.
Ms Tatham said: “There is much more to do here so we’re expecting a lot of people. We hope it will become an all-day experience, although that is entirely up to visitors. They can stay for five minutes or two hours – the point is it is much more relaxed and informal.
“So why not come and see for yourself!”
• Audley End House & Gardens re-opens to the public on Tuesday (April 1). For more information about prices and upcoming events, visit english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/audley-end-house-and-gardens