Home from Home: The Head Gardener’s Cottage, Audley End


Aimlessly lolling on what has to be the most grandiose stretch of the River Cam, a flute of Bolly in hand, I’m feeling decidedly smug… and perhaps, a little bit naughty. Up until now, Audley End’s daisy-speckled lawns and resplendent riverside gardens have been dotted with happy-go-lucky picnickers and wide-eyed children chasing high jinks and horseplay. Now, it’s the golden hour: the doors are shut, the gates are locked and this magnificent Essex estate is ours and ours alone. This is the priceless perk of staying in an English Heritage property: unlimited roaming – though quaffing champers beside someone else’s waterfall, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I am in fact trespassing… and I love it!

English Heritage’s current portfolio spans a staggering six millennia, boasting Roman forts, Norman keeps and even the odd deserted medieval village to boot. Hidden within this punchy collection is an impressive cache of quirky rental properties ripe for stately staycation; from the gatekeeper’s cottage which provides 24/7 access to Queen Victoria’s private Isle of Wight beach, to the royal buttress-cum-prison which lets lionhearted guests explore Dover Castle’s ghostly nooks and crannies in the dead of night.

Our historic home from home is one of the charity’s newest offerings; The Head Gardener’s Cottage. Nestled deep within Audley End’s sprawling country estate, it’s been carefully renovated thanks to a £1.25 million donation from Airbnb. Dating back to 1875, this handsome home is now a luxurious three-bedroom holiday let with all of the hi-spec mod-cons one requires from an aristocratic abode. Light and airy, its elegant interiors offer a respectful nod to its green-fingered former residents, with botanic patterns abound.

The master bedroom is vast, complimented by two well-appointed twin rooms; one staring out towards the river and the other across the walled garden’s famous fruit trees – the cottage also boasts its own private garden; the perfect spot to retreat to on sunny days. As well as receiving a generous welcome hamper, guests are also given a VIP card to use during their stay, offering discounts at the café and gift shop as well as access to other English Heritage sites – Wrest Park, with its chateau-like façade and magnificent 17th-centuy gardens, is under an hour away.

Audley End has seen many a metamorphosis over the years. Built on the foundations of a Benedictine abbey, in the throes of WW2 it became a secret training station for Polish special forces preparing to parachute back into German-occupied Poland. It even became a fully-fledged royal palace at one point, albeit briefly. Along the way, each of its owners has left their mark on this spectacular Jacobean mansion. The result? It’s part mansion, part time machine.

This treasure trove of a house catapults visitors from one century to the next at every turn; a swathe of original 17-th century Jacobean plastering here, a gothic-style 18th-century chapel there – not to mention the spine-tinglingly large 19th-century taxidermy collection which haunts its halls. It may have lost its royal credentials long ago but despite being just one third of its original size, Audley End House still fools the masses, masquerading as both Balmoral and Windsor Castle in hit television series, The Crown.

Its grounds are just as eclectic; 100-acres of monument-studded Capability Brown parkland and award-winning gardens; from the rugged beauty of the alpine-inspired Pond Garden and the zen-like calm of Elysian Garden to the shady riverbank paths, which have a touch of Swallows and Amazons about them once the crowds vacate; all needle-dusted tracks and den-worthy trees. Separating the sweeping parkland from the show-stopping parterre and the main house is the ‘ha-ha’. This curiously named sunken wall keeps grazing animals (and general riffraff) out, without interrupting one’s view often mistaken for a moat, I’m sure. Unapologetically charging straight through all of the ritz is the glistening River Cam, which flows beneath the plethora of romantic bridges and dashes through a convoluted lock before tumbling down the teeny tiny waterfall on its way back to reality.

Knowing that the gardens would be all ours from 5pm each evening took the pressure off our itinerary. Mornings were spent leisurely exploring the main house; playing in the nursery, moseying around the great hall, dwarfed by its intricately carved Jacobean oak screen and tiptoeing, torch in hand, along the darkened taxidermy gallery, flanked by thousands of stuffed birds, meticulously illuminating the resplendent Victorian plumage, feather by feather.

A visit to nearby Audley End Miniature Railway provided the children with their desired dose of Disneyesque wonder; a delightfully discombobulating land of fairy trails, elves, troll prisons and of course, their famous miniature steam train. Created by Lord Baybrooke, the tiny train puffs its way through cheer-inducing tunnels and ancient woodland to the hoots and squeals of all aboard. Having opened its doors to the public in 1964 (with the help of racing legend, Sir Stirling Moss), the attraction is currently celebrating its 60th anniversary with a jam-packed calendar of special events.

Just a mile away, the medieval market town of Saffron Walden awaits those who prefer their fun at a slower pace, with its swoon-worthy half-timbred houses and drool-inducing market stalls, often plugged by local resident, Jamie Oliver. The twice-weekly market is the beating heart of the town and the perfect place to pull up a pew and join the locals for a fresh seafood platter and a chilled vino, surrounded by marvellous medieval buildings. This historic gem is by no means unique in this part of Essex; arguably East Anglia’s most overlooked county. Just a short drive away you’ll find Great Dunmow’s proudly independent high street and Thaxted’s brilliantly preserved medieval buildings, cocooned by the undulating Essex countryside, latticed with walking trails and dotted with fantastic pubs.

Blessed with perfect spring weather, each evening we found ourselves gathering on the river’s banks. At sunset, its inky depths provided quite the show; an ethereal reflection of the magnificent Jacobean mansion radiating across its mirror-like surface – the chiaroscuro giving the scene a whiff of Rembrandt-does-Downton.

From here, we would scatter, each eager to retreat to our favourite nook. If I felt I was overstepping the mark moseying around the grounds, my children certainly didn’t; rampaging around the sweeping lawns, arms out wide, revelling in sheer size of their estate. My other half seemed more comfortable masquerade as security; patrolling the mansion’s perimeter like a loyal foot soldier, peering through darkened windows and admiring the parterre’s 182 artily arranged flower beds from the gaping ha-ha. I would sit at the waterfall, champagne in hand, mind drifting off to the sound of the cascading Cam. While part of me was wonderfully at ease with my new role as lady of the manor, the other part of me was trying to remember if I would have to go to jail for trespassing or just apologise.

On our last morning, I found myself in the walled garden’s hinterland, beyond the formality of the organic vegetable beds and the elaborate glasshouses filled with sweet peaches and ancient vines. The Bothy Garden is a humble(ish) haven where freshly-mowed paths snake their way through knee-high wildflowers and rogue blossom cartwheels in the breeze like clumsy confetti.

Aimlessly lolling on a trusty log stool, a steaming Assam in hand, I felt decidedly smug… though worryingly, no longer naughty at all. As the early spring sun broke through the clouds a couple arrived, all cherry-cheeked, picnic blanket in hand, surveying my meadow. Blasted trespassers – where’s a ha-ha when you need one!

A three-night weekend stay at The Head Gardener’s House at Audley End starts from £670 on a self-catering basis. For more information or to book, and for day tickets to Audley End House & Gardens, please visit www.english-heritage.org.uk.

For inspiration on what to see and do when holidaying in Essex see www.visitessex.com.

The Audley End Miniature Railway is a magical day out for families. Tickets can be purchased at www.audley-end-railway.co.uk.