Ashdown House, Oxfordshire

Amidst the rolling Berkshire downs, Ashdown House commands a high and solitary position in an area steeped with ancient legends. Built in the 1660s, on the site of a former hunting lodge, this strange Dutch-style house was allegedly created as a refuge for Elizabeth of Bohemia (the 'Winter Queen'), should she be endangered from the London plague.

Lord Craven was utterly devoted to Elizabeth, the sister of Charles I, and built several houses purporting to have a connection to this lady with whom he developed a life-long friendship. It seems unlikely that she ever saw any of the houses, and even less likely that she actually lived in them because the dates are at odds with her life. Despite these anomalies, there are portraits on show in the house that Elizabeth bequeathed to Lord Craven, along with her most treasured stags' antlers.

Ashdown House was built mainly from local dressed chalk, and is thought to be the work of William Winde, a favoured architect of Cravens, and one-time Usher to the Winter Queen. More weight is put behind this theory by the fact that Winde spent his early years in Holland, and later made a tour of France where he came across the work of the great 17th century architect, Francois Mansart.

The uncanny similarity between Ashdown House and the chateau in Normandy, designed by Mansart, must surely be more than a coincidence. Few alterations were made to Ashdown House over the years, with the exception of a Victorian extension to the front entrance that was later removed, but an extensive programme of repairs was undertaken following the War years. Public access is restricted to the entrance hall, massive central staircase, and the cupola leading onto the roof. On a beautiful day, the views across the estate are breathtaking, and it is possible to make out a site known as 'Alfred's Castle', where a domestic defended settlement was discovered.

The tale of Ashdown House is one littered with intrigue, scandal and disgrace but the only way to reap the full benefit of its fascination is to take a guided tour, and enjoy the lively commentary supplied.

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