Unrecognisable today as the 12th century Cistercian monastery that once stood on this site, Woburn Abbey is one of Britain's glorious stately homes. Granted to the Russell family by Edward VI, it was established as the principal family seat in 1619 and has been the home of the Dukes of Bedford ever since that time.
Even before the Dissolution, the monastic buildings at Woburn Abbey had been severely damaged by fire and when the 4th Earl built his new wing during the 17th century it was on the site of the old abbey church. The most fascinating room from this early period of re-building is the grotto, a delightful folly used as a loggia, that was completed in carved stonework giving the appearance of stalactites and seaweed. Later adorned with shells, dolphins, and underwater cherubs, it creates a room of pure fantasy and fun, despite the ground outside being known as 'the monks burial ground'.
Major re-building works were undertaken throughout the 18th century, with Henry Flitcroft being commissioned to design a suite of grand state rooms to be housed in his new west wing, and later Henry Holland was responsible for remodelling the south and east wings, and adding a range of farm buildings. With the exception of the east wing, which was demolished in 1950, and on-going restoration and refurbishment, the ancestral home has changed little since this extensive programme was completed. At the beginning of the 19th century Humphry Repton was asked to improve the grounds by landscaping the park and incorporating some interesting features. It was at this time that the first deer were introduced to Woburn Abbey.
The vast estate at Woburn Abbey comprises some 3,000 acres of parkland, pleasure gardens, lakes and outbuildings, and inside the house there are over 20 rooms where visitors are able to explore at a leisurely pace. On display in some of the luxuriously decorated rooms is an impressive collection of paintings by world famous artists, and period furniture that catches your breath. There are 17th century Mortlake tapestries, specially commissioned by the family and bearing the Russell coat of arms, there are magnificent arrangements of porcelain, and an enviable amount of solid gold and silverware showing the contrast in fashions over the years.
But if, like us, your interest lies less in the family treasures and more in the architectural delights of a building, then you will not be disappointed with Woburn Abbey. Every room is an exquisite masterpiece of design, using the finest materials and skills, and blending old with modern, the classical with traditional, and the past with the future in a continuing effort to hold the visitors' interest. Choosing a favourite room causes great difficulty as they are all very individual, but Queen Victoria's bedroom has to rate highly. It is a typically flamboyant show of 'over the top' décor but with a curious rich subtlety that works extremely well.
We have visited Woburn Abbey a number of times, and always manage to discover something that we had missed on a previous occasion. It is that type of place. Huge but inviting, solid but ever-changing. With the awareness and understanding of the present family to maintain a viable balance between a much-loved ancestral home and a venue for public enjoyment, we are sure that all future improvements and enhancements will only serve to attract still more visitors.