“Hands up those of you who’ve visited the Gardens at Stowe?” the teacher asks his class of thirty and 15 hands shoot up.
“But, how many of this class have toured the State Rooms of Stowe House, I wonder?” Just one hand is raised.
That’s the problem facing Stowe House Preservation Trust, its vibrant Visitor Services Manager, Ruth Peters, and her flock of 60 enthusiastic volunteers: ensuring that everyone knows that the refulgent glories inside England’s greatest country house are as accessible and user-friendly as its gardens which are widely recognized as one of the wonders of the world.
At the height of its fame, thousands of people from across North Bucks laboured in and around Stowe House. The success of a country house was inversely proportional to the visibility of its domestic staff who beavered away like H.G Wells’ morlocks in a twilight world beyond and below the green baize door. Generations of North Bucks folk were born to fawn. One visitor to Stowe noted in 1765, “I never saw so large a house so well conducted: servants that have no embarras, no noise, but all attention and respect.” Now, new workmen toil in their place to turn for instance the supporting space under the central Marble Saloon into a 21st century Visitor Centre. In years to come, its interactive features will be key to visitors’ understanding of the history of the Stowe estate. Yet, no quantity of electronic wizardry and mind-blowing gizmos will obviate the need for human warmth, a good welcome and support behind the scenes.
Stowe House Preservation Plan was created in 1997 to restore and develop the main mansion of Stowe. This massive undertaking was structured in six phases. Phases one, two and three, which involved vital external work, were completed by the middle of 2011. Since then, attention has moved inside and has involved restoration of the jewel in the mansion’s crown: those grandiloquent State Rooms at the heart of the piano nobile. When Ruth Peters showed me around, I noted that work upon the Marble Saloon and State Library had been completed whilst the Music Room had been readied for the arrival of the cleaned copy of The Dance of the Hours which will, once again, become the magnificent centrepiece to its ceiling. Ruth told me of the growing excitement amongst her volunteers, as those who had seen the restored image had spoken of its freshness and newly revealed, significant detailing. Beyond the Great Library I could see conservators readying the Blue Drawing Room which they were returning to the 3rd Duke of Buckingham’s genteel Victorian scheme using real blue silk damask set off by plenty of gilding. This week large scaffolding has gone up in the North Hall as work starts in situ to restore its 1732 William Kent ceiling.
Next Friday, November 21, Stowe House Preservation Trust is holding a volunteering open day, a chance to hear and to see what Stowe can do for you and vice-versa.
I’m certain that if you report to the North Front Entrance to Stowe House, between 2pm and 6pm, there will be an experienced volunteer to show you ‘the works’.