Ashdown House – Portraits with pearls

Ashdown House

A country house with beautiful woodlands and bursting with history

Where the English counties of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire meet, you’ll find a life-size dolls house hidden away in the woods. Ashdown House boasts a beautifully carved 17th-century oak staircase, medieval hunting trophies, stunning roof top views, sarsen stones and ancient woodlands for you to explore.

Park up in the designated National Trust car park and follow the path and signs around to the house past the herd of cows who (if you’re lucky) will be there to greet you.

Ashdown House was built for Elizabeth of Bohemia (sister of Charles I – her grandson eventually succeeded to the British throne as George I) by William, first Earl of Craven and at the time the richest man in England. Elizabeth was reputed to love her dogs and her hunting more than her children and, after several years of war and exile, she wanted to retire peacefully to the countryside. It is rumoured that William and Elizabeth were secretly married after her first husband died, but no conclusive proof has ever been forthcoming. It is also thought that the Dutch-style mansion was commissioned as a bolthole for the couple to escape plague-ridden London, but Elizabeth died in 1662 before construction was finished.

The House was commandeered for use by the army during World War II and which left it in a derelict state (you’ll find lots of WW2 graffiti on the rooftop stonework). The National Trust has owned Ashdown House since 1956 when it was donated by Cornelia, Countess of Craven. Since 2010 Ashdown House has been tenanted by Pete Townshend of The Who, so public access is restricted to certain days and certain areas.

Admission to the house is by guided tour only on Wednesdays and Saturdays from April to October although the woodland is open to the public from dawn to dusk all year round.

When visiting Ashdown House, look out for…

Hunting trophies consisting of oddly carved wooden heads (with startled expressions!) on which stag antlers have been mounted. This was the accepted way to display hunting trophies in the late 16th and early 17th centuries as taxidermy had not yet progressed to preservation of an entire stag’s head.

Portraits with pearls. The pearls which are worn by Elizabeth of Bohemia and her daughters in many of the portraits were part of a necklace of seven strings that belonged to Elizabeth and had originally been Medici pearls inherited by Mary, Queen of Scots. On Elizabeth’s death, she left one strand to each of her daughters, leading to a long-running dispute in the nineteenth century between the British Royal Family and the House of Hanover over possession of the pearls. The Crown claimed the necklace but only six strands were ever reassembled – the seventh is buried with Elizabeth’s daughter Princess Henrietta Maria who died only six months after her wedding and was laid to rest in her wedding dress – with her pearls!

Alfred’s Castle, a small Iron Age hill fort with a single rampart bank and ditch, has wonderful views and at one time controlled the track south from the Ridgeway. Anglo-Saxon weapons have been found here and legend states it was the place where King Alfred rallied his army before the Battle of Ashdown in AD871.

Fields of Sarsen stones. Sarsens are hard sandstone boulders formed over 50 million years ago when a tropical climate existed in Southern England. The weathered stones that now litter the landscape are the remnants of a sandstone layer which once overlaid the chalk of the Downs. Over the course of various ice ages, freeze-thaw and meltwater erosion has worn the sarsens into irregular shapes. The characteristic holes which were made by the roots of palm and other tropical trees that grew in the area when the sandstone layer was forming. Other well know sites of sarsens is Avebury and Stonehenge.