Every year, my birthday falls on the August bank holiday, and in my small semi-rural hometown (village) that means one thing: the agricultural fair. I've grown used to my birthday being spent sloshing - or in sunnier years, strolling - around the fields, looking at pens of cows, admiring piglets and discussing the results of vegetable contests. It's not very glamorous or exciting, but I looked forward to it every year. Since moving to the city a few years ago, I don't always make it back, and this year was the same. Instead, we jumped in the car and headed a little further into Essex for a trip to conjure up some of the countryside feeling. Our destination: Audley End.
Built in the early seventeenth century, the mansion took the place of the earlier Walden Abbey, and was used by the first Earl of Suffolk to entertain King James I (who later imprisoned the Earl in the Tower of London for embezzlement!) After a brief stint as a holiday home for Charles I when it was at its most massive, successive owners greatly reduced its size - until Sir John Griffin Griffin, who promptly stuck a load back on again. Photography isn't allowed in the house, but it's certainly a sight to be seen; Griffin, plus the later third Lord Baybrooke, both had somewhat eccentric tastes. The Jacobean style wood-panelled Great Hall contrasts quite starkly with the Roman painted Little Drawing Room. I absolutely loved the extensive natural history collection, with all kinds of taxidermy and fossils, on display throughout the house.
The weekend we paid our visit was the World War Two Weekend, so the whole place was packed with people enjoying 1940s music and fashion, watching army demonstrations and ration cooking in the kitchens. Even the stable block had been taken over with soldiers in character, loitering on antique cars and explaining field medicine. It was a little busier than I'd planned for - no quiet photographs for me! - but had such a great atmosphere. The beautiful walled kitchen garden and the greenhouses especially are not to be missed.
FIND AUDLEY END AT: off London Road, Saffron Walden, Essex, CB11 4JF