Dinner with the Duke and Duchess
All was not lost because my next interview was with the 13th Duke of Bedford (John Russell) at Woburn Abbey. He invited me to his magnificent home on a perfect English summer’s day.
Woburn Abbey has been the home of the Earls and Dukes of Bedford, one of England's most powerful families, since the 1620’s. It is now the home of the 15th Duke and Duchess of Bedford and their children.
Russell family members have included Prime Ministers, Ambassadors, Lord High Admirals and philosophers over the centuries and provide a direct link to the events of the past that shaped the England of today.
I drove through the gates of the Woburn estate and across the beautiful grounds. The magnificent scene reminded me of a classical Hollywood movie.
I was shown into a beautiful room, full of fabulous paintings, silverware and carpets up to my ankles. When the Duke arrived, he gave me a guided tour of his art collection. It was one of the best collections I had ever seen.
He owned one of the biggest collections of Canaletto paintings in the world. In fact; he had twenty-four of them!
It was a beautiful summer’s day, the French doors opened to a very pretty garden with a fountain where birds were enjoying themselves in the sparkling water.
Tea arrived on a silver tray. The Duke told me that the English social custom of taking afternoon tea was popularised 200 years ago by the Duchess Anne Marie, wife of the 7th Duke of Bedford. She also introduced this idea to Queen Victoria.
The Duke made me feel at home instantly. We sat for three hours discussing the problems of the world. I don’t suppose we solved many but it was very interesting because he had such a balanced and caring view of life.
It was a most enjoyable afternoon when the Duchess came into the room. She was wearing a tricolour French flag in her hair and was not overly aristocratic, in fact both of them were really down to earth and fun. To my surprise, she invited me to stay for dinner. Coming from a working class background, I didn’t get many invites to dinner with royalty or aristocrats. I nearly bit her hand off.
The Duchess arranged for us to meet on the lawn at seven for champagne and thoughtfully asked one of her staff to accompany me to dinner. This girl was working in one of the gift shops, her name was Brigitte and she was very pretty. Maybe I offended her in some way because I never saw her again.
It was Bastille day, 14th July, a good enough reason for the French Duchess to celebrate. The dinner was excellent and the wine flowed like it used to at medieval banquets. There were about twenty guests and a small cabaret. It was a most enjoyable evening.
I left at 2 am and drove across the deer park to the motorway. Even though I am a moderate drinker, I shouldn’t have driven my car. I was alone on a moonlit night in a safari park. I hoped that the animals hadn’t escaped and anticipating an impromptu breakfast.