Eternal flame: Florence Nightingale's fond association with Claydon House

PUBLISHED: 15:17 20 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:00 20 February 2013

Eternal flame: Florence Nightingale’s fond association with Claydon House

Eternal flame: Florence Nightingale’s fond association with Claydon House

As a series of events mark the centenary of Florence Nightingale's death, Venetia Hawkes looks at the fond association 'the lady with the lamp' had with Claydon House, near Buckingham

Buckinghamshire has long been a popular retreat for famous figures and Florence Nightingale was one of the biggest celebrities of her day; the most famous woman in the country after Queen Victoria. In later life, Claydon House, her brother-in-laws north Buckinghamshire country estate, near Buckingham, became her haven from public attention. This year, a series of special events marking the centenary of Florences death, will celebrate her life and work.
The Lady with the lamp might never have achieved such adulation had she accepted 19th century conventions. Nursing was certainly not what young ladies of respectable birth were expected to do. They were to marry well, or if unmarried to stay at home as dutiful daughters.
But that course was not for Florence. Weighing up a marriage proposal from an admirer she wrote: I could not satisfy this nature by spending a life with him making society and arranging domestic things. Voluntarily to put out of my power ever to be able to seize the chance of forming for myself a true and rich life would seem to me like suicide.
She remained unmarried. Highly educated and with a sense of duty, she aspired to nursing. It was an unorthodox choice. Dickenss Sarah Gamp in Martin Chuzzelwit typified the perception of nurses incompetent and overly-fond of the gin bottle, but Florence continued her studies and gained hospital experience in Germany. Through perseverance and influence she finally secured the unpaid position of Superintendent of the Establishment of Gentlewomen during Illness. She volunteered to help combat an outbreak of cholera in Soho. She volunteered again when newspapers reported the terrible conditions for treating soldiers wounded in the Crimean War. Aged 34, Florence recruited 38 nurses to accompany her on a mission to nurse wounded soldiers.
On her return she was celebrated as a heroine. She was honoured with a medal; scores of children were named after her; and donations equivalent to 2million were made to The Nightingale Fund. Longfellow even commemorated her in verse -

Lo! In that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
Pass through the glimmering gloom
And flit from room to room


She wrote copiously and lobbied to improve conditions both for soldiers and the public. Her Notes on Nursing includes the commonsense advice: It is certain that there is nothing yet discovered which is a substitute to the English patient for his cup of tea.
Such attention left Florence besieged by admirers at her London home. Respite came through her sister Parthenope, wife of Sir Harry Verney. Florence became a regular guest at their estate, Claydon House. A set of rooms was put aside for her use, known as The F-Wing.
Florence was not just a ministering angel to humans, she also had a fondness for pets. Never one to follow convention, an early companion was Athena, an owl rescued from the Acropolis who lived in Florences pocket. By the time of her visits to Claydon she favoured cats Mr Bismark, Tom, Topsy, Gladstone, Mr Darcy, Tib, Mrs Tit, and poor old Mr Muff who ended up being shot by a gamekeeper while out taking a stroll biographer Mark Bostridge recounts. One particularly troublesome pet was Quiz, a Persian kitten who jumped out of a train somewhere around Watford. Happily he was found.
Throughout her life Florence continued working on new initiatives, trialing health nurses in the villages around Claydon. Sir Harry Verney championed her causes so often he became known in Parliament as The Member for Florence Nightingale.
Claydon is celebrating its links with this remarkable woman. Head gardener Darren Bullock and Lady Verney have designed a Florence Nightingale Centenary Garden. The highly scented garden includes medicinal plants such as chamomile and yarrow, used in treating wounds. A knot garden is based on the design of Florences medal.
The grand opening of the garden on May 8 is to be followed by a Birthday Party for Florence on May 12. Later in the summer, A Fete for Florence will be held on August 8, when there will be Crimean battle re-enactment, nursing displays, owl flying and a farmers market.
Exhibitions in the house linked to Florence can be enjoyed throughout the year. Curiosities include locks of Florences hair, a silver statue of her pet owl and a desiccated orange she gave to a soldier which he treasured rather than ate.
The National Trust property has been revitalised through the care and enthusiasm of House Manager Philip Warner. We want people to feel welcome at Claydon, he explains, for it to be a house of comfort, like it was in Florences day.
Visitors can read replicas of Crimean War newspapers; children can dress up in crinolines or try out Florences bed; every two months talks give insights into Victorian figures; and there are Hogwarts-style talking portraits in the house.
The wider estate has walks down to bulrush fringed lakes, with views out over the north Bucks countryside - views that Florence found so restful and restorative.
No longer just the preserve of celebrities, now everyone can enjoy Claydon. A visit may leave you agreeing with Florence I shall be very sorry to leave your beautiful place, its silence and peace, its trees and these lovely comforting rooms.


Claydon House, near Buckingham. (National Trust members free)
Open March 20 - October 31, 1pm-5pm, Mondays to Wednesdays and Saturdays and Sundays.
Gardens run by Verney family, separate charge (including National Trust members).
For full details: nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-claydonhouse

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