Imagine a destination in the English countryside that contains an internationally renowned car museum, lush manicured gardens, an abbey right out of, well, Downton Abbey, a palace house, and a spy museum, all connected by a monorail whose idea was inspired by Expo ’67 in Montreal, and you have an idea of what awaits on your visit to Beaulieu.
Set in deep wooded terrain 90 miles southwest of London, this potpourri of an attraction was assembled, starting in the 1950s, by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (pronounced Bew-lee), whose family has occupied these grounds since King Henry VIII granted them in 1538.
Montagu, who died in 2015 at age 88, was part Walt Disney, part P.T. Barnum, and part James Bond (the debonair David Niven version). In 1952, he was among the first of the landed gentry to open his great house to the public. Although originally considered déclassé by the other aristocrats for his actions, Montagu was in fact a trendsetter. His vision allowed him to keep the expensive and unwieldy estate in the family; others, seeing his success, eventually followed suit.
The Palace House has been the residence of the Montagu family and its ancestors since 1538. Originally the gatehouse for the abbey, with 19th-century embellishments, it’s now a cross between a medieval castle and an English country estate. Inside, the Gothic rib-vaulted ceilings of the spacious rooms do justice to the term cathedral ceiling.
Although there are still residences upstairs, visitors are permitted to roam far throughout the home, giving a true feel for being the lord of the manse. Highlights include the Art Russe gallery (devoted to Soviet-era Russian art) and Lord Montagu’s wonderful library, chock-full of leather chairs and leather-bound volumes.
In 2017, the kitchen was restored to its Victorian-era appearance to demonstrate cooking of that period. It’s still very much a working kitchen, as evidenced by the shortbread cookies for sale in the gift shop, made by the current Lord Montagu’s cook. (You can just imagine Mrs. Patmore whipping up a batch.)
But it hasn’t always been tea and crumpets at Beaulieu. During World War II, the grounds played a key role in the war effort. The estate’s location just off the English Channel made it strategically important. The British Special Operations Executive set up a “Finishing School” for special agents’ final training as they prepared to parachute behind enemy lines and join up with local Resistance groups. “Secret Army” is an exhibit on the grounds devoted to their dangerous efforts. During the war, the adjacent village became a “no go” zone for civilians as agents trained for clandestine activities.
Within steps of the Palace House are the well-preserved remains of the original 13th-century Beaulieu Abbey. Ordered destroyed by Henry VIII during his dissolution of monasteries, it has been preserved over the years by the Montagu family and its ancestors; it now houses exhibits related to daily life of the Cistercian monks who inhabited it. An herb garden hearkens back to the original one used on the same site by the monks.
Green thumbs are evident all over Beaulieu. The Victorian kitchen garden is still a source of seasonal produce, with spring the best time to see the Wilderness Garden. Built by John, Second Duke of Montagu, in the 1770s, its colorful parade of snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, and bluebells stretch from the house to as far as the moat.
The pride of Beaulieu is the National Motor Museum. Lord Montagu started it as a small display of pre-World War I cars in tribute to his father, John, Second Baron of Montagu, who at the turn of the 20th century was an early advocate of a newfangled invention called the automobile — even introducing the royal family to the concept. But in the way of these things, what started as a small collection grew into the 250-vehicle leviathan it is today.
Cars range from the oldest Renault (an 1899 model) through a 2010 Ferrari 599 GTO that’s claimed to be the fastest road car ever, clocking in at 208 mph. Historic photos portray the early days of motoring, when it was considered so dangerous that someone had to walk in front of the car waving a red flag to warn pedestrians, lest they be run over by the blustery contraption.
A special exhibit titled “For Britain and For the Hell of It” highlights the nation’s influence on the world of speed. On display are racing machines that set land speed records in the continual competition between American and British drivers. The scarlet éclair-shaped 1,000 horsepower Sunbeam was the first car to exceed 200 mph — in 1927!
But back to that monorail, which kids of all ages will love. Not only does it glide overhead outside, connecting the main attractions at Beaulieu, it also hovers along just beneath the rooftop inside the National Motor Museum, giving the proverbial bird’s-eye view of the cars, while also conveying the keen vision and showmanship of Lord Montagu. This British visionary managed to keep his centuries-old estate in the family, while creating an eclectic attraction that appeals to all tastes.
Philadelphia natives Larissa and Michael Milne have been global nomads since 2011. Their latest book is the “Roadster Guide to America’s Classic Car Museums.”
Beaulieu is located 90 miles southwest of London in New Forest, Hampshire. Travel by car from London is about two hours.
Hours: Daily (except Christmas), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until 6 during summer.
Admission (converted from British pounds): Adults, $35; seniors (60) and students, $33.50; youths (5-16), $17.75; children, free. Discounts available for families and advance online ticketing. Return visit with six days is included.
Other activities: To help keep kids entertained, there is a playground with minicars, along with falconry displays in the summer. An onsite café serves light meals and excellent desserts.