The Great Bed of Ware is so gigantic people are still mesmerized by it, 500 years after it was built right here in Hertfordshire as an Elizabethan tourist attraction. If only the pillows could talk, what secrets would they spill?

Remember the scene in the 1971 musical film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when Charlie’s four grandparents are all squashed into one double bed for seemingly every moment of their lives- a couple at each end?

Well, if only the Bucket family had stumbled across one of the greatest treasures on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, because The Great Bed of Ware is so humungous it can fit eight people in it, comfortably!

Great British Life: The Great Bed of Ware; oak, carved and originally painted, with panels of marquetry; made by the school of Hans Vredeman de Vries; English (probably Ware, Hertforshire); 1590 - 1600, now at the V&AThe Great Bed of Ware; oak, carved and originally painted, with panels of marquetry; made by the school of Hans Vredeman de Vries; English (probably Ware, Hertforshire); 1590 - 1600, now at the V&A

This bed, which comes from right here in Hertfordshire as the name suggests, was created during Elizabethan times and is an astonishing piece of historical furniture- so much so that in 1931 when the museum bought it for £4,000 it became – and remains today- the most expensive furniture exhibit ever acquired by the V&A.

The spectacular four-poster bed stretches three metres wide. That’s a lot of rolling over space. It’s the only known example of a bed of this size and as you might expect, it carries a reputation which is a little racier than most historic furniture at the V&A museum.

Built in around 1590 when the first queen Elizabeth was on the throne, it was most likely made as a tourist attraction for the White Hart Inn in Ware. Back then Ware was a day's journey from London and the inn was a convenient overnight stop for travellers heading to Cambridge University or further north.

Guests who got to sleep in the bulky bunk got into the habit of carving their initials into the wood or applied red wax seals to mark their night in the famous bed. These marks are still visible on the bedposts and headboard today. It also became the custom amongst guests to toast the bed with a mug of ale.

Great British Life: The Great Bed of Ware; oak, carved and originally painted, with panels of marquetry; made by the school of Hans Vredeman de Vries; English (probably Ware, Hertforshire); 1590 - 1600, now at the V&AThe Great Bed of Ware; oak, carved and originally painted, with panels of marquetry; made by the school of Hans Vredeman de Vries; English (probably Ware, Hertforshire); 1590 - 1600, now at the V&A

The bed's flamboyant carving is typical of the late-Elizabethan period. The woodwork is richly decorated with Renaissance designs, acanthus leaves (a popular foliage motif) and strapwork (ornamental ribbon-like patterns), alongside lions and satyrs symbolising virility and fertility.

The human figures carved onto the headboard and the underside of the tester (wooden canopy) show traces of paint, which indicate that the bed would originally have been brightly coloured.

By the 19th century the Great Bed of Ware had been moved from the White Hart Inn to the Saracen's Head, another Ware hostelry. In 1870, William Henry Teale, the owner of the Rye House in Hoddesdon acquired the bed and put it to use in his pleasure garden. When interest in the garden waned, the bed was eventually sold to the V&A.

Nick Humphry, curator at the V&A Museum said: “The Bed of Ware makes a strong case for being the most famous piece of English furniture. It trails a reputation that is sociable, jovial, sometimes badly behaved, even downright disreputable. It is twice the size of other surviving Elizabethan beds.

Great British Life: The Great Bed of Ware; oak, carved and originally painted, with panels of marquetry; made by the school of Hans Vredeman de Vries; English (probably Ware, Hertforshire); 1590 - 1600, now at the V&AThe Great Bed of Ware; oak, carved and originally painted, with panels of marquetry; made by the school of Hans Vredeman de Vries; English (probably Ware, Hertforshire); 1590 - 1600, now at the V&A

“As early as 1596, a German tourist prince Ludwig of Anholt-Kohten slept in what must have been the bed and years later he recorded his visit describing four couples sleeping side by side with so much room that they wouldn’t disturb one another.

“The bed always had a bawdy reputation - the bigger the bed the more room for companions, and the more opportunity for mischief. The tales become exaggerated over time and in 1765 it was said that 26 butchers and their wives lay in the bed for one night for a bet.

“It is extraordinary in every sense not just in its great size and age but that we know so much about its history and how people have responded to it.”

The Great Bed of Ware did indeed become the famous attraction it was supposed to be. Its fame was bolstered when it was referenced in literary works by Charles Dickens and Ben Johnson.

The most famous mention of the bed, however, was made by Shakespeare's character Toby Belch in Twelfth Night which was first performed in 1601 '...and as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper, although the sheet were big enough for the bed of Ware in England...'.

The Great Bed spent 300 years in Ware from the time of the Spanish Armada, to the coming of the railways. It was in Ware during the Industrial Revolution, the American War of Independence and so many other world changing events.

In 2012 the bed made its way back home when it went on display at Ware Museum. It’s now back at the V&A where it is on permanent display in room 57. The museum is based in South Kennington and is open daily.

Vam.ac.uk