DIARY: Back for another look at the Duke of Devonshire’s impressive stately home.
I’ve been reading a lot of Stuart Woods’ Stone Barrington thrillers while travelling. They’re good escapist aeroplane or beach reads and not nearly as scary as his earlier novels. In a recent book, he introduced the character of Felicity Devonshire, fictional head of MI6, who naturally has an affair with the protagonist, while they solve all sorts of spy problems. I wondered if she was a real person, and asked him. He replied to my email in a couple of days (I was genuinely impressed) that he’d had “a couple of dates with a petite blonde actress of that name in London in the early 70s.” I turned up the actress, now successful as a property entrepreneur, on someone’s rich list. I further wondered if she’s related to the Dukes of Devonshire, but Woods seemed to think not.
All of which inspired me to write some more about Chatsworth, the Dukes of Devonshire’s spectacular residence in Derbyshire, since the Cavendish family moved there in 1549. The last time I visited, the place was covered in scaffolding, but it has now been removed and the vast frontage facing the South Lawn entirely restored. Even the window frames have been gilded. What an effect.
We arrive mid-morning and the car park is already getting full. But I try out my weak knee excuse (well, it’s true) on a kindly parking chappie and he lets me leave the mighty Corsa on the verge less than 100 yards from the front door. Chatsworth is worth multiple visits and has been voted the best stately home in England several times. This time I’m paying particular attention to the vast collection of porcelain, paintings and sculptures, so we don’t need to take a guided tour.
First stop is the chapel. A gruesome statue, an almost life size bronze of a flayed man holding his skin over his arm, is on loan as part of the Duke’s continuing interest in modern art. It is “St. Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain,” by Damian Hirst, and very interesting for anyone studying anatomy, or people who’ve been skinned alive, gross for the rest of us.
A bit further on I’m admiring amazing carved wooden bass reliefs surrounding a fireplace. They’re a trio of dead game birds, not yet skinned, but wonderfully realistic. I suggest, out loud, that they must be by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), but a nearby docent informs me there’s no evidence Gibbons ever worked at Chatsworth. Today, she says, we know it was Samuel Watson (1662-1715) a local sculptor, who was responsible for much of the wood and stone carving in the house during the first Duke’s time.
We’re doing well on our tour, but we soon run into the back of a large group and have to wiggle our way slowly past them. They’re getting the full history of every room. It’s a good job that of Chatsworth’s 126 rooms, about 100 are closed to the public, otherwise the tours would take even longer. The current and 12th Duke (Peregrine to his friends, Your Grace to you and me) and his family live here, quite insulated from the hordes of visitors apparently. There are huge mirrors everywhere and in an idle moment I make a portrait of us in one, a “selfie” I suppose.
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. There’s an impressive and quite vulgar pile of porcelain and gilded platters in one room. It’s followed by the State Music Room where there’s a convincing piece of trompe l’oeil. Behind a half open door a realistic violin and bow can be seen hanging from a hook. It’s a masterpiece painted around 1723 by Jan van der Vaart.
Finally, we are feeling a surfeit of art and escape to the excellent gift shop in the old orangerie. Diane buys some red tea towels to go in the kitchen, now deemed the red kitchen, of our Yorkshire cottage. I try on a flat hat and look silly.
Outside there’s an overwhelming scent of hyacinth from a large border packed with blooms. There’s also an overwhelming scent of horse poo, left by the large Shire horses pulling a visitor cart. A forelock tugging serf is soon scooping up the droppings with a pan and broom to avoid offending the guests. We wander down to the ornamental lake, where the fountain has been turned off for the winter. The woods alongside are packed with daffodils, an absolute carpet of white and gold.
The trees along each side of the South Lawn are yet to show a bud, but my guide book tells me they’re double rows of red twigged lime trees, planted in 1952, and cut and trained in the ‘pleached’ style. It’s similar to espaliered, but not against a wall. The limes look handsome, but small against the backdrop of the house, unlike the long avenue of full size limes at Clumber Park.
The night before our visit was a very special birthday for Diane, one of the big ones, so I booked a room at the Duke’s Cavendish Hotel in Baslow (not the one in London). The flowers and chocs I ordered as a surprise were there in our lovely suite, with a bucolic view over the countryside to the Chatsworth estate. World travelling friends managed to get a bottle of bubbly delivered, an added and welcome gift.
The hotel website suggested we could walk to Chatsworth in 15 minutes, but the concierge admitted it was more like half an hour, or even more for me with my gimpy knee, so we gave up on the idea of a country ramble through the sheep and cows. Our room was comfortable, but dinner was expensive and the food was overpriced and prissy in its presentation. Breakfast the next day was a disappointment too. The Brits have no idea how to make eggs Benedict and shouldn’t try. This dish was invented in New York as I’ve written before. They (and we) should have stuck to the full English. However, the staff were charming and the service excellent, the lounge pleasant to relax in for a drink or two before and after dinner and the parking was free. As a bonus, we got discounted tickets to Chatsworth, not quite enough to take the sting out of the many hundreds of pounds one night cost, but something.
On the very good side, after our visit we detoured to the Chatsworth Farm Shop in nearby Pilsley. We picked up a few bottles of their excellent fruit coulis, some locally bottled cider and a Chatsworth pork pie to compare with my authentic Melton Mowbray pork pies. It was good, better than the ones we bought at the supermarkets, but not nearly as good as the real thing from Melton.
I’m sure Felicity Devonshire would have turned up her nose at it.