Driving through England’s green and pleasant land, I’ve realized that the best way to enjoy travelling with one’s children is to wait until they grow up.
The first trip I took with my two daughters was to Hawaii over 30 years ago. One was about three and the other a true babe in arms, who first sat up unaided while in Maui. A nightmare trip, 17 hours door-to-door from Toronto with two very small kids. Never again. The furthest afield we went with the kids after that was Jamaica and Florida for March break, a tolerable three-hour flight south. Once there we did the usual theme park, boating and swimming things, with a little bit of adult time on the side, when baby sitters could be arranged.
Fast forward three decades, and I’ve just spent a few delightful days with my youngest daughter in England. The primary purpose for the family gathering was to celebrate my mum’s 99th birthday, which went brilliantly. Then my daughter was able to take a few extra days to join us at our little cottage in Yorkshire. This belongs to my present wife, not my daughter’s mum, but they get along famously.
Within a few miles of the cottage are some really noteworthy places to visit. This corner of the world was blessed with some seriously rich, noble families, many of whom got even richer during the coal age, when the black stuff was discovered under their extensive lands during the Industrial Revolution. Those who didn’t have coal were blessed with fast running rivers where they sited their mills. Now all that is gone and the countryside has been restored to swathes of pristine fields and woods, as autumn begins, turning gold.
First, to see Sherwood Forest and The Major Oak in Nottinghamshire. We arrive, on a bright fall morning. Entry is free, but there’s a modest donation for parking. At first, I think she’s disappointed with the notion of forest, which is mostly scattered oaks in a park like setting. The story one of the rangers gave me on a previous visit, is that the surviving trees are all gnarled and twisted and wouldn’t have made good building material for Britain’s “hearts of oak” Royal Navy. So they were left standing, with plenty of room for growth, and here they are for us to admire centuries later. Link to my Sherwood blog to get the whole story. However, we make the pleasant walk along well marked, if slightly muddy, trails to the most famous oak of them all: the biggest and oldest in what remains of the forest. The Major Oak was named after an army officer who many years ago, mapped all the standing oaks that remained in the poor remnant of the forest after the aforementioned aristos swiped all the rest of it for private hunting lands.
On the way back we stop at the former gasworks to Welbeck Abbey, a vast and stunningly beautiful house in the Dukeries which is closed to the public most of the year, presumably because the Parente family, descendants of the Duke of Portland, have enough dosh to avoid letting the great unwashed troop through their rooms. It must be something, apparently with vast holdings of treasures, because they’ve opened a free gallery behind the coffee shop, where we lunch.
On Trip Advisor, I wrote: There’s lots to do at Welbeck, even if the house is only open in August. The Harley Gallery has a variety of interesting shows, and is free, but the pearl of the estate is The Portland Collection, where some 5,000 pieces of treasure and art from the house are revealed, also free. This is an exceptional gallery and everything is very well displayed. There’s nice snacks and coffee at The Harley Café; excellent offerings in the Welbeck Farm Shop; a huge array at the Dukeries Garden Centre; skip the Welbeck Restaurant, it’s disappointing and cafeteria-like, tucked away behind much renovation work. Parking is free.
The next day we head off to Chatsworth, another vast estate just to the west in Derbyshire. The countryside is spectacular and we pull over to the side of the road (OK, it was the M1 motorway, but no one was looking) to photograph a spectacular rainbow. I’ve visited the estate several times before, and written Chatsworth blogs, so no need to take a guided tour. I know where all the best bits are stashed.
The house is decorated in the full-blown Palatial Style, seen at Buckingham Palace and other over-the-top residences, based on the gilded furnishings popularized by the French King Louis XIV. In fact, I believe the designer of US President-elect Donald Trump’s three-storey Manhattan penthouse in Trump Tower uses the same meme. At Chatsworth, where the furniture and collections have been gathered since the 16th century, it somehow all works and the ostentatious vulgarity of it all seems appropriate in the huge formal rooms. As elegant as classic Sheraton and Chippendale Georgian furniture is, the furnishings in the interiors of most of these places are what my designer wife calls “gooey Louie,” where normal decor would be overwhelmed by the scale of the rooms.
I’m disappointed that the avenue of pleached lime trees, planted by Deborah Devonshire (the present Duke’s garden-crazy mother and correctly Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire), have been removed. A guide tells me that they have opened up the frontage and made it more authentically the way it was, but I suspect the elaborate barrier of bright green trees have been felled because keeping the allée going was very labour intensive.
We’ve time for a late lunch at The Devonshire Arms in Pilsley, where my daughter satisfies a pent up yearning for English fish and chips. They do the job just fine. This former pub is now best described as a country restaurant and not to be confused with the other Devonshire Arms in Beeley, just a short drive away. They’re both on the Duke’s estate and painted the colourful Devonshire blue, as are most houses in the villages. Our pub has the added advantage of being just a short walk up the hill to The Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop, where we buy lots of special goodies not available anywhere else. My haul includes Chatsworth marmalade, various flavours of fruit coulis, and chocolate biscuits. Plus some tiny Chatsworth pork pies topped with ploughman’s chutney to munch on the way home to our village retreat.
On her last day, we forgo a trip into deepest Derbyshire and Castleton, where they mine the semi-precious Blue John stone, as the weather looks bleak. But we do stop for morning coffee (is that still called elevenses?) with good friend Tessa at her wonderful restaurant, The Old Vicarage, where she also lives. In spite of our request not to make a fuss, Tessa has baked super warm scones and lovely little cakes and tarts. She produces a carafe of her special and truly delicious coffee and we finish our morning with Champagne, of course.
Then on to The Chequers Inn at Froggatt Edge for a very late lunch. Perched on the edge of a towering gritstone escarpment, the view down into the valley is splendid, but we are too stuffed with their wonderful food (not to mention being still stuffed from elevenses) to walk it off along the famous footpath.
I hope my daughter has seen enough of the beautiful countryside in this magical corner of England’s green and pleasant land, where South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire meet within a mile of our cottage, to come and visit again. There’s much more to see and the next time I’ll take her to some of my other favourites.
ENGLAND’S GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND
The beautiful hymn Jerusalem is seen by many English people as an alternative patriotic song to the National Anthem. Jerusalem was originally written as a poem by William Blake in 1804, the lyrics were added to music written by Hubert Parry in 1916 during the gloom of WWI when an uplifting new English hymn was well received and needed.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.