If you are a bead- eyed, self-appointed master detective like my good self, you may have noticed via my myriad social media platforms that I was in the Peak District a few weeks ago. It was very nice indeed. I stayed in a big house with nine other merry souls and one nappy wearing individual. It may surprise you to learn that I did not drive a 340 mile roundtrip purely to eat Bakewell tarts (although dear reader, you can bet your bottom dollar that I certainly did). No, no, I took in some other local attractions of the area too. For example, at an international dance festival, which was inexplicably being held in Bakewell town square, I saw some Hungarian folk dancing. I also frequented a craft fair held in a Boy Scout hut which had the exorbitant entrance fee of 10 pence. Much like the Queen I never carry cold hard cash about my person so my kind-hearted and deep-pocketed brother-in-law had to see me clear past the ‘Gatekeeper of the repurposed Quality Street tin for petty cash’ on the door. Oh we had a merry time.
Homemade jewellery and Bakewell tart soft scoops aside, I think it goes without saying (even though I am about to do just that) that the crowning glory of my stay in The Peaks was a long overdue visit to Chatsworth House.
I initially became aware of Chatsworth through reading my first and still preferred book about that oh so fascinating band of well-bred and imperviously nosed femmes, The Mitfords. I remember thinking that the youngest Mitford gel, the shy and rather sad looking Debo ended up with a pretty dull life in comparisons to many of her other sisters. I mean, Nancy kicked up her heels with the bright young things of the 20’s, smoked like a train, drank like a fish and wrote hilarious novels in between shopping trips to Channel and entertaining in her tasteful Parisian apartment. Then there’s Decca – she went off to the Spanish Civil War for gawds sake! After that she hot-footed it to America, bounced around the counter culture movement, campaigned for civil rights and wrote a ground breaking expose of the funeral industry. After all of that, just being a lady in a big house in Derbyshire seemed a bit bland.
Over the years though, as my adolescent tartness has been mellowed by big creamy dollops of life experience and increased empathy (not to mention the London rental market) living in a big country house doesn’t seem quite so dull or tiresome anymore. Of course Debo did much more than just swan about adjusting porcelain figurines and changing for dinner. The late Dowager Duchess was instrumental in transforming the fortunes of the Chatsworth estate after the 10th Duke died a few weeks shy of the deadline for transferring the property to his son and heir so the family was landed with a whopping 7 million pound bill from the Inland Revenue for death duties. Debo and her husband the 11th Duke Andrew Cavendish, worked pretty darn hard to keep the place going and were constantly coming up with new ways to encourage visitors to the house. The now much lauded Chatsworth Farm shop was the brainchild and pet project of Debo and really paved the way for similar ventures that seem commonplace at many country houses today. Side note – I of course went to the farm shop within which I sampled and then purchased what I can only describe as the most delectable lemon wafers I have ever common across. In fact they are the only lemon wafers I have ever come across but they were delicious and soon dubbed ‘the lemon crack’ by the rest of the house. I’m sure the Duchess would be exceedingly proud.
To add further credence to the efforts of the last Duke and Duchess, they weren’t even meant to have the place! Andrew was in fact second in line after his brother William. In a tragic but still interesting plot twist of social history, William met, fell in love with and after much handwringing married Kathleen (Kit) Kennedy, sister of John (later to be President) Kennedy. Joe Kennedy was none too pleased about the match because William wasn’t Catholic but the two sallied forth and were married to little fanfare in 1944. Considering what they had to go through to be together it seems even crueller that after all of this heartache they would fail to enjoy much of married life together because William went off to the front and was killed in action four months later. Kit remained close to the Cavendish family, being as she was pretty well adored by everyone, however she sadly also died too young when her plane went down while on her way to the Riviera in 1948.
Chatsworth is perhaps more famous to fans of the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice series as Pemberley, home of Mr Darcy. A very Meta move by the production team because Chatsworth was used by Austen as one of the houses Elizabeth Bennet visits during her country house tour holiday with the nice cousins, before she ends up at Darcy’s house and see him emerging from a lake in a now transparent shirt. Wait… maybe that bit isn’t in the book. Which is also a bit bloody Meta because that famous scene didn’t even happen at Chatsworth but at some other lake miles away. I was very disappointed to learn this only after I had spent most of the day pretending to be a Regency spinster visiting her unhappily married friend (my mate Charlotte) who was now in love with the gardener. I am eternally grateful to have friends who derive as much boundless pleasure from staring out of windows while sighing wistfully ‘oh my dear Miss Chloe, whatever am I to do about Caruthers?’ as I do. Anyway, we felt like a right pair of plonkers when we found out that Mr Darcy was in someone else’s lake the whole flippin time! Maybe he wouldn’t mind about the gardener after all…
But beyond all of the japing and puns about under footmen, there was a really cracking exhibition on at the house too.
The House Style exhibition weaves a route through the house and showcases key garments and artefacts from the stylish history of the former inhabitants. From the original mastermind of Chatsworth – Bess of Hardwick, to Georgina Duchess of Devonshire, the most fashionable woman in Georgian England (Kiera Knightly to you and me) and culminating with Stella Tennant, Vogue model and niece of the current Duke and Duchess, fashion has always been a strong current running through the house.
The exhibition is chocked full of clobber ranging from the state robes worn by the previous Duke and Duchess for the Queen’s Coronation to lots of frocks of Stella Tennants from her modelling days. Pride of place are also the late Duke’s famous slogan jumpers, a new one of which Debo would make for him each year and would feature the phrases he was fond of muttering, the best of all being ‘Never marry a Mitford’.
American Vogue’s Hamish Bowels was in charge of the curation and it feels surprisingly elevated for an exhibition of family clothing in a country house. Reminiscent of the McQueen exhibition the V&A, the styling blends the opulence of the surroundings with the eerie darkness of the ghostly ancestry that permeates the rooms. Great cathedral-like spaces, dripping with wealth and family legends and death. Everything is blood red or dark aged wood. Bloodlines and trees. Roots and veins stretching down beneath the stone floors and imbedding the house within its ancient valley, surrounded by hillsides and heather moors.
Within this melee of grandeur and mortality the garments themselves tell the story of the Cavendish family: wedding dresses, Christening gowns, mourning dress. The spokes of a lifecycle that has turned around itself for four hundred years.
Peppered amongst these hallmarks of lifetimes are some more unique pieces, foremost, the famous Devonshire House Ball of 1897. The theme was historical or allegorical dress and today in The State Drawing Room, milky apparitions of the guests stand life-size, projected in to the gloom and looking for all the world like Pepper’s Ghosts from a Victorian charlatan’s séance.
The Capability Brown designed gardens are quite lovely, if a little a windswept and chilly on the day we visited. Some notable features include the Cascade Fountain (often voted the loveliest water feature in England don’t you know?). The Emperor Fountain, designed to impress Tsar Nicholas I for a visit he never actually made due to the icy hand of death getting to him before the Derbyshire air was able too, is quite a sight even though it is kept mostly at half thrust due to the ridiculous quantities of water and energy required to reach its 240ft potential. There is also apparently a fake Willow Tree that will literally weep on unsuspecting passers-by, despite the Harry Potteresque allure of this I failed to reach it because it really was quite brisk and I was still reeling from the aforementioned ‘Darcy In A Different Lake’ shocker that had just been brought to my attention.
There wasn’t much more for it after that apart from an obligatory cup of tea in the café and a mooch around the gift shop (both excellent). Afterwards we bundled into the car and headed back to the ranch to watch the Grand Prix before heading to the pub. All in all it was the most marvelous of days. Maybe Debo had it sussed all along. Who needs Paris anyway?