Chatsworth: A day out at a Derbyshire country house

Chatsworth House from the river
Chatsworth House from the river

It must be tough being a duke. There’s the grand country house to call home, no end of properties to rent and sell, stunning artworks hanging from your walls, acres of land to farm and gardens to landscape.

Chatsworth, the spectacular Derbyshire estate of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, has all this and more.

But the guidebook that accompanies the visit and all the PR we find online make regular reference to how difficult it’s been for the Cavendish family over the years, and how 20th century death duties threatened the very existence of the estate. A trust had to take control, property was sold or handed to the National Trust, all to ensure they survived. Even so, nobody can deny that the Cavendish family lead a privileged existence. I wouldn’t say no to swapping my Sydenham existence for it all…

Then there’s the fact that without those hefty taxes and the need to find a new source of income, many such stately homes would never have been opened up for us mere plebs to visit and appreciate.

The grand entrance to the house
The grand entrance to the house

Unlike some aristocratic families that didn’t survive the ravages of the old tax regimes and the decline in the value of land, the Devonshires have flourished and created a thriving enterprise with the famous house and garden at its heart.

Chatsworth lies a few miles outside Chesterfield, a Derbyshire town of little merit other than a parish church that boasts a famously twisted spire. Its town centre has that worn-out look, a victim of shortsighted council decisions to promote out of town shopping centres.

It was pouring with rain as we drove out to Chatsworth, into the Peak District, through estate villages such as Baslow. These are uniformly unspoilt and picturesque, thanks to the care and attention of the family and the uniformity imposed by the use of local building stone – the greys of the limestone, the yellows and pinks of the sandstone known as gritstone.

Old masters...
Old masters…

Even in the rain, the approach to Chatsworth through the rolling countryside was impressive. Suddenly, turning a corner, we caught a glimpse of the golden-hued house sitting uphill from the River Derwent, surrounded by landscaped grounds and woods.

There was the famous bridge across the river, a scene captured in numerous photos over the years. Even a good socialist like me couldn’t fail to be impressed.

And as we parked the car I was grateful for the rain that had helped to keep the crowds and queues to a minimum.

The chapel with Damien Hirst's sculpture
The chapel with Damien Hirst’s sculpture

But what about the tour? I suppose I’d been expecting a typical country house experience, with rooms stuck in the past, all roped off, untouchable, mausoleum-like. But Chatsworth was surprisingly different.

During our visit, it was hosting an exhibition of contemporary chairs and these were scattered around the rooms, signs encouraging visitors to try them out. And the family’s interest in modern art was prominently on display.

It all made for a fresh contrast to the historic furniture and art that otherwise dominated the house.

And there’s lots of history at Chatsworth. The present house is a late 17th century confection, replacing the Tudor home of Bess of Hardwick. The Painted Hall celebrates Caesar and ponders the folly of supreme power, making for a colourful and imposing introduction to the house.

The innovative DNA room
The innovative DNA room

Beyond it is a string of rooms of varying styles. There’s the traditional grandeur of the library, the wooden gloominess of the Oak Room, the homeliness of the guest bedrooms and the airiness of the sketch room devoted to the memory of Duchess Georgiana – a woman made famous by a book and film that chronicled her life. I liked it because of the display of minerals that she’d collected over the years.

Another room, a chapel, displayed Damien Hirst’s gruesome work Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain, which shows his subject with his skin stripped off, hanging over one arm. Elsewhere were some fine works by Lucien Freud.

Chatsworth from the cascade
Chatsworth from the cascade

There’s a further nod to modernity in the DNA room, given over to a series of ceramic panels that represent the DNA strands of the Cavendish family. It was a surprising addition to Chatsworth and a welcome one for it.

Tour over, we devoured a cream tea and ventured into the grounds. The rain was moving away as we toured the vast kitchen garden, chock full of fruit, veg and flowers. Elsewhere were formal rose beds and a cottage garden, as well as less formal planting.

We took plenty of photos of the famous cascade, which tumbles down the hill towards the house, and followed a path alongside a trout stream that was the inspiration for Chatsworth’s award-winning 2015 Chelsea Flower Show entry.

The trough waterfall
The trough waterfall

Trees of all shapes and sizes provided cover, reflected in several ponds, and the planting everywhere was exceptional, even in the dismal light. A trough waterfall wound its way down the hill into a ravine.

We finished up at the Canal Pond, but its famous giant Emperor Fountain was sadly quiet – a victim, ironically, of water shortages. But there was no denying the majesty of the view back to the south front of the house.

We wandered down to the river, past the rather neglected structure that goes by the name of Queen Mary’s Bower – supposedly an exercise yard for the doomed Queen of the Scots. Sheep grazed around us and all looked timeless and peaceful.

Yes. I could live at Chatsworth…