As always it seems that there is much I could moan or rant about – the newspapers are full of negatives – an incompetent Tory government stumbling from crisis to crisis (so says Norman Tebbitt – the Don Corleonesque “godfather” of the Tory party!), the continuing economic situation throughout the world, football once again in the headlines for all the wrong reason as racism and violence yet again raises its ugly head, hit and ruin drivers on our streets and the Jimmy Savile sex abuse case continuing to develop a life of its own. But I shall ignore all these negatives and, in the words of the 1940s hit song “accentuate the positive” - well almost!
On Saturday we woke to a crisp autumn day – brilliant blue skies and a heavy dew. Pat and I decided to have a trip out to Chatsworth House – the vast mansion/palace in mid-Derbyshire which has been home to the Dukes of Devonshire for many generations. Chatsworth is about an hour’s drive from where we live and we arrived just before lunch.
|The approach to Chatsworth House|
I’m not really one for walking around stately mansions but as we drove down the main drive to the car park one could not but be impressed by the grandeur – as well as the vastness - of the place. It was almost breathtakingly beautiful with the Derbyshire hills behind it, the sheep grazing in front, the trees covered in Autumn browns and golds and the back drop of the brilliant blue sky. When we got to the car park it was already quite full and behind us a steady stream of visitors rolled in. Coaches were pulled up on the coach park disgorging their hundreds of visitors – I commented to Pat that there seemed so many young Japanese tourists that Tokyo must be empty!
There was a reason for our visit as well as a simple day out. The House was hosting an exhibition of statues in the grounds and Pat, who loves sculpture, was keen to see it. So, we paid our £8.00 each (senior citizen’s rate!) to enter the gardens and wandered for an hour or so – Pat clicking her camera as we passed each of the said sculptures. The art work was not really my taste – a bit modern for me – rather skinny looking hares on the top of pyramids and the like! - but impressive for all that. And in the setting of the gardens and grounds a real treat.
|A skinny hare! Not my choice|
but maybe it refreshes the soul.
As with other great houses of England the history of Chatsworth is the history of the nation. It has close associations with the great events and the great and the good of national life. Amongst many, many others to have been involved in its history are Queen Victoria and Albert, President Kennedy (his sister married the son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire), the famous Mitford sisters (the present Duke is the son of Deborah Mitford), Charles Dickens, Mary Queen of Scots (she was briefly imprisoned there!).............and so it goes on. There is one story that appeals to me. In 1843, apparently, the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas 1st informed the then Duke that he, the Tsar, would be coming to visit Chatsworth. In anticipation of this Imperial visit, the Duke decided to construct the world's highest fountain – as you do! - and set architects and builders to work on it. An eight-acre lake was dug on the moors 350 feet above the house to supply the natural water pressure. The work was finished in just six months, continuing at night by the light of flares, and the resulting water jet reached a magnificent height of 296 feet. Unfortunately for the Duke, the Tsar died and never saw the fountain! All was not lost, however, the water power found a practical use generating Chatsworth's electricity from 1893 to 1936 when the house was then connected to the mains electricity! And another bit of the House’s history related to the second world war when it was used, as many of these great houses were, to house soldiers and the like. In Chatsworth’s case it became occupied by Penrhos College, a girls' public school in Colwyn Bay, Wales. The contents of the house were packed away in eleven days and, in September 1939 and 300 girls plus teachers moved in for a six-year stay. The whole of the house was used, including the state rooms, which were turned into dormitories. Unfortunately, condensation from the breath of the sleeping girls caused fungus to grow behind some of the pictures. The house was not very comfortable for so many people, with a shortage of hot water, but there were compensations for the girls, such as skating on the Canal Pond. The girls grew vegetables in the garden as a contribution to the war effort.
|A lovely Autumn day - better use of land than a motorway|
or vast metropolis.
Those familiar with one of my favourite books, “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh will know that the story starts with the central character, Charles Ryder, suddenly finding himself at palatial Brideshead during the second world war. His regiment are billeted there – a place he had known and loved in pre war years. Just as Chatsworth housed a girl’s school so the fictional Brideshead housed soldiers and visiting Chatsworth the other day, driving down the long sweeping entrance drive and looking down on the House reminded me of an extract from the book. In the story, the elderly Lord Marchmain recalls, as he lies on his death bed, the history of his ancestors and the palatial Brideshead.
“We live long in our family and marry late. Seventy-three is no age. Aunt Julia, my father's aunt, lived to be eighty-eight, born and died here, never married, saw the fire on beacon hill for the battle of Trafalgar, always called it 'the New House'; that was the name they had for it in the nursery and in the fields when unlettered men had long memories. You can see where the old house stood near the village church; they call the field 'Castle Hill,' Horlick's field where the ground's uneven and half of it is waste, nettle and brier in hollows too deep for ploughing. They dug to the foundations to carry the stone for the new house; the house that was a century old when Aunt Julia was born. Those were our roots in the waste hollows of Castle Hill, in the brier and nettle; among the tombs in the old church and the chantrey where no clerk sings.
"Aunt Julia knew the tombs, cross-legged knight and doubleted earl, marquis like a Roman senator, limestone, alabaster, and Italian marble; tapped the escutcheons with her ebony cane, made the casque ring over old Sir Roger. We were knights then, barons since Agincourt; the larger honours came with the Georges. They came the last and they'll go the first; the barony descends in the female line; when Brideshead is buried - he married late -Julia's son will be called by the name his fathers bore before the fat days; the days of wool shearing and the wide corn lands, the days of growth and building, when the marshes were drained and the waste land brought under the plough, when one built the house, his son added the dome, his son spread the wings and dammed the river. Aunt Julia watched them build the fountain; it was old before it came here, weathered two hundred years by the suns of Naples, brought by man-o'-war in the days of Nelson. Soon the fountain will be dry till the rain fills it, setting the fallen leaves afloat in the basin and over the lakes the reeds will spread and close........”
I would guess that the same sort of sentiments and history might be made by many of the great aristocratic families of the land – and probably by the current Duke of Devonshire.
|What could be pleasanter?|
Chatsworth has been home to the Duke’s family, the Cavendish family, since Bess of Hardwick settled there in 1549. The name 'Chatsworth' is a corruption of 'Chetel's-worth' meaning 'the Court of Chetel'. In the reign of Edward the Confessor a man of Norse origin named 'Chetel' held lands jointly with a Saxon named 'Leotnoth' in three townships; Ednesoure to the west, and Langoleie and Chetesuorde to the east. Chetel was deposed after the Norman Conquest and in the Domesday Book the Manor of Chetesuorde is listed as the property of the Crown in the custody of William de Peverel. Chatsworth ceased to be a large estate, until the 15th century when it was acquired by the Leche family who owned property nearby. They enclosed the first park at Chatsworth and built a house on the high ground in what is now the south-eastern part of the garden. In 1549 they sold all their property in the area to Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King's Chamber and the husband of Bess of Hardwick, who had persuaded him to sell his property in Suffolk and settle in her native county. The rest, as they say is history – the Cavendish family have been masters of Chatsworth ever since.
Clearly when those Cavendishes of generations ago set about building the place it would never have crossed their minds that within a few hundred years ordinary people would be paying their few pounds to come and gaze upon what they had created. The exclusivity that they had built was now almost the property of everyman – as long as he or she has a few pounds to get in! But as we walked around in the Autumn sunshine the hundreds of smiling faces – including ours – bore witness to everyone’s approval of what had been created a few hundred years ago. Part of that, I feel is due to the obvious time, money, effort and thought that has gone into making Chatsworth what it is today. As well as an impressive “pile of stones” and vast estate it is beautifully kept and maintained. Whether it be the house, the grounds, the tended gardens, the toilets, the ice cream stall, the shop, the several cafes wherever one went it was beautiful. As well as a pleasant day out it is something that ordinary people can in their way be proud of – it is a kind of statement about the country in which they live – and if the faces of the Japanese visitors was anything to go by something which overseas visitors are impressed by. I remember some years ago visiting St Petersburg and walking around the Winter Palace and other great Russian buildings. The guide books told us that as Russia slowly came out of the Communist era these buildings had been restored at great expense as a focus for ordinary Russians – it was thought it gave them a link with their nation’s past and a pride in its present. I don’t know whether that is true, but I suspect everyone walking round Chatsworth on Saturday could somehow feel a link with our national heritage, not matter how much one might, occasionally, want to rant about its inequalities and inherent down sides!
|The man who makes women |
around the worldgo weak at the knees!
We shared a bench in the sun with two Japanese girls and enjoyed the sandwiches which we had bought at the cafe. They, like everything else, were first class. Later we visited the farm shop and Pat bought one or two bits and pieces – while I drove round and struggled to find a parking spot so busy was it! And we visited one of the gift shops for a bit of “retail therapy” (no trip should be without this element Pat tells me!) after all it was certain that we would find something for the grandchildren – and so it proved!
It was while in the gift shop that I sadly shook my head! The merchandise was all very nice – of obvious reasonable quality and not too expensive. I knew that we would not be leaving empty handed! But as I walked around I was struck by a couple of things. In one corner I found a display of what I will loosely Call “Pride and Prejudice” merchandise – a Mr Darcy mug proudly displaying the face that has made millions of women (including my wife!) go weak at the knees since the serial was screened on TV a number of years ago. Colin Firth's Mr Darcy image gazed out on us from fridge magnets, Mr Darcy notebooks, pencils, booklets and, of course, copies and DVDs of "Pride and Prejudice". At the side of us a group of Japanese girls squealed “Mr Darcy, Mr Darcy, Oh, Mr Darcy” – obviously he makes Japanese female knees go weak too! Fortunately I managed to prise my wife away from the display without her succumbing to Mr Darcy’s obvious charms (obvious to her that is!). Clearly it was felt by the merchandising department that Mr Darcy would sit well in a place like Chatsworth – a real retail opportunity. A clumsy connection was being made between Chatsworth and the fictional home of Mr Darcy, Pemberley, which was also situated in Derbyshire and which many Pride and Prejudice “aficionados” believe to be based on Chatsworth. Buying a mug or a fridge magnet was also buying you a tenuous link with Mr Darcy! Are we really so gullible as a population that we are impressed and influenced by this sort of blatant manipulation. Clearly we are!
|In the shop!|
And as I wandered on I came across two or three other displays that I found even more “worrying”. Large displays, these, each with a large photograph of the Duke of Devonshire or the Duchess of Devonshire or their children. And the legend on the photograph proudly asserted that the items on the display were the “Duke’s Choice” or the “Duchess’s Choice” or “Lady Burlington’s Choice” – the connection being made that the items here had been specially chosen by these venerable, aristocratic people and, thus, were clearly of extra worth and attention. That buying these would somehow be a statement of your good taste and eye for quality – because you, like the Duke or Duchess, have an eye for such things. In a tiny way it would be linking you with the great house and its owners. Are people really taken in by this? Does the Duke really walk around with one of the scarves he was advertising as “his choice”, does Lady Burlington actually use the make-up or the rather “naff” biscuit box that she was promoting as “her choice”. It was classic retail manipulation using class and celebrity as the springboard. I don’t blame the Duke and Duchess for using it – they know that a gullible public will buy into their ploy. It is exactly the same principle that Prince Charles uses when he sells his organic food - which he brands as “Duchy” – and of course only sells it to the "right kind" of people who shop in the best stores – like Waitrose. It reminds me of the letter in the paper recently commenting that someone had been in the queue at a cheap discount shop and heard the lady in front of her to say into her mobile phone ”Oh, I’m just standing at the checkout in Waitrose!” It’s like the elderly lady who always took a couple of Harrods bags with her when she went shopping. She would take her shopping out of the everyday plastic bags and decant it all into her Harrod’s bags – it looks so much better! And we are all guilty. Just before my daughter got married she and my wife went shopping for outfits. On the way back they proudly displayed the bags from the top designer shops on the back ledge of the car – no ASDA or Primark bags, they were tucked into the boot - just the Jacques Verte and Gucci on display! Look at us.......we shop at Gucci.....look at me, I’m wearing the Duke of Devonshires specially chosen leather gloves! Oh dear!
The image was on sale – Mr Darcy, the rich aristocratic hero of Pride and Prejudice or the Duke and Duchess’ personal seal of approval on items – were being used to attach extra “value” and desirability to very ordinary bits of kit. Sadly, as I looked around, many, it seemed were taken in; Mr Darcy mugs will be decorating many Japanese and English kitchen table tops, young women up and down the land and in Tokyo will feel like princesses or at least “ladies” as they put on their Lady Burlington make up and elderly gents like me will feel that warm glow and knowing connection with the toffs as we pull on our “Duke’s Choice” leather gloves and scarf this winter – just like the Duke of Devonshire will do each morning as he looks out over his estate. As I left the shop I had a little cynical chuckle to myself. Yes, I suppose it confirms my grumpy old man status. I just find it very sad that seemingly intelligent people are so easily taken in by clever marketing – and of course the innate desire of many to link themselves, no matter how tenuously, with celebrities. Having said that I don’t blame the Duke or Prince Charles – if people are so easily taken in then one can’t blame the retailed for selling them what they want!
My grumpy old man moment however, is a small price to pay for a lovely day out in a real gem of a place. If a bit of clever retailing rooted in the gullibility of people is all the Duke of Devonshire can be accused of then he is a fortunate man. He owns a wonderful estate and has clearly made a huge contribution to the Derbyshire landscape, the local economy, the local and national heritage and the pleasure of many thousands who visit his home each week. Good luck to him!
As we walked around another small part of me rebelled again – that one family had so much and, some might argue, the result largely of inherited wealth went against my basic instincts. But this was a passing thought that was soon replaced by the feeling that this wonderful place has been looked after and preserved for generations by the Cavendish family and now made accessible, for the common good. If the land had been sold off and was now covered with housing estates and motorways and factories would we, in reality, be better off. I think not. Left wing republican, anti establishment socialist I may be but I couldn't help thinking that maybe some things have a greater good.
As I pondered this I was reminded of another bit of “Brideshead Revisited” – in the Epilogue – when Charles Ryder, who knows the great house well, is talking to Hooper one of the soldiers under his command. “...... the young officers [said Hooper] used to lark about in it [the ornate baroque fountain] ....... and it was looking a bit the worse for wear......all the drivers throw their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches there, and you can't get to it to clean it up.......... Florid great thing, isn't it? ......... It doesn't seem to make any sense--one family in a place this size. What's the use of it?"
"Well, I suppose Brigade are finding it useful."
"But that's not what it was built for, is it?"
"No," I said, "not what it was built for. Perhaps that's one of the pleasures of building it, like having a son, wondering how he'll grow up. I don't know; I never built anything, and I forfeited the right to watch my son grow up. I'm homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hooper."
|Skinny hare with a cello seem a bit bizarre - what is it for? |
But it made me smile - I wouldn't mind it in my garden!
Just, maybe, places like Chatsworth, ornate fountains or indeed the sculptures we went to see have “no point” or there’s “no use in it” - except for the fact that they are there and because they are there can be enjoyed. In Hooper’s world great houses, ornate fountains or skinny hares sitting on the top of pyramids would have no place – but then, the world might just be a poorer place. And, as Ryder comments about Brideshead, Chatsworth, too, has, like a family and children, grown and matured with passing generations. And today is enjoyed each year by many hundreds of thousands of ordinary visitors who come to enjoy the heritage, the countryside, the gardens the splendour, the history and, as we did, the Autumn sunshine. Not what it was intended for when built half a millennia ago – but still, despite the Mr Darcy mugs and its not so subtle reinforcing of an outdated class system, fulfilling a justifiable and important function boosting the local economy but perhaps more importantly giving to many pride, pleasure, happy memories and a refreshing of the soul.