Wednesday-Friday, March 9-11
Knowing how much we enjoyed history, our friends Anne and Peter had planned an early spring road trip for us. The adventure would be a combination of visiting Anne’s mum, Shirley, and touring one of Britain’s most imposing homes, Chatsworth House.
Off we zipped with Peter, a former motorcycle racer, at the wheel to Derbyshire where both Shirley and the the Duke of Devonshire resided.
In spite of a gray day of chilly drizzle we couldn’t help but be impressed by the size and magnificence of the ‘house’ of 297 rooms and a mere 35,000 acres as we neared our destination. Anne had grown up in this area, so she and her mum were well-versed in the history of the Chatsworth House; and, they filled us in a bit as we began our long winding drive up to the parking lot.
But, first things first, which meant a spot of tea and some coffee to warm ourselves.
The cafeteria and shop were located in the former stables;
and, if were a horse, I’d want to live here. Even if I weren’t a horse, I’d still want to live here. There not too many ‘stables’ with views like this out their front gate where one pretty much owns everything as far as the eye can easily see.
Fortified with our British libations we decided to begin our drive of the estate. We were fortunate in that we were ahead of the usual crowds because the main house was closed; yet, it didn’t matter. Just seeing the exterior fueled our imagination. Plus, there’s an excellent documentary on the BBC with the current Duke serving as the tour guide. Quite an endearing chap, I might add.
The history of this house began in the 16th century when Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608)
married her second husband, Sir William Cavendish (1505-1557). Cavendish became wealthy due to the lands he had acquired helping King Henry VIII dissolve (read plunder) all of England’s monasteries in the mid-1500s. With Bess’ urging her husband sold the monks’ lands and stockpiled a ton of money. In 1549 they purchased the Chatsworth manor for £600, and the fun begins.
Thanks to Bess’ business acumen and excellent husband-picking (she married twice more after Cavendish bit the dust), she amassed a fortune, which subsequent generations used to generate even more wealth.
But, it’s not just fortune that defines Chatsworth House. Which brings us to another influential woman, Lady Georgiana Spencer (1737-1806).
You may recognize her name from the bio-pic THE DUCHESS starring Kiera Knightley. The beautiful socialite Lady Spencer married William Cavendish, now the 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811). The marriage was a disaster with Spencer running up huge gambling debts and Cavendish making one of his wife’s best friends his mistress. (To this day people compare this 18th-century marriage to that of the 20th-century one between Prince Charles and Lady Diana, whose ancestor was Georgiana. At least Camilla wasn’t Di’s confidante.)
By the 20th century Chatsworth House was becoming more of a burden than a luxury due to some poor business decisions by earlier dukes and the instituting of England’s death duties.
Once again Chatsworth House becomes associated with yet another famous woman, the Honorable Deborah Mitford (1920-2014).
Some years ago I had read a biography about the glamorous Mitford sisters known for their beauty and outlandish behavior.
Growing up in the rarefied air of England’s aristocracy, these six sisters captivated and entertained the world with their antics and relationships, some of the latter falling into the seriously ugly type. You may recall the life of Diana Mitford who married Britain’s leader of the fascist party, Sir Oswald Mosley? Their wedding was in Joseph Goebbels’ house with the couple’s friend, Adolf Hitler, in attendance.
Yet, Deborah seemed the most normal of them all. Maybe most of the quirkiness had been depleted by the time she came along. Whatever the reason, it’s due to Deborah’s vision and hard work that enabled the Cavendish family to retain their family home.
Another famous female was associated with Chatsworth: Kathleen Kennedy who married the oldest son who was heir apparent. Tragically, he died in WWII soon after their marriage and she, in a plane crash in 1948. So, back to the second son who now had Chatsworth with his Mitford wife.
Over the years Deborah, or Debo as she was known to family, converted the aging property into a successful entrepreneurial venture with a farm shop, historical tours, and event rentals. Operating as a charitable trust since 1981, Chatsworth House now welcomes over half-a-million visitors a year, five of whom were us as we looked in awe at the expansive fields and gardens and buildings, all of this possible because of one determined woman who refused to stand by and let a piece of Britain’s history crumble into oblivion.
And, I must say I enjoy the fact that it began with a woman who had gumption and continues on due to another.
Ending our tour with a stop at the farm shop, we purchased some goodies then headed for a delicious lunch at an old pub Anne and her mum use to frequent.
The next morning brought a promise of spring as we said our farewells to Anne’s mum and started the trek back to the marina.
On the way home we made a bit of a detour to another estate located in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham. I’m not kidding. There is such a place only I didn’t see any men running around in green tights and a feather in their hats. Although, that would have been nice.
Welbeck dates from the 12th century when it was a Premonstratensian monastery (a Catholic religious order which combined the contemplative life with a more socializing one–I had to look that up) to a Cavalier residence in the 17th century to a working farm in the 21st century. This registered historic park (originally designed in 1748) is chock-a-block full of ventures: organic food items, a tasty cafe menu (where we ate lunch), small craft shops, artist studios, offices, a School of Artisan Food, and residences both for sale and rent.
And, it’s mesmerizingly lovely, just like Chatsworth, only on a more manageable scale.
As we drove around the various buildings, including the stables and natatorium complex, Anne shared her childhood memories. Her parents had rented one of the homes on these forested grounds, and Anne pointed out where she waited for the school bus and how she would take off on her bike to meet up with her friend Jane in the next village over. To have grown up in these surroundings would have been like living in a wonderful storybook setting.
I have to say JUANONA felt a bit smaller after our road trip with Anne and Peter. And, the history! I loved how the unfamiliar sites touched on the familiar knowledge of what little I had known about Lady Georgiana Spencer and Deborah Mitford.
Best of all we a brilliant road trip with Shirlee and our good friends off of SACRE BLEU :)
A future reunion is a must! But, now back to Norway…