One of Britain's Treasure Houses
Nothing, not even watching “Britain’s Treasure Houses” on PBS, prepared me for the stunning sight of Chatsworth, surrounded by one thousand acres of parkland. My first sight of the house and grounds, nestled in the lush green valley of the River Derwent, was unforgettable.
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It’s a fitting setting for one of Britain’s Treasure Houses. Farmland, woods and moorland create this great 35,000-acre (14,000-hectare) estate in Central England’s glorious Peak National Park. It is truly a home in the grand manner.
Driving over the picturesque stone bridge and parking the car, I noticed chickens running about, a somewhat strange note that seemed out of keeping with this stately home and its setting. But they are part of The Farmyard, one of two special areas for the kids. The Farmyard allows up-close, get-friendly experiences with cows (watch them being milked), sheep, pigs, horses, donkeys and goats. It’s set up so children can learn about the commercial farming that goes on at Chatsworth.
My first stop was the house. Chatsworth has been home to the Cavendish family, the Dukes of Devonshire since 1549 when Sir William Cavendish started building the mansion. He died before its completion, and it was finished a few years later by his widow, the famous Bess Hardwick.
Marrying four times, each time a richer and more powerful man, Bess became, in 1590, the richest woman in England after the Queen. The house has been altered and added to over the years—its yellow stone facade is an early 1700’s change, giving the mansion a face of classic grandeur. This immense home has some interesting statistics. The roof alone covers 1.3 acres. There are 175 rooms, with 3426 feet of passages, 17 staircases, 359 doors, 7,873 panes of glass and 21 kitchens.
Entering the house through the north corridor I came to the magnificent Painted Hall adorned by scenes from the life of Julius Caesar. Marble floors and gilt ironwork make it an entryway worthy of a king. The State Rooms continue the theme. These rooms were not designed for living but to impress visitors with the wealth and power of the family.
The State Dining Room is the largest with its painted ceiling, gilt tables and portraits of the family. The State Drawing Room has exquisite tapestries, painted walls and ceilings and antique furniture to die for. In the State Bedroom gilded leather furnishings, a bed belonging to King George II and a ceiling painted by Louis Laguerre competed for my attention.
But it was The State Music Room with its trompe l’oeil painting of a violin that most intrigued me. This painting on a door simply begs to be touched. It’s hard to believe it isn’t real. Stamped and gilded leather wall hangings and a green malachite table add exotic touches to the room.
The library continues the elegance of the house. With more than 17,000 books to choose from, I could spend a lot of time in this place. A gilded stucco ceiling and an Axminister carpet enhance the setting for these beautiful leather bound volumes.
The Mary Queen of Scots rooms were open to the public the day I visited. Queen Elizabeth I appointed Bess Hardwick’s fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury, gaoler to Mary. Between 1570 and 1581 Mary used these rooms when at Chatsworth. The seven rooms—rebuilt in the 1690’s and altered in the 1830’s—would make a quite luxurious jail today. One boasts handpainted Chinese wallpaper.
Chatsworth’s art collection varies from Egyptian carvings of 2000BC to paintings by Gainsborough and Rembrandt. The Sketch Galleries contain some of the many family portraits. One I particularly noticed was that of Kathleen Kennedy, Marchioness of Hartington and sister of John Kennedy. Bird lovers can view a collection by Audubon.
Room after room is filled with paintings, gilding, marble, antique furniture and gold and silver plate. The inside of some windows are even gilded. My last stop was the Sculpture Gallery which houses the 6th Duke’s collection, considered the finest neo-classical collection in Britain.
Sated with the beauty of the house, it was time for me to indulge in the garden and park. The 100-acre garden was created in the 1690’s for the 1st Duke of Devonshire and was altered in the 18th century by the famous landscape artist, Capability Brown, who created the 1000-acre park that surrounds Chatsworth.
Behind the house I marveled at the long Canal Pond with its spectacular gravity-fed Empress fountain sending up plumes of spray. A beautiful cascade of water flowing down the hillside in blue-green waves caught my eye. I walked through rose gardens set amidst ponds and, around a corner, came upon a maze. I’d been lost before in mazes so gave this one a bypass to allow time for some of the five miles of walks among rare shrubs and forest. I stumbled upon a secluded little dell “planted” with a copper weeping willow tree dripping tears from its branches and leaves. This apparently captivated the young Princess Victoria when she visited Chatsworth.
One section of the garden was definitely not planned by Capability Brown. That’s the state-of-the art Adventure Playground in the woods. Toddlers were enjoying sand and water, drawing water from a stream and using it in channels, basins and a water wheel. Older children played on a rope bridge, squirmed through tunnels and cavorted on an aerial runway. There's even a family picnic area and a party hut for birthday hire.
I headed back towards the stables, now converted into a beautiful cafeteria/restaurant, where I enjoyed a delicious hot meal. And, of course, no visit to a stately home is complete without a stop at the gift shop. I was spoiled for choices with two shops offering more than 2000 items to choose from, including reproductions of the Duchess’s personal jewelry. I settled on a guidebook to the house.
I’m glad I set aside an entire day to explore this superb home, the glorious gardens and the wonderful park. Chatsworth is truly a treasure trove for the eye.
From the A619 at Bakewell on the eastern edge of Peak National Park there are two options, both scenic. One is the northeastern route turning off A619 onto B6048, then south on the B6012; the other is the southeastern route: from the roundabout in Bakewell take the A6 turning north onto the B6012.
Tel. 01246 565300
Website: Chatsworth House
Check website for Events Diary
House: 11:00am-last admission 4:30 pm, closes 5:30pm. Tour at your own pace.
Garden: 11:00am-last admission 5:00pm, closes at 6:00pm. In June, July and August the garden opens at 10:30am
Farmyard and Adventure Playground: 10:30am-last admission 4:30pm, closes 5:30pm.
Restaurant: 10.15am-5pm; bar from 11am-4.30pm.
Park: open year round, free entry.
Free garden talks every Tue and Thu through the season; a gardener offers a short, free, introductory talk about the garden - meet at 1pm near Flora's Temple.
Images by Barbara Ballard except Chatsworth House interior images, cascade, and playground courtesy Chatsworth House.