At the end of our holiday (July – how long ago that seems now!) we broke the journey with a few nights in the Peak District, an area I hadn’t stayed in since I was a Venture Scout, and I was able to fulfil a long-term dream of visiting Chatsworth.
On arriving at the house and considering all the varied and eye-watering prices for entering different parts of the site, we decided to forgo the house and just focus on the gardens and the farm/children’s play area, which could be entered separately.
I would love to see the art collection – some other time, when not encumbered by a 4 year old and toddler – but the house itself was partly under scaffolding so the visual impact of it was somewhat reduced. In any case, for me it was all about the garden, so we got started by climbing to the top of the Great Cascade – a really impressive piece of engineering.
From there, we walked on to the rock garden, and it was here I began to see the influence of Joseph Paxton, a man I associate with my own dear Crystal Palace park, but of course his link with Chatsworth is perhaps even more enduring than that with the Crystal Palace.
The tumbledown style of the rocks was very reminiscent of the earth works and rock setting of the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace park – but on a much larger, mountainous scale. It was perfect for scrambling and exploring, and whilst like any sensible parents we exercised caution, you’d be hard pressed to keep a child from climbing up these formations.
The next spectacle was the site of Paxton’s great greenhouse, and here I was surprised and initially disappointed – I had expected to see something like the houses at Kew, but there was nothing there, just a huge walled sunken garden.
Then, on reading the display boards and recalling dimly something I’d seen on TV years ago, I realised there was no greenhouse. It was demolished, deliberately, after WWI because there were not enough staff to maintain it, and the walled garden was built around the foundations – you can still see the entrances and exits and the stairs.
It was a beautiful, haunting place, with the ghost of the shape of the greenhouse still there, just like the great terraces at CP park hint at the huge structure that once stood there, albeit in a rather more shabby and unloved way (though the terraces and dinosaurs are getting some long overdue restoration, I’m glad to say).
I could happily have sat there for hours soaking in the atmosphere – and handily there were some outdoor games like Jenga to occupy the kids – but we needed lunch, so we headed back to the stables block via the back of the house.
This gave us a chance to see a bit more of Chatsworth’s famous outdoor art, including Henry Moore.
I also liked the memorial to what must have been a much loved pet, and the horse sculpture in the stable yard was a big hit – no one objected to children being lifted on it for photos (see above) and its back had been well-polished to a shine after years of children climbing up there.
After lunch we went to the farm and play area – an extremely ambitious adventure playground, with a stream running through it and lots of sand and messy play. Here we came up against one big problem – we had (for the first time in a long while!) forgotten the changing bag, meaning no nappies or spare clothes – the horror! A kind passing mum who saw our plight was able to lend us a spare nappy, so we were safe on that front, but no spare clothes meant neither child was allowed to throw themselves into wet play with abandon. Boo hiss.
From the play area we walked back into the main gardens for me to have a final snoop around the remaining glasshouses (some of which didn’t have public access, in fact, nor did the areas I assumed from the maps to be kitchen gardens – these were all staff access only).
However there was one much earlier glasshouse – one of the first ever purpose built, in fact, housing a collection of camellias and passion flowers…
…and back on the edge of the lawn outside, a wild flower meadow – well, the most manicured, least scruffy wild flower meadow I’ve ever seen – with a range of colours of cornflowers the like of which I’ve never seen before. It may not be strictly as nature intended, but it was impressive.
My lasting impression of Chatsworth will be the sheer epic scale of it. The setting of the house itself was not quite as monumental as I’d been led to believe – I think I was expecting the drama of seeing it for the first time as Elizabeth Bennett sees Pemberley – but the surrounding car parks and the scaffolding detracted from that a bit. However, the impact of the grounds themselves, the scale of what was undertaken in a project like Paxton’s greenhouse, was unforgettable.
It’s not a warm and cosy garden, not intimate, despite all the secluded glades and winding paths – you are aware all the time that you’re on the film set of some epic family saga, with so many famous names associated with Chatsworth – the Kennedys as well as the Mitfords, Cavendishes and the royal family, Lucian Freud, and the other artists Debo Mitford supported. It was a thrilling experience – and I will be back one day to do the interior.