September 20, 2006

A Day in the Peaks and Chatsworth House

After going to bed to a cold, drizzling rain, we awoke Tuesday morning to glorious sunshine and this view from our hotel windows on the third floor:

Chatsworth doesn’t open until 11am, so we decided to drive through the Peak District all morning, then go to the great house after lunch. Let me tell you, it really is worthwhile to get a car if you come to England! It’s a little intimidating at first when you can’t understand all the road sign pictures and have to drive on the “wrong” side, but you quickly become acclimated. We lovethe roundabout system and wish we had it in the US. There are no four-way stops here and very few traffic lights unless you are in a major city like London or Birmingham. A roundabout keeps traffic moving smoothly, since you briefly yield (or “give way,” as they say here) to traffic already in the roundabout before joining in yourself. Then you take whatever “exit” you need to get back off the roundabout and go in a new direction. And if you missed your road, you just go ’round the roundabout again! It really is clever. We also understand now why English cars are so tiny. Over here, no one plows down villages to make way for a four-lane highway or larger streets with sidewalks. If a village has tiny lanes, your car has been designed small enough to fit them! And people really are careful drivers, even if they go fast. They’re used to the narrow streets and politely give way when necessary. Parking is scarce, so many streets have an entire lane taken up by parked cars that you must navigate around in order to go forward. The oncoming traffic will often stop or pull far over to the opposite side to let you pass. It’s tricky at first but old hat after a while.

Our innkeeper recommended we drive up toward Eyam (pronounced “Eam”) instead of taking the tourist cablecar into Abraham’s Heights. So we just set out, telling the GPS to navigate us around from one hamlet to the next. The scenery here is breathtaking. One moment you are in a tiny dale surrounded by hills and trees; the next you are up on a scraggy heath overlooking farms and villages (and sheep!). Some areas have very few trees, and we passed a couple of barren moors, but most of the area we drove had lots of trees with cleared fields and villages in the dales (valleys). One of our favorite places was Castleton–and after we stopped for a moment at the welcome center and looked behind us, we realized why it was named so. There is a very old castle ruin on the top of a hill above the village that looks to be at least 1000 years old–probably more. We encountered quite a number of walkers and hikers going up the tiny lane to see the castle and the rest of the views. What amazed us most were the number of spry and active 70- and 80-somethings walking along with their sticks and canes up hills and down dales. It is no surprise the British are more fit and healthy than Americans–particularly out here in the country. People walk everywhere and stay active. It’s most inspiring.

The scenery in this part of Derbyshire reminds me so much of James Herriot’s books (the animal doctor). Everywhere you see sheep, stone walls, stone barns and cottages, and farmers busy in their fields. There is no way for me to pick a favorite view from our morning drive, because each little village had its own charms and looked inviting. (We’ll upload the rest of the photos later and link to them!) You can stop anywhere for tea and sandwiches during the day, and there are so many bookshops it makes your head spin. We thoroughly enjoyed our morning’s outing and stopped at a nice country bookshop and cafe’ for lunch. There we enjoyed a leek and bacon quiche, brie, and a cornish pastie (a kind of miniature crepe filled with beef and potatoes–and pronounced “PASS-tee”). Once back in Bakewell, we decided to pick up the famous local “Bakewell Pudding,” which has been produced there for over 120 years. It is a cross between a tart and a creme brulee’ — just imagine a rich, almond-flavored custard in a pie crust, and you’ve got it. Very tasty! Melissa and I had been madly sewing on our way back to Bakewell to put the finishing touches on our outfits for Chatsworth. I just finished the last bit of lace on my crossover gown as we pulled up to the Rutland Arms. We got dressed, changed the babies, and purchased discount tickets at the hotel desk, then drove to the great estate.

I really don’t know if Chatsworth is what Jane Austen had in mind when she described Darcy’s Pemberley. Many say it is, and I could wholeheartedly agree when it comes to the landscaping and the grounds. As you approach the house, the beauty of the surrounding hills and the winding river Derwent is utterly enchanting. There is not a single spot of ground that has not been groomed to create a pleasing view–but it all looks natural rather than ornate or forced. It is just a heavenly place to look at. Towering trees, stone walkways, roses in abundance, cottage gardens, and kitchen gardens (even including chicken houses!) are all beautifully kept. The description of Elizabeth’s first view of Pemberley does come to mind: “They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.” That is precisely how Chatsworth looks as you drive up–even to the “high woody hills” in back and the stream “swelled into greater” eminence in the front.

It is awe-inspiring to think of the incredible responsibility it would be to care for such an estate. It would take serious management and skill to do it. This helps you understand what impressed Elizabeth so much about Darcy when she visited Pemberley. It wasn’t his wealth so much as his ability to manage it all and be a kind and caring landlord for his tenants at the same time. A fool and a spendthrift would never be able to maintain such a miniature universe. It takes maturity and great care. Such were our impressions throughout our visit.

The house itself is a bit overwhelming and so highly decorated in the heavy style of the 1680s that I don’t think it resembles Pemberley much at all. It is definitely “a fine house richly furnished,” as Elizabeth’s aunt said, but it doesn’t fit the description in the next chapter of its being “neither gaudy nor uselessly fine.” Many of the rooms are quite gaudy and drip with finery. We did enjoy the awe-inspiring spectacle of the state rooms (one of which was used in the recent “Pride & Prejudice” film). There are hundreds of oil portraits on the walls and many amazing artifacts, including two ca. 900BC stele recovered from a dig site in Egypt and placed into niches in the wall of one of the halls on the lower floor. Here is one:

The library contains books so rare that only scholars are permitted to handle them on special occasions. They date from the 1500s onwards. Room after room leaves your jaw hanging and eyes popping. But you certainly wouldn’t want to live there and be responsible for its upkeep! It would take an incredible housekeeper and steward to manage such a place. The family apartments are, of course, private, but we flipped through some books in the gift shop later and saw that they are almost as splendid as the rest of the house. I think I’d start wanting to bring in something shabby chic after a while! ;-)

What is very unfortunate about Chatsworth at present is its current occupant’s love for modern “art.” Ugly modern art paintings adorn some of the walls, and huge, hideous sculptures have been placed all over the grounds, spoiling many views and leaving the spectator scratching her head. Please pardon my rant, but can’t we just laugh at the ridiculous folly that calls the silliness on the left equal to the priceless work of a great talent on the right?

I have to wonder if there aren’t a great number of “artists” laughing their way to the bank after selling a canvas full of colored rectangles for a million or so pounds. It seems to me we moderns have totally let go of our senses. Let’s just be honest here. It really and truly does not take talent to lump a bunch of scrap metal together, spray paint it, and set it up on a concrete base. Yet we are expected to be “erudite” and view this silliness with serious reflection and find some meaning in it? I’m sorry, but there is more talent and gifting in a tiny Vermeer portrait than in one square inch of any of the horrid, ugly, and ridiculous pieces of “art” scattered over the lawns of Chatsworth. Some child needs to stand up and yell, “But, mother, the emperor hasn’t got any clothes on!” I can hear someone saying, “But it’s all about expression and the artist’s personal tastes.” Okay, but some people are better at expressing themselves than others and can make a meaningful speech rather than rambling on incoherently. They work hard to perfect their skills and hone their talents so that what they produce is timeless and reaches beyond their own generation. Would we pay good money to go to Carnegie Hall to hear someone shriek for an hour at $75 a ticket? (Hmm… perhaps that’s not the best example, considering some of the “music” today — but that’s another rant!)

One final example, and I’ll quit.This silly piece of pop art “sculpture” has been placed in the middle of the beautiful water cascade in back of Chatsworth. It is essentially a metal word taken from one of our American postage stamps from several years ago–“LOVE” with the “O” tilted to one side. Were I set to inherit Chatsworth, I’d prompty throw all this rubbish in a heap and melt it down in a grand bonfire. My apologies to the duke….

We did go through the sculpture gallery, which was added onto the main house in 1833 (so it wasn’t accurate for 1797 in P&P!). We loved seeing the veiled lady statue, which is truly beautiful. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t get close to it, since another piece of modern “art” was near it and roped off, which prevented us getting near enough for a good head-on look. Still, it was a lovely piece. There were two magnificent sculptures of lions in repose at the end of the gallery–gigantic in proportion and based upon earlier Italian sculptures. Next to one of these was a small display on Jane Austen and her connection to Chatsworth through Pride and Prejudice (which mentions the great estate). Then there is one of Keira Knightley’s dresses from the film and the bust of Matthew McFadyen as Darcy. The dress, while totally wrong for 1797, is still beautifully made (totally hand stitched!). The design on the back of the bodice is couched cord (cord laid out in a serpentine pattern and attached with thread loops). It’s a wonderful piece of work–if only the waistline was at its proper place! But enough authenticity griping….

We wandered all over the gardens and lawns of Chatsworth, taking so many pictures we filled up the camera’s memory card and had to (sob!) delete some pictures to make room for more. Out went the chickens! You can take pictures of them almost anywhere. And, who knows, we may think our pictures are repetitive once we get to looking through them, but we just couldn’t stop taking more as each new perspective presented itself! There are several themed gardens, but I think our favorites were the cottage garden and the rose garden. Gorgeous!

The west side of the house is what was used in the recent P&P film as the front of the house. This is where the reflecting pool and fountain are located. This is also the side of the house that contains the stairs Elizabeth runs down to escape Darcy. That area of the house is private, so we just took a long shot:

And here I am with Matt, standing before the impressive west side:

The owners of Chatsworth have been thoughtful enough to provide backpacks to carry babies, since strollers can’t go into the house. That’s why Matt has the big red pack on his back! Tucker thoroughly enjoyed the ride and fell asleep toward the end.

We walked up the hill behind the house to view the fountain at the top of the cascade, and halfway up a sign said, “Take extreme caution if you choose to enter the water.” Melissa and I looked at one another with a mischievous twinkle and immediately knew this was a must-do. We slipped off our shoes, handed over the babies to Matt, and stepped into the cool, refreshing water. The stones beneath were not at all slippery, so we weren’t worried about falling. The icy water felt wonderful on our tired feet, so we stood there for a few minutes while Matt took some pictures. Then we continued on up the hill to the fountain that spills into the cascade.

On our way out, we stopped and spoke at length with one of the estate’s trustees, a man from Derby (pronounced “Darby” here). His family went back for generations in Derbyshire, and he really knew the history of Chatsworth and many other facts about the area. He took time to explain the accent to us and why people in northern England say “Bath” rather than “Bahth.” He wanted to hear all about our English ancestors and why they went to America and when. Fascinating conversation! As we prepared to leave, he told us to take a footpath, cross the bridge into the estate, then climb the right bank of the river Derwent for a special view of Chatsworth. That’s when we took this shot. Finally, Melissa gave her very best “Marianne” impression and walked uphill amongst the sheep for some pictures. Isn’t she lovely? She even got stopped by a tourist who wanted his picture taken with her! There really is something special about going to a place like Chatsworth in period dress. I think you feel the elegance of the place a little more keenly. Or at least I can imagine that you do, and you can humor me. ;-)

We spent the rest of our daylight hours driving around the countryside further to the southeast (near the Heights of Abraham). We didn’t see any of the rocky outcroppings we’d heard so much about, but you really have to take a train up to get to those. Next time! We stopped at the Wheatsheaf in Bakewell for a hearty English supper of steak pie with potatoes and peas before returning to our hotel to look at pictures and update the blog. As I type these last few lines, I am in a hotel at Heathrow, where we’ve been since 8:30pm. Today was another spectacular day, but I’ll have to blog on it after I get home! Our flight leaves at 7am, which means we have to be at the airport at 4am. :-( Forget sleep. We’ll probably just snooze for a bit in our clothes before we head over to the terminal. We do appreciate all the prayers for safe travel! Lord willing, we’ll be in Atlanta by 2:30pm tomorrow! Farewell!


A teaser photo from Chipping-Campden!

P.S. – I just have to add that Matt surprised me with a unexpected gift yesterday. He bought the copy of the memoir Jane Austen’s nephew wrote! I was totally floored. What an anniversary! And, no, I really don’t ever expect him to top all this!