Chatsworth Estate

Chatsworth House Peak District UK by Chatsworth House Trust, Visit EnglandChatsworth is always teeming with activity – there's a wide range of one-off and annual events taking place throughout the year, from talks to exhibitions, concerts and food fairs © PoohFotoz, Shutterstock

Hundreds and thousands beat their way to Chatsworth’s door on a daily basis. The sheer volume of visitors can be overwhelming, but don’t be put off by this, for Chatsworth is hugely worthwhile.

Pick your time carefully: the garden empties at the end of the day, and is quiet first thing in the morning. Experience the seasonally planted landscape on a bright autumn or spring day, rather than in the summer holidays or in the pre-Christmas period, if you can.

A potted history of Chatsworth 

The history of Chatsworth really begins with Bess of Hardwick. Four times wed, she extended her wealth and influence with every marriage, until she was the second most powerful woman in England after the Queen. Bess persuaded her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, to purchase Chatsworth Manor in 1549 for the princely sum of £600. Thereafter her son William – the notoriously quick-tempered fourth Earl (later becoming the first Duke) of Devonshire – greatly altered the house. Starting with the south front, he quickly developed a taste for home improvement, going on to rebuild the east, west and north fronts – completing the project just before his death in 1707.

In the 1760s, his great grandson, the equally industrious fourth Duke called on the skills of Capability Brown to replace the formal gardens with a more natural and romantic look. It was the fifth Duke who married the feisty Lady Georgiana Spencer, the beautiful socialite with a penchant for politics and gambling, and subjected her to a ménage a trois with her friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster – as portrayed in the film The Duchess.

In the 19th century, the sixth Duke, the ‘Bachelor Duke’, redeveloped much of the garden with Joseph Paxton to include features that are admired by visitors today, including the rockery and Canal Pond, along with the Emperor Fountain. Fast forward to the end of World War II. After years of wartime neglect, the house was finally reopened to visitors in 1949. A year later, Edward Cavendish, the tenth Duke was dead and the ensuing death duties threatened the Cavendish estates. Hardwick Hall had to be relinquished and although Chatsworth House was saved, valuable works of art and rare books from the house had to be handed over in lieu of cash. The eleventh Duke, Andrew Cavendish, succeeded his father, his elder brother killed in action during the war. Andrew married into the notorious family of Mitford sisters that included a devotee of Hitler, the wife of fascist Mosley, and an active communist. Andrew’s wife Deborah, more conventional, married respectably, but was no pushover, playing a crucial role in developing Chatsworth House as a successful tourist attraction. On the death of his father Andrew in 2004, Peregrine Cavendish became the twelfth and current Duke of Devonshire. 

Chatsworth House 

What the Peak District lacks in terms of museums is made up for in Chatsworth House. The stately home is a grand and opulent treasure trove of design, art and sculpture. From porcelain, silver and textiles, to Neoclassical sculptures, furniture, drawings, objets d’art and other curios from around the world, Chatsworth is the V&A of the Midlands. The house has more than 120 rooms, although only 30 or so of them are open to the public. Nonetheless, with more than half a mile of corridors, state rooms, halls and galleries, along with a private chapel, it’s enough to satisfy the most demanding of visitors. 

Chatsworth House Peak District UK by David Muscroft, ShutterstockChatsworth House was built to impress in the stunning setting of the Derwent Valley © David Muscroft, Shutterstock

The highlights include the Painted Hall with its intricate floor-to-ceiling depictions of Julius Caesar and the superbly convincing trompe l’œil of a violin and bow hanging from a door in the State Music Room. Meanwhile the State Rooms have remained virtually unaltered from the 17th century. George II slept in the State Bedroom, while the Queen of Scots Chambers in the east wing are where the ill-fated queen lived in captivity. From the cosy and womb-like library, containing over 17,000 books, to the sumptuous Great Dining Room lined in red silk, the Oak Room with its dark panelling and carved heads (taken from a German monastery), to the luxuriously adorned marble Chapel, there’s much to feast your eyes upon. The most impressive pieces are found in the Sculpture Gallery, where two lions guard the entrance to The Orangery and the shop. 

Chatsworth Garden 

The garden makes an impression right from the start with its Conservatory Wall and greenhouses filled with camellias, roses and exotic fruits. Don’t miss the nearby Alice-in-Wonderland-like Topiary Garden, complete with table and chairs, a sofa and staircase. A path along the whimsical blob-like Forms of Growth leads to the Kitchen Garden, impressive in scale and diversity. From the top corner, a woodland path follows the walled perimeter of the garden. Few wander here, yet it’s a charming and quiet hinterland of miniature stone bridges and babbling streams set in managed woodland. Deviate off the path down to the Temple at the top of The Cascade, a water installation of impressive design and engineering, dating back to the turn of the 18th century. 

In the far perimeter of the garden, the Arboretum and Pinetum contain an impressive collection of conifers including the giant redwood – and my favourite, the Brewer’s weeping spruce, a curtain of fine pine needles sometimes bejewelled with dew or rain droplets. Close by, the Grotto has wonderful views over to the Grotto Pond, a riot of colour in autumn. A path leads from here down through The Ravine to the Angela Conner Grove and more sculptures, where you’ll recognise some well-known British faces. The nearby Maze was once the site of Joseph Paxton’s Great Conservatory. Too large to heat in times of wartime austerity, it was dismantled. The stone wall foundation now contains the maze, but the Coal Hole that once took coal underground in small wagons to the conservatory boilers still exists – a dimly lit tunnel to duck through. It emerges at Paxton’s Rockery. Don’t miss the Willow Tree Fountain behind slabs of rock, squirting out water from its metal branches. It has all the whimsy of the more modern installations, but the original willow tree dated back to 1695. From the rockery, steps lead down to The Strid, a pretty ornamental pond filled with carp. Further down, the Ring Pond is surrounded by mischievous lop-sided topiary bushes, while the equally whimsical Serpentine Hedge snakes off to one side. You can leave the Ring Pond here and follow the main path alongside the Canal Pond, with its Emperor Fountain. 

Throughout the garden there’s a mix of permanent and temporary statues and installations, some classical in style, others contemporary, edgy and challenging. From the Canal Pond and the Emperor Fountain, the path leads past the South Lawns and Seahorse Fountain, and on between the house and Capability Brown’s expansive Salisbury Lawns back to Flora’s temple and the Stables. 

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