300 Rooms, 17 Staircases and one Menage a Trois

It is one of the largest houses in the UK; it was home to one of the most famous Duchesses in history; you need to thank this house when you snack upon your banana; and it is still a family home to the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Chatsworth House really has it all.

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The story of the family starts with a woman called Bess Hardwick. An impressive woman who combined a series of four marriages with an astute sense for business, she rose from being the daughter of a small landowner to become one of the richest and most influential nobles in the country. She was the lady who purchased the estate in the heart of the Peak District National Park where Chatsworth House is currently stands (and you can read more about her amazing story in my Chatsworth stories).

The first house on the Chatsworth estate was built in the middle of the 16th century by Bess and her second husband who died in the process and she had to finish it ( and marry again and again). Bess’ last husband was George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. When Mary Queen of Scots escaped to England, he received the role of her jailor and in 1570 she was imprisoned at Chatsworth House before moving to Sheffield Castle (which was his ancestral home). The Scottish Queen kept returning to Chatsworth many more times in the 14 years she was in his guardianship, and in the house, there are still a series of rooms that are named after her.

The family was elevated to the peerage in 1605 when Bess and William’s son became a baron. Later, in 1618 he paid King James a sum equivalent to £1.8million in today’s money in order to upgrade his title and became the 1st Earl of Devonshire. In 1688, William Cavendish, 4th Earl of Devonshire was one of the “Immortal Seven”, a group of peers who changed the course of history and led the country to what we call today “The Glorious Revolution”. The group wrote a letter to William, Prince of Orange, and promised him their support if he would invade England and take the throne from his father-in-law, King James II. For this role, Cavendish was raised to become the 1st Duke of Devonshire and he was the one who started the rebuilding of Chatsworth House, turning it into a lavish palace with windows gilded with real gold. The 1st Duke was also responsible for the building of the famous water cascade in the garden.

The next two generations did not make many changes to the exterior of the house, but then came the 4th Duke did so, both to the house and to the landscape. He brought the one and only “Capability” Brown who moved to a nearby village to “fulfil” his landscape vision (most of his work was changed during the days of the 6th Duke). The 4th Duke was also the one who commissioned the building of the stables where the restaurants are currently placed. During the days of the 4th Duke, the house reached its final look and included 300 rooms and 17 staircases.

The 5th Duke did not do much to the house, but he influenced its story greatly. First, by marrying one of the most interesting women in England’s upper class, Georgiana Spencer, who became the famous Duchess (portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film of 2008, “The Duchess”). Next, the Duke started to live in some sort of menage a trois with the Duchess and Elizabeth Foster (whom he married after the death of Georgiana). You know where you can read more about this story…

The 6th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish (Georgiana’s son – who was also known as the Bachelor Duke), was in charge of the remodelling of the gardens and transforming them into what we see today. During his days, Chatsworth was home to a 277-foot long conservatory, which later was the inspiration for Crystal Palace. His passion for gardening led to one the most popular species of bananas which we eat today being named after him: the Cavendish Banana. His glorious conservatory was sadly pulled down during World War One because it was proving impossible to maintain.

Chatsworth House became one of the first houses in the country to be maintained by a trust and this allowed the family to deal with the tremendous death duties imposed post-WWII. The house is open to the public today and more than 600,000 people visit it each year.

For more information: Chatsworth official website

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Get Ready to Exhaust Yourself…

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Chatsworth House on a weekend during the school summer holidays. I suppose we managed to pick one of the worst times to visit because the house was jam-packed with visitors ( perhaps this is the case all around the year, although I doubt it). We knew a lot about the house even before we arrived and since we had already visited a couple of the biggest houses in the country, we decided not to go crazy and try and see it all in one single day. And yet by the afternoon, we were still completely exhausted!

We had already decided between us in advance of our visit that Chatsworth House is a three-star house ( in my favourite comparison to the Michelin guide). Its sheer size, the amount of attractions and its history are quite famous, so I admit that I ended up spending most of the time comparing it to other 3-star houses like Blenheim palace or Alnwick Castle, rather than judging it on its own merits, which was not the fairest way to do it to be honest.

We arrived as soon as the house opened and I immediately secured us places on the house tour. There was another way to explore the house, a self audio video guide, which I did not use as I was expecting to get most of the information I needed from the actual tour. I did not really appreciate the fact that there was an additional charge for the guided tour and for the audio guide. I completely understand that the running costs here are high, but with entrance fees to the house coming to over £60 for a family of four and there being yet even more charges for parking, all and all it felt like Chatsworth House management is milking its visitors at every available opportunity, something you do not see in similar houses. For example at Blenheim, parking, audio guides and introduction tours are all free.

The guided tour itself was very interesting and informative- the main problem was the size of the house itself. Chatsworth is an enormous place and seeing all of it, or even most of it, is a very tiring job. The ambitious task to see it all led,  in my mind, to the guide spending less time telling us the actual story of the house and its inhabitants and more time covering ground and talking about the many artefacts. Although I enjoyed the tour, when it ended I found that I had learned nothing new about the ( very) interesting characters that lived in it; not a single word about its role in the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, and only a minute or so about Georgiana Spencer. And since there are no proper exhibitions in Chatsworth to tell these stories, I left the house at the end of the day remembering only bits and pieces about a certain vase or a statue ( and again, looking at Blenheim, I can still remember numerous stories about Consuelo Vanderbilt and about Sarah and John Churchill).

I am not saying that I think that a historic house should be a museum, but a tour needs to combine the little stories of the people who lived in it as well as the things they bought to bring it to life for its modern-day callers. My tip? You don’t need to explore every room on the route; focus on several rooms – only the staterooms – and you will spend less time walking and more time talking. Use the rooms to find out more of the stories about the people who lived in the house and really get underneath its skin.

Things improved when we explored the gardens, with the exclusion of the adventure playground which we did not get to because, yet again, there was an extra admission charge to visit it. The formal gardens of any big house are always impressive, but I think that in Chatsworth, the gardens offer a series of great attractions at a relatively small distance, which was great for the kids. It was a drought year so the water in the famous cascade ( the water gardens) was only turned on at 14:00 for two hours. We sat down near the top of the cascade and waited for them, and as soon as they arrived, my kids started to follow them barefoot, which was a lot of fun. Near the cascade, you can also enjoy a rock garden, a maze, face painting ( at an extra charge), a music box and large scale Jenga and dominoes games next to bowling and polo. Again, we had a great time with the kids.

In summary, Chatsworth House is an incredible house to explore, but I had to give it only two stars because of all of the reasons mentioned in the review, mainly the disappointing tour and endless additional charges. If you were an infrequent visitor to great houses, you wouldn’t probably notice some of the things we did and would still enjoy your visit, if not come away with a slightly lighter wallet! Chatsworth House is an amazing house, but it could have been an even better one.

As I already mentioned, entrance to the house is not cheap, but there is free entry to the gardens if you are a member of HHA with certain discounts for entry to the house, but only to be redeemed once every year.

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