Driving from Oswestry to the Peak District, we encountered tiny villages with churches hundreds of years old, miniscule laneways, where passing another vehicle meant holding your breath and more pubs than you can possibly count. This trip mostly saw us avoiding the motorways – which I was pleased about as they can be quite dull and dangerous. We ventured through some major towns as well as the villages, the last of which was Buxton. This reminded both of us of Bath and we later learned that it was built as the ‘spa town of the North’. I’m not sure that it ever lived up to its name but apparently there has been quite a considerable amount of money invested in the area recently, renovating old buildings and encouraging new development. It’s really very beautiful.
When you head into the Peaks, the landscape changes dramatically, with windswept moors and craggy outcrops – on which several groups of abesillers were honing their skills. Our drive was marked by bright sunshine and a cloudless sky. Truly gorgeous.As we headed toward Bakewell, the villages were like something from a fairytale. Quaint cottages and narrow streets and again of course, at least a pub or two. On this rare day off on the tour we decided to visit the Chatsworth estate, renowned as one of the most beautiful country piles in the UK. It is home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. There is a farm shop and a village with an ancient church and then as we rounded a bend in the road, careful not to upset the sheep and their lambs, my mouth literally fell open. The scene in front of us was like something from a movie. The most enormous mansion surrounded by formal gardens including a cascading water feature that must have been half a mile long. And then there were the stables and rising from the trees atop the peak, the hunting lodge. Of course there was also a river flowing through the bottom of the park and people – everywhere enjoying the glorious weather and the hospitality of the Duke and Duchess.
The whole countryside was a palette of blues and greens – we were definitely seeing the estate at its very best. Nothing about our visit disappointed, except that I could have stayed there for much longer. The estate is now part of a trust, created when the current Duke inherited it and had to pay 80% death duties. It was quite likely the only way that they could ensure its future. The Duke and Duchess pay rent to live in the house and that situation will continue down the line. The money generated from activities including tours and the like goes back into conservation and maintenance. There is a large staff to pay for too.
We paid 15 pounds each to enter the house and grounds and I have to say it was money well spent. Inside there are priceless antiques, curiosities and artworks that the most prestigious museums and galleries would covet. The trophy cabinets literally glittered with treasure and the collections of various things including Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire’s (featured in the movie, The Duchess) trove of minerals and crystals. The library with its hidden staircase to the upstairs gallery was intriguing and the guest rooms with some of the first ‘ensuite’ bathrooms (built into cupboards) featured extravagant furnishings and beds you really did need a step ladder to climb into.
I spent my time in the gardens imagining what it must have been like in the years before the house was opened to the public, being a child growing up in this wonderland. With rocky outcrops and waterfalls, a maze to hide in and expanses of lawn, just begging for a game of chasings, it must have been a wonderful life for some. Perhaps not for the servants who spent their time at the beck and call of the masters, some of whom have quite a chequered past. The current Duke and Duchess would seem to be well loved by their staff, and well looked after too. I’m sure that it wasn’t always that way. Later we heard a story about one duke who was upset that the village obscured his view of the countryside – so he had it moved. Block by block and piece by piece including the church. Except for one house where the elderly resident was allowed to stay. They intended to move the dwelling once he’d shuffled off this mortal coil. However the wily old so and so outlived the Duke of the time and everyone forgot about it and so there is one cottage that stands alone.
The current Dowager Duchess lives in the village since her husband died and is apparently adored by all. It sounds like the family has quite a public presence too, and I love the fact that the grounds ,as in the park, are always open. As we drove out in the afternoon there were hundreds of people picnicking and swimming in the river too – it was hot. It must have neared thirty degrees.
Bakewell is famous for Bakewell tarts, which I’m afraid I didn’t sample although they looked delicious. We found our accommodation at the Bagley Hall Sleep Lodge. A slightly curious place, there is a telephone number to call for check in. We wandered around and saw the main Hall as well as the Sleep Lodge and stumbled upon the son in law of the owners who was very helpful and offered to take our luggage to the room. It was called the Ranulf Fienes Suite and the room was huge with a king sized bed. The bathroom was upstairs and was large too. I think the owners had spent a considerable amount of money converting what was previously backpacker accommodation; however, the cleaning and maintenance wasn’t the best and the place had aged quickly. Nonetheless it was very comfortable and the bed was heavenly.
We stumbled on the school we are visiting tomorrow on our way to the hotel – S. Anselm’s was literally at the top of the hill around the corner and was gorgeous.
John Carr, the Head of English had left a message for us to call him when we arrived. We did and arranged to meet up just after 6pm when he would take us a for a tour of the area and to dinner in one of the local pubs. We weren’t expecting a convertible but when John arrived we had the pleasure of driving through the countryside in his beetle with the roof down – certainly not something I expected to be doing in England. Convertibles are very popular here and Ian and I had commented on the drive over that day, that a bit of sunshine removes the tops on lots of cars.We stopped in a pretty village called Ashford on the Water for dinner at the local pub. The whole experience was quintessentially English. John’s a great guy and we really enjoyed having the opportunity to meet him after many emails to arrange the visit. It’s his first year at the school and it’s clear that he loves it. I was looking forward to meeting the children in the morning and working with a range of classes. We had been made so welcome – the Peaks had won us over already!