Been to a Stately lately?

Chatsworth House showing the full sprawl and multiple wings and galleries

WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG and my parents still married, one hobby they shared was hiking. Many of these hikes seemed to end in the grounds of vast country houses. In fact my early childhood memories are packed with imagery of vast historic houses and mighty stately homes set in acres of formal gardens and miles upon miles of woods and parkland.

Stately homes were (and in many cases still are) the country seats of the Dukes, Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, Barons and Baronets of the United Kingdom. When I mention Barons, by the way, I mean real hereditary Barons from the aristocratic nobility who pass their titles down the generations! Not the johnny-come-lately life peers Britain is a-swill with today!

The first stately home that I remember was Chatsworth in Derbyshire. This is the country seat of the Duke of Devonshire. The main part of the house is similar in appearance to Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed ― it’s a mighty box shape, although it has a Versailles-style sprawl of hothouses and orangeries coming out of the back end. Chatsworth’s grounds are absolutely enormous, comprising formal gardens as well as sweeping parklands, but my favourite thing about Chatsworth was the great cascade, an immensely long stone stairway flowing with cool waters.

I remember playing in this cascade for hours and hours in early childhood. I always had a fascination with pouring water, and the waters here seemed to pour without end. At the bottom end of the cascade, after crossing the Salisbury Lawns (as I now know they’re called) you come to a long lake with a giant fountain which uses gravity to spray water eighty feet up in the air.

80ft high tourist-drenching Emperor Fountain, set in Chatsworth’s grand Canal Pond

As the wind changes so the mighty jet swooshes in different directions, causing mass hilarity as it threatens to drench the throngs of tourists ― always a great delight to my five-year-old self!

Chatsworth’s interior is ultra-formal and of the highest grandeur, packed with marble and fine stonework. There’s a table made entirely of blue john, a local semi-precious stone with a mottled look. Portraits and statues abound. The heroes of classical antiquity gaze grandly down from the ceilings. It’s a trove of wonder and delight, and unquestionably one of the grandest houses in England.

Chatsworth House with the famous 80ft high fountain
Views of Hatfield House; aerial view looking northwest; front view of the house, looking south; Old Palace from the back with formal gardens

When I was aged about six, we moved down to Hatfield in Hertfordshire, to a house built on land that had formerly been part of Hatfield Park, the  country estate of the Marquess of Salisbury. This meant that Hatfield House was very close at hand, and we would walk through the estate’s vast grounds several times a week.

Hatfield House’s Armoury

Hatfield House was built in a Jacobean style dating from the early 1600s. There’s also one wing of an “old palace” remaining on site, dating from about 200 years earlier. The main house at Hatfield is considerably less formal than Chatsworth, with wooden floors and stairways, and oaken panelling everywhere. The house has a lovely warmth to it, perfumed with the aromas of beeswax and incense-laden aristocratic floor polish.

Long Gallery, Hatfield House

We only came inside the main house a few times over the years ― the grounds were free to us commoners, but to get in the house you had to pay ― so I remember spending huge amounts of time exploring those grandiloquent grounds. All this meant that from a very young age I was never much impressed by the “moviestar-style” of house built in its suburban style with six or eight extraordinarily huge bedrooms.

The Old Palace, Hatfield House

My idea of a fantastic house has always been a stately home; the older and statelier the better! They say some people like building castles in the sky… Well I like castles built on the ground ― and the fantastic stately homes of England!

THE STATELY HOMES OF BRITAIN NEED YOUR SUPPORT, having been out of business for most of the past eighteen months.

Chatsworth House, Gardens and Park are open to visitors. Admission to the park is free, although parking costs £5; admission to the 100-acre formal gardens which include the cascade and Emperor Fountain costs £14 for adults, £7.50 for children aged 4-16; tours of the House cost £24 for adults £12.50 for children. Chatsworth House and Park are open seven days 10am-5pm (House) 10am-5:30pm (Park)

Website Telephone: +44 (0)1246 565300

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Hatfield Park is open to visitors Thursday to Sunday 10:30-5:30pm

Admission to the park costs £11 for adults; £7 for children aged 3-15.

Hatfield House is currently closed; (admission prices were: adults £19; children 3-15 years £11.)

Website Telephone +44 (0) 1707 287000

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3 thoughts on “Been to a Stately lately?

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