We are just returned from a few days in our favoured hotel Fischer’s, Baslow Hall. Conveniently situated within a cock-stride of Chatsworth, we were able to venture forth in splendid autumnal weather to a number of the magnificent houses which dot the Derbyshire countryside. Baslow Hall, is so convenient for these peregrinations and it is always a pleasure to return in the evening to this family-run, Michelin-adorned hotel after the exhausting business of looking at Verrio-ceilings, John Piper murals, alabaster columns and gilded furniture.
It is almost lèse-majesté not to visit Chatsworth when in Derbyshire. We visited on the first day, having corralled two unsuspecting fellow hotel-residents to join our party. Although not a first visit for most of our group, there is always something extra to see at this extraordinary mansion.
Our excellent guide took us round ahead of the throng and we were able to see some of the developments undertaken by the present Duke and Duchess. Afterwards lunch in James Paine’s stables, a saunter in the gardens and a visit to the farm shop for those “essentials” to fill the Christmas stockings was all part of the programme.
Next day to Kedleston, the text-book Palladian mansion of the Curzon family, most famous for Nathaniel Curzon. Sometime Viceroy of India, and surely one of the proudest men of the 20th century, whose Indian treasures add another layer to the Robert Adam interiors of this great house. Most spectacular is the entrance hall, evoking a Roman atrium, with solid Derbyshire alabaster columns soaring heavenwards, leading to the Rotunda whose design is based on the Parthenon. Add to this the gilded furniture of John Linnell and silver from the greatest of the 18th century silversmiths, you have here a statement reflecting the authority and confidence of the 18th century aristocrat. By contrast unarchitected Renishaw is a veritable hugger-mugger delight. Here we were taken round by the most enthusiastic archivist who had kindly sought out actual material relating to the work of John Piper. The work of this splendid artist fills the house, from the frieze around the entrance hall to the dozens of paintings which the present chatelaine has brought from the private quarters. The house is redolent of the unique Sitwell coterie. It has many delights not least a Chippendale commode to rival the more famous piece at Harewood House. This gem is surmounted in the drawing room by the John Singer Sargent painting of Sir children. Such treasures in an architecturally understated house only add to their lustre.
The final day took us to the Elizabethan “skyscraper” called Hardwick Hall. Like its relation Chatsworth, this house never fails to amaze. We had two excellent guides whose enthusiasm and love for the place carried all before them as we discussed why you would cover your very expensive tapestries (albeit second-hand) with dozens of paintings. Who nowadays at the age of nearly seventy would start to build such a house? Elizabeth Shrewsbury was such a one and she lived to enjoy it for eleven years after its completion. Next door, that is to say further north on the escarpment, stands Bolsover Castle. Not actually a castle, but a kind of garconnière for Bess’s son, Charles, this strange edifice towers over the M1 like his mother’s house a few miles to the south. Here in star-spangled rooms painted with allegories he could hold his parties. His son William added the Riding School, itself a remarkable survival, where the art of manège could be studied. William taught Charles II to ride. It was this association that encouraged William to build the now-derelict Terrace Range in which to entertain his erstwhile royal pupil and gain Court preferment. It was a vain hope which brought William only sorrow and debt. Bolsover is a strange reminder of thwarted ambition to find on a Derbyshire hillside, dominating not just the surrounding landscape but an area that was until recently a mining community.
Bolsover: The Art of Manège
And so back home to Baslow Hall for a good dinner, good company and a comfortable bed.