October, and it is to Derbyshire that we venture to view the concentration of houses around the picturesque little village of Baslow. Baslow Hall where we are ensconced, with its delicious food, extraordinarily comfortable beds and ever-obliging staff, epitomises our constant aspiration to “be never-knowingly-underhoused”. We visited the home of the Wright family at Eyam Hall, followed by the ever-popular Haddon and that ultimate in country-houses, Chatsworth. Eyam has the misfortunate to be remembered as the “Plague Village”, resulting, it is said, from the importation of infected cloth from the city of London in 1665. Long recovered from this disaster, this pretty village has few architectural aspirations, least of all the hall itself which was evidently built by a builder with a sketchy knowledge of the architectural niceties, resulting in its being delightfully domestic and higgledy-piggledy, with nice family possessions including portraits and crewel-work On the way we espied the extravagant portico of the Catholic church at Hassop (“severe and correct Doric tetrastyle portico” to be exact), which has echoes of St Paul’s Covent Garden by Inigo Jones. A surprising discovery in deepest Derbyshire.
Everyone who has visited Haddon Hall seems to form an immediate sentimental attachment to it. Possibly this is because it forms such an antidote to the overwhelming splendours of neighbouring Chatsworth, possibly because it is so “right” sitting on its hillside overlooking the river with its lattice glinting in the sunlight and the poignant memorial to a cherished son in the chapel. Whatever the reason for people’s affection for this house, we were certainly not disappointed by our private visit with our excellent guide, and we were able to savour the house, with its Mortlake tapestries formerly in the collection of Charles I, its nostalgic rendering of the house and park by Rex Whistler and the unforgettable Long Gallery.
Chatsworth has been labelled a “great gilded cash-till” and there is certainly some truth in that somewhat churlish epithet. But, when one has to find £4 million per annum to keep the show on the road, you cannot sit around embroidering doilies, although they might be a nice line in the shop. The truth of the matter is that Chatsworth is stupendous. Saved from decimation by the enterprise of the late Duke and his Duchess, it manages to combine commerce with culture. And what culture! The architecture, with its newly re-gilded window-frames, rivals St Petersburg. The interiors with ceilings by Verrio in room after baroque room, paintings by every master under the sun, silver to weaken the knees of any silver-fiend and a Sculpture Gallery which is a text-book of the work of Antonio Canova, make this is a mansion which has dragged itself successfully with all its encumbering possessions into the 21st century. People love it. We arrived for our private guided tour at 10 o’clock and emerged, blinking into the daylight at 12.30 to partake of lunch in James Paine’s stables. Never were horses more splendidly housed in what is inevitably now the Shop… but a shop with a branch of Hayward Hill… you cannot say that about many “Stately Homes”.