Category Archives: Country Houses of Derbyshire

Soi-disant castle

Willersley Castle, Derbyshire

Maureen, one of my regular Interesting Times tour-guests, has alerted me to the sale of Willersley Castle, which we visited for lunch on our ‘Derbyshire Derwent Valley’ tour:  https://christianguild.co.uk/willersley.

It operated as a Christian Guild holiday hotel until the coronavirus pandemic forced its closure.  The owners have now decided not to reopen:  https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/local-news/stunning-castle-hotel-derbyshire-go-4309370.

Its main claim to fame is that it was to be the residence of the great cotton-spinning inventor, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), whose pioneering mills lie out of sight within fifteen minutes’ walk of the front door.

Mr Arkwright, as he was until he was knighted in 1786, chose Cromford as the site for his first water-powered factory, which he opened in 1771.  He resided at Rock House, tucked on a hill even nearer to the mills but on the other side of the River Derwent.  He sought to balance the practical necessity of keeping an eye on the works and workers with the amenities he considered suited to his increasing wealth.

To call Willersley a castle is stretching the definition.  Designed initially by the little-known William Thomas [https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/william-thomas-216451], it’s an essentially classical house with battlements and turrets.  John Byng, later Viscount Torrington, famously described it as “an effort of inconvenient ill taste”.

When he visited in 1789 Byng was scathing about the location, screened from sight of the Mill by a high cliff, overlooking a bend in the River Derwent:

…really he has made a happy choice of ground, for by sticking it up on an unsafe bank, he contrives to overlook, not see, the beauties of the river, and the surrounding scenery.  It is the house of an overseer surveying the works, not of a gentleman…But light come, light go, Sir Richard has honourably made his great fortune and so let him still live in a great cotton mill!

The following year Torrington revisited Cromford and inspected the partly-completed interior of Arkwright’s mansion:

…built so high as to overlook every beauty, and to catch every wind;  the approach is dangerous;  the ceilings are of gew-gaw fret work;  the small circular staircase…is so dark and narrow, that people cannot pass each other;  I ask’d a workman if there was a library?– Yes, answer’d he, at the foot of the stairs.  Its dimensions are 15 feet square;  (a small counting house;) and having the perpendicular lime stone rock within 4 yards, it is too dark to read or write in without a candle!  There is likewise a music room;  this is upstairs, is 18 feet square, and will have a large organ in it:  what a scheme!  What confinement!  At Clapham they can produce nothing equal to this, where ground is sold by the yard…

The Castle was damaged by fire in 1791, shortly before Sir Richard Arkwright’s death, and his son, the banker Richard Arkwright II, commissioned Thomas Gardner of Uttoxeter to rebuild and improve the house.

The finest feature of the interior is the oval hall, which borrows light from the roof to enhance what William Thomas intended to be the main staircase.  Other elegant rooms with fireplaces remain.

The Arkwright family lived at Willersley until 1922, long after they’d abandoned the mills.

The Methodist Guild opened it as a Christian hotel in 1928, and it has remained a holiday retreat ever since, except during the Second World War when the Salvation Army operated it as a maternity home.

Now its future is uncertain, threatened by the economic impact of the pandemic. 

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Elvaston Castle

Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire

Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire

It’s good to see that the Grade I-listed Buxton Crescent is at last undergoing restoration after decades of neglect.

Derbyshire County Council has at last resolved a seemingly intractable conservation problem, only to face a formidable task rescuing a Grade II*-listed country house in the south of the county:  https://www.derbyshire.gov.uk/leisure/countryside/countryside_sites/country_parks/elvaston/elvaston_repairs/default.asp.

Elvaston Castle has a theatrical air.  The architecture of the house is pre-Pugin Gothic, and the garden was once famous for its extravagant, even outlandish design.  The succession of owners, latterly the first eleven Earls of Harrington, have been interestingly varied, attractive characters.

The manor of Elvaston goes back to Domesday, and was purchased in the early sixteenth century by Sir Michael Stanhope of Shelford, Nottinghamshire.  One of his great-grandsons, Philip Stanhope (1584-1656), became First Earl of Chesterfield;  his half-brother John (died 1638) was given the Elvaston estate, and the earliest surviving visible parts of the building, dated 1633, are his.

Lord Chesterfield’s great-grandson, William Stanhope (c1690-1756), created Earl of Harrington and Viscount Petersham, inherited Elvaston, and his grandson Charles, 3rd Earl, (1753-1829) tried to interest Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in landscaping the park, but Brown declined, declaring “the place is so flat and there is such a want of capability in it”.

Instead, the Third Earl significantly altered the character of the house.  He commissioned James Wyatt, who had been working nearby at Bretby, to rebuild the south side of the house in Gothic style.  Wyatt died in September 1813, and the work was actually started in 1815 by the much less well-known Robert Walker.

When the south front was completed in 1819 the Earl purchased the so-called Golden Gates (which have actually been painted blue since at least the late 1840s) to embellish the approach to the southern avenue.

The Fourth Earl (1780-1851) had an affair with a Covent Garden actress, Maria Foote, and married her in 1831.  Both were ostracised by what was described as polite society, and they retired to Elvaston, which they embellished as an idyll in which to spend their days together.

The architect L N Cottingham was commissioned to provide a symmetrical Gothic east front to the house, behind the main entrance of which is the sumptuous vaulted entrance hall, with niches and mirrors and ornate gilding and decoration.

The Fourth Earl’s great contribution Elvaston was commissioning the Edinburgh gardener James Barron, to develop the uninviting prospect that Lancelot Brown – and latterly, apparently, Humphrey Repton – had rejected.  Barron’s initial survey led him to realise that constructing a land-drain at a particular depth would completely alter the potential of the site:  his hunch proved correct, and he was able to claim credit for all that followed.

During the 1830s Barron created a series of ornamental gardens where topiary, some of it preposterous to modern eyes, abounded.  He developed a technique of moving conifers in a vertical position within a matter of days:  his success earned him the sobriquet, “the tree-lifter”, and his services were called on by everyone from Prince Albert downwards.

The Fourth Earl chose to keep his pleasure-grounds from the gaze of strangers, though the Duke of Wellington presumably visited, for he declared that Elvaston possessed “the only natural artificial rockwork I have seen”.  Barron’s instructions were – “If the Queen comes, Barron, show her round, but admit no-one else.”

Of his successors, the most colourful was Charles Augustus, 8th Earl (1844-1917), universally known as “Old Whiskers”, a noted huntsman, Master of the South Notts Hunt, whose kennel huntsman was, apparently in all seriousness, called German Shepherd.

The designer of a steam-powered lawnmower with a coffee-pot boiler, he died in 1917 as a result of burns following an explosion in his workshop at Elvaston.

He instructed that on the first fine day after his funeral his hounds were to go hunting:  his wish was carried out, and as soon as they were released the entire pack went straight for the churchyard where they gathered round their dead Master’s newly-dug grave.

Elvaston was little used after the death of the Tenth Earl in 1929.  It was leased as a teacher-training college from the beginning of the Second World War until 1950 and thereafter was simply neglected.  The 11th Earl took up residence in Ireland, and the estate was finally sold to a property developer in 1963.  It was taken over in 1969 by the Derbyshire County Council and Derby City Council jointly and developed as a deservedly popular country park and leisure facility.

Unfortunately, they have made very little of the house.  Its last hurrah was as a location for Ken Russell’s film, Women in Love (1969).

In a county abounding with great country houses, Elvaston Castle has been a Cinderella for far too long.

Family home

Eyam Hall, Derbyshire

Eyam Hall, Derbyshire

Eyam Hall has been occupied by the Wright family ever since it was built by Thomas Wright as a wedding present for his son John, who married Elizabeth Knyveton in 1671.

Thomas’s father William had bought extensive land and lead mines in Eyam in 1633, and the family can trace their ancestry back to the thirteenth century in nearby Great Longstone.

The Hall is a fine example of a Derbyshire vernacular manor house, and its contents, accumulated over generations, remain intact, such as the two bacon settles beside the hall fireplace and the series of family portraits that begins with Elizabeth Knyveton and her parents and sister.

The fine dogleg staircase with its ball finials and fiercely pointed pendants, is thought to be earlier than the building in which it stands.

This well-chronicled family history runs up to the present.  The current owners, Robert and Nicola Wright, the eleventh generation of owners, opened the Hall to the public in 1992 and created the craft centre, café and shop in the stable yard.

They leased the Hall to the National Trust in 2013, and four years later the Trust is giving up its tenancy.

The new direction is indicated by a new website:  http://www.eyamhallweddings.co.uk.

The thing is done but nobody did it

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Calke Abbey sits oddly in its low lying setting, chosen by Augustinian monks when they built their priory c1131.  (Like Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, Calke was never an abbey until long after it became a rich man’s house.)

The present house was built in 1701-4 by Sir John Harpur, the fourth baronet, whose father had had the great fortune to inherit the estates of his great-grandfather’s various descendants, and the misfortune to die when his son was little more than a year old.

No known architect has been identified for Sir John’s externally impressive but internally inconvenient house.  His neighbour Elizabeth Coke remarked of some misdeed that “like Caulk House, the thing is done but nobody did it”.

Sir Henry Harpur, the eccentric seventh baronet, married a lady’s maid and became so reclusive that he was known as the “isolated baronet”, yet changed his name to Harpur Crewe in the vain hope of reviving a long dormant Crewe barony.

His son, Sir John Harpur Crewe, 9th baronet, was – according to his epitaph – “averse to a public life and spent the greater part of his days at Calke among his own people…”

His son, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, 10th and last baronet, was descended from the isolated baronet through both his parents, and in him the trait towards reclusiveness became extreme.

From inheriting the estate at the age of forty in 1886 until his death in 1924 his only major contribution to local life was to take his turn as High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1900.

Like the burrowing Duke of Portland he had more time for his tenants and workers than for his peers, and communicated with his children by letter:  eventually he turned his only unmarried daughter out of the house for smoking.

No motor-car passed the gates of Calke Park in his lifetime, and though he repeatedly sacked servants for keeping fires too hot for his collection of stuffed wildlife they were easily re-engaged because he did not know one from the other.

At his death the property passed to his sister, Mrs Hilda Mosley, and from her to her nephew, Charles Jenney, another shy bachelor who changed his name to Harpur Crewe in 1961.

He left his younger brother Henry (who also changed his name to Harpur Crewe) with a tax burden of £8,000,000 when he inherited in 1981.

Henry Harpur Crewe’s determination to save Calke as a unique historic site attracted the support of the National Trust, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Historic Buildings Council and SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  Eventually the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, promised £4,500,000 towards endowing the house and park in his 1984 Budget Speech to keep the place intact.

The house was substantially as it had been left in 1924;  Sir Vauncey had done little but add cases of stuffed animals since his father died in 1886.

Here was the accumulated bric-a-brac of generations of country-house inhabitants and their servants, yet little of significant artistic value except for the most astonishing survival of all, the State Bed, still in its original packing because no suitable family room had height enough for it.

Many thousands of items had to be catalogued, photographed and removed for safe-keeping while the structural restoration of the building was carried out.  Alongside heavy engineering to stabilise the building, enormous care was taken to retain the largely undisturbed patina of the nineteenth century.

In the Drawing Room the chairs had been covered for almost their entire lives, so their textiles were revealed in superb condition, but the curtains, continually exposed to daylight, simply disintegrated and had to be woven anew to the original pattern.  The original linen-backed wallpaper, dating from around 1855, had to be stripped and then put back on the wall.

When the little pot pug dog with the broken foreleg was returned to his place in the entrance hall, the matchbox that had been found propping him up went back into place also.

Calke is a memorable place to visit [http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/calke-abbey], now restored in “as found” condition like the much smaller Mr Straw’s House in Worksop.

Sitwell Sitwell

Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire:  east wing

Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire: east wing

The Sitwell family have lived at and owned Renishaw since the 1301. Of the owners who built and embellished Renishaw Hall, the one who aggrandised the house most was Sir Sitwell Sitwell.

The male line of the Sitwells ended with the death of the second of two bachelors in 1777 and the property, said to be worth half a million pounds, passed to a nephew in the female line, the lively, musical Francis Hurt of Mount Pleasant, Sheffield, who took the surname Sitwell.

It happened that Francis had already named his heir Sitwell Hurt, so that he duly became Sitwell Sitwell. (There was a younger son named Hurt Sitwell.)

Sitwell Sitwell, who inherited an income reputed to amount to £40,000 a year, immediately began extending the house with the help of the Sheffield architect, Joseph Badger, adding the pillars which widened the Jacobean hall, and in 1793 building the apsed dining-room extension with its chimneypiece by John Platt of Rotherham. Badger also constructed the Dairy, the Gothick Temple and other estate buildings.

In 1803 the east wing was begun, including the drawing room, which contains the earliest plasterwork attributed to Sir Francis Chantrey and a chimneypiece by Sir William Chambers, originally in the Albany, Piccadilly, which Sitwell Sitwell purchased from the Duke of York.

He erected the stables to the north-west of the house (also by Joseph Badger) to accommodate his racing stud, his hunters and the hounds which in November 1793 had famously chased and captured a “Royal Bengal Tiger” escaped from a nearby menagerie.

The Prince Regent visited Renishaw with his daughter, Princess Charlotte, in 1808 and made Sitwell Sitwell a baronet. The ballroom, which contains another of the Albany fireplaces, was completed for this occasion:  its ceiling is embellished with the Prince of Wales’ feathers.

Sir Sitwell Sitwell died, of gout or of its treatment, aged 41, in 1811.

Sitwells at home

Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire:  south front

Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire: south front

Of all the eccentrics associated with Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943), whose legend was immortalised by his three famous children, Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sir Osbert (1892-1969) and Sir Sacheverell (1897-1988), is my favourite.

He appeared oddly myopic about the roots of his prosperity:  Evelyn Waugh describes him standing on the terrace at Renishaw gesticulating towards Barlborough across the “farms, cottages, villas, the railway, the colliery and the densely teeming streets” and remarking, “You see, there is no-one between us and the Locker Lampsons.”  His children, however, told of sitting in the quiet of a Renishaw evening, listening to a faint tapping below which came from the miners hewing the black wealth beneath their feet.

He had a toothbrush that played ‘Annie Laurie’, and a miniature revolver for shooting wasps.  He considered stencilling blue willow pattern on the white cows in the park, “to give distinction to the landscape”, but found it impractical.  His schemes for estate improvements were never ending.

He had a passion for gardening, and began altering the surroundings of Renishaw in 1887.  He also had a passion for local history, particularly when its minutiae illuminated the distant doings of his remote ancestors.  Sir Osbert said that his father was “adept at taking hold of the wrong end of a thousand sticks”;  John Pearson commented that “much of Sir George’s life was…spent correcting experts”.  He was particularly proud that he “captured a spirit at the headquarters of the Spiritualists, London, 1880”.

He passed on a considerable share of eccentricity to his children, some of it deliberately:  he advised Edith on one occasion that there was “nothing a young man likes so much as a girl who is good on the parallel bars”.  She it was who in her youth at Renishaw once disguised herself as an armchair, covered in a dustsheet, in order to be carried upstairs by her brothers to avoid an aunt.  Sir Osbert described himself as “educated during holidays from Eton”.

Sir George befriended the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and brought him to Renishaw repeatedly:  Sir Reresby Sitwell describes Lutyens’ effect on his grandfather’s plans as “restraint rather than…guidance”.  It was on the Sunday morning of one of these weekend visits that Lutyens asked the butler, “Is Lady Ida down?”

From 1909 onwards Sir George became increasingly preoccupied with the restoration of the castle he purchased at Montegufoni in Tuscany, until eventually in 1925 he moved out there permanently, and handed over Renishaw to his eldest son, Osbert, and his other English estate, Weston Hall, Northamptonshire, to Sacheverell.

His nephew, the late Sir Reresby Sitwell (1927-2009), carried on the tradition of celebrating eccentricity, particularly the manifest oddities of his grandfather.

Elizabethan skyscraper: Hardwick Hall

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

You would not mess with Bess of Hardwick.  Her descendant, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, described her as “hideous, dry, parched, narrow minded, but my prudent, amassing, calculating buildress and progenitrix” and Edmund Lodge, an eighteenth-century historian, characterised her as “…a woman of masculine understanding and conduct, proud, furious, selfish, and unfeeling”.

She outlived four husbands, each of whom enriched her.  By her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, she was the direct ancestor of two great dukedoms, Devonshire and Newcastle, and indirectly a third, Portland.

She bought the estate of her yeoman father from her debt-ridden older brother and extended the manor house in which she was born into a splendid hill-top tower-house, Hardwick Old Hall.

No sooner had her fourth and final husband, George, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, expired in 1590 than she began work on one of the most adventurous of all Elizabethan houses, Hardwick New Hall, the finest work of the architect Robert Smythson.  She moved into the New Hall in October 1597 and there she died on February 13th 1608.

Built almost entirely from the materials of her extensive estates, exuberantly exhibitionist and famously “more glass than wall”, its most audacious motif is the series of strapwork parapets around the turrets, emblazoned with her initials ES (Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury) and her coronet.

Several of the turrets served as banqueting houses, for the serving of desserts in the open air on summer evenings.

When, in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Capulet urges his guests to stay longer, he tells them, “We have a trifling, foolish banquet toward.”  In the Elizabethan way, he was giving them the menu in a witty conceit.

Hardwick Old Hall is in the care of English Heritage:  http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/hardwick-old-hall.  Hardwick New Hall and the surrounding gardens and park are maintained by the National Trust, who are extremely proud of their new visitor centre:  http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardwick.  Both buildings are visible from the Derbyshire stretch of the M1 motorway, between junctions 28 and 29.

Elizabethan skyscraper: Barlborough Hall

Barlborough Hall, Derbyshire

Barlborough Hall, Derbyshire

Barlborough Hall, on the borders of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, is one of a number of country houses which Mark Girouard ascribes to the architect Robert Smythson.

It has all the Smythson trademarks of Wollaton Hall and Hardwick Hall – symmetry, height, lots of glass – and it was built (c1583-4) for Francis Rodes, an ambitious lawyer, staunch Protestant and associate of George, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, the fourth and last husband of Bess of Hardwick.

It’s ironic that Rodes’ house is now a Catholic prep-school, and Mass is celebrated in his drawing room.

I was very surprised to be told, on a recent guided tour of Barlborough, that there’s a priest’s hole in the building.

Why, I asked, in a Protestant house?

Because, the guide replied, Francis Rodes’ wife was a Catholic.

I’ve not checked this further, but if it’s so it must have been an odd marriage.

Barlborough Hall is a preparatory school and as such is not open to visitors:  http://www.barlboroughhallschool.co.uk/barlboroughhallschool.  However, the Barlborough Heritage Centre [http://www.barlboroughrc.btck.co.uk/BarlboroughHall] welcomes visitors.

 

Marvellous boy

'The Death of Chatterton' statue, Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

‘The Death of Chatterton’ statue, Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

On the way from the house to the lavatories at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire there is a disconcerting moment when one comes upon a recumbent marble figure at the base of the garden wall.  It appears that an eighteenth-century gent has fallen from the top of the wall and expired.

In fact, the statue is a reproduction of Henry Wallis’ painting ‘The Death of Chatterton’, which hangs in Tate Britain.

Thomas Chatterton (1752-70) was the sad, unregarded poet who passed off his work as “The Rowlie Poems”, the rediscovered work of a fifteenth-century monk.

He was found dead of arsenic poisoning in his London attic at the age of seventeen.

Horace Walpole took against what he saw as a literary fraud, but Keats dedicated his ‘Endymion’ to Chatterton’s memory, and Wordsworth thought well enough of his talent to describe him as “the marvellous boy”.

How his statue came to Kedleston – or who sculpted it – remains obscure.  Apparently Lady Ottilie Scarsdale, wife of the second viscount, found it in pieces in the yard of a monumental mason, and bought it.

I admire her wit in positioning it where it startles passers-by.  It’s something to chat about.

For visitor information about Kedleston Hall see http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/kedleston-hall.

Royal flush

Royal bathroom, Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

Royal bathroom, Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

When my friend Jenny and I visited Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, I was disappointed not to be able to show her the royal bathroom.

The early twentieth-century owner of Kedleston, the Viceroy Lord Curzon was ambitious to entertain King George V and Queen Mary, and in anticipation had an en-suite bathroom discreetly added to the State Bedroom.

I had the opportunity to photograph this some years ago, but the room stewards assured us, with regret, that it’s not usually shown to the public.

Apparently there’s a second modern (that is, early twentieth-century) bathroom, which I haven’t seen, nearby.

As consolation, Jenny and I were allowed to see the po-cupboard next to the dining room.  This common, convenient feature of grand dining was for the use of gentlemen after the ladies had retired to the drawing room.

It saved a long trek in white tie and tails.

I duly photographed the po-cupboard, but the royal bathroom is far finer.

For visitor information about Kedleston Hall see http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/kedleston-hall.