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Barely a blip in my travel guide for England about Chatsworth House makes me cringe at the thought that many people who visit England have probably never heard of one of the top 10 English country houses in the country. Located in the heart of the Peak District, rolling hillsides scattered with rich stately homes beautifully blended together alongside ancient stone villages. Of them all, Chatsworth House makes for a wonderful day trip in the East Midlands.
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About Chatsworth House in Life and Fiction
Chatsworth House‘s history begins with the tale of a woman who was the second most powerful woman in Elizabethan England after Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, more popularly known as Bess of Hardwick married four times. She was considered the “It Girl” of her time whose power and wealth increased with each marriage during the Tudor Era. Upon her second marriage to Sir William Cavendish, she convinced him to sell his former monastic lands in Suffolk and move to her home county, Derbyshire, in the Peak District. For a measly £600, they bought what was then simply known as Chatsworth Manor in 1549 and quickly set to work transforming it from a Tudor mansion into a Baroque masterpiece in 1552 on the banks of the river Derwent. Since then, it has been the seat of the Duke of Devonshire and home to the Cavendish family. Unfortunately, they both died before its completion. Bess also built one of the greatest houses in the Elizabethean Era – Hardwick Hall for which she is most famous for.
After the death of Sir William in 1557, Bess would marry two more times. In 1567 she married George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. He was appointed as custodian of Mary, Queen of Scots by Queen Elizabeth I. Chatsworth House, set in an expansive parkland backed by rocky hills and deep wooded forests, soon became the perfect setting for occasionally bringing the prisoner here between 1569 and 1584. Her apartments, although drastically changed since the time of her house arrest, are known as the Queen of Scots Apartments.
In the 17th century, Jane Austen stayed at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire while she wrote Pride and Prejudice. It is believed that the stately home inspired Pemberley, My. Darcy’s estate and when Elizabeth Bennet (played by Keira Knightly) suddenly finds herself at Pemberley, she explores the Sculpture Gallery, however, you sadly won’t find a bust of Mr. Darcy here.
Fast forward to the 18th century, and you now have William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, society’s most eligible bachelor who desperately wanted an heir. Though he is not well-remembered for his politics and had practically no interests other than his dogs, he is however remembered for his private life and marriage to Lady Georgiana Spencer (the great-great-great grand aunt of Lady Diana Spencer aka Princess Diana whose lives have been compared). She, however, left a remarkably lasting impression as she was incredibly charismatic, beautiful and actively played a leading role in political campaigning and fashion. She could out-drink, out-gamble and outwit most aristocratic men who surrounded her and charm any man, but couldn’t seduce her very own husband. While their marriage was a perfect match, it was anything but perfect. If you’ve seen one of my favorite movies, The Duchess with Keira Knightly, then you’ll have learned of the Duke of Devonshire’s mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster after befriending the Duchess in the City of Bath. Eventually they would endure a ménage à trois marriage until Georgiana’s death. While their main residence was in London, they often came to Chatsworth House to get away from the city.
Movies to Watch & Books to Read Before You Visit Chatsworth House
Exploring Chatsworth House
Set in a beautiful green valley in one of the most beautiful national parks in England, we spent the morning exploring Chatsworth House – the largest privately owned country house in England. Today, the castle is owned by the 12th Duke of Devonshire and is open for the benefit of the public. Chatsworth House is a fantastic day trip from London and contains a unique collection of 16th and 17th century embroideries, furniture and tapestries and over a wide variety of artwork which spans 4,000 years.
30 of the 175 rooms are open to the public and by visiting Chatsworth House, you can get a true sense of the family that has lived here and still do. You’ll find original oak, marble, European art, grand canopy beds and interesting works of art by Rembrandt, Reynolds and Veronese to more modern artists such as Lucian Freud and Damien Hirst. Each room is more opulent than the last and there was a lot of oohing and ahhing.
Chatsworth House just completed a £32.7 million renovation which took 10 years and recently had their re-grand opening and we just so happened to visit on the first day during the Easter holidays. A 2004 structural survey resulted in the massive renovation which restored stonework, statues, tapestries, and water features rejuvenating the house for future generations!
You’ll begin your self-guided tour by walking down a hall honoring those who renovated the house before entering the Painted Hall, used to welcome and impress guests right off the bat. The most noticeable aspect are the vibrant colors which engulf you as soon as you walk in. The ceiling was painted by Louis Laguerre depicting the ascension of Julius Caesar while the floor is inlaid with black and white marble tiles. In Georgiana’s time, the hall used to have a horse shoe style staircase, but this was later regretfully replaced by the one we see today.
Next, you’ll head up to the Chapel, one of the least changed rooms in the entire house. The 1st Duke of Devonshire employed only the best of the best to create this room. The room was used both by him and his staff for daily prayer and the occasional christening. The 12th Duke of Devonshire purposely placed a golden statue of St. Bartholomew – a first century martyr created by Damien Hirst in the center of the arch to explore the confusion between science and religion. The statue was inspired after Hirst watch Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and shows St. Bartholomew standing, holding his skin on his outstretched arm while a pair of scissors are in his other hand. Definitely NOT child friendly, but is only on a temporary loan.
The Oak Room was completely remodeled by the 6th Duke of Devonshire and the wood paneling he bought at an auction from a monastery in Germany which explains the reason for the carved clergymen throughout the room.
You’ll continue on to the Grotto which showcases cutting edge technology and contemporary art. In the center of the room, you’ll find the veiled Vestal Virgin which was brought to this room in 1847. Look closely at the veil over her face and it’s amazing how thin the layer is. Practically unbelievable that it’s just a sculpture.
Other rooms you’ll enjoy visiting include the Great Chamber, the State Apartments which displays the most famous painting of King Henry VIII, the State Drawing Rooms, the South Sketch Drawing Room as well as the Picture Gallery which is very much in the style that Georgiana would have preferred which showcases several paintings of her, one of which includes her as the goddess Diana, The Huntress. You’ll also see the Grand Dining Room and a few bedrooms, one of which showcases an incredibly, abnormally large wrench which could easily take two people to turn the heating on and off in the house…
Of course, one of my favorite rooms was the Library – an elongated room lit with lamps and bookshelves upon bookshelves along the sides. What I wouldn’t give to snuggle up in one of them sofas with a good book and a cuppa.
What to do at Chatsworth House
Once you’re done touring the inside of Chatsworth House, you’ll probably be thirsty and need a sit, so unless you’ve packed a picnic, head to the Carriage House restaurant located just up the hill from the main house in the old stables for freshly made hot and cold meals. We each grabbed a sandwich and chips with a cuppa tea which rejuvenated us and gave us the energy to explore the Chatsworth House grounds.
Afterwards, you can stroll through the Chatsworth Gardens at your own leisure which attracts over 300,000 visitors a year. Stretching over a thousand acres, there are many things to do at Chatsworth House and you could easily spend a full day here simply enjoying the palace gardens without even going inside! The gardens are open and free all year round! We passed the Greenhouses and Rose Garden, and walked towards the Willow Tree Fountain and Rock Garden where my friend’s fiance suddenly thought he was Simba and King of the World!
The palace gardens are definitely family-friendly and wheelchair accessible so a nice stroll or picnic would be incredibly nice on a lovely British sunny afternoon! Further afield, and you’ll come to a surprisingly challenging garden maze. It took us four adults a good half hour to figure out how to get to the center, but only 5 minutes to get out.
Afterwards, we opted to walk over the grounds, along the the Emperor fountain and Canal pond towards the entrance of the property to get a full frontal view of the glorious house as well as with the triple arched bridge.
For families with kiddies who want to stay longer and explore, it might be worth visiting the Farmyard and Adventure playground. There are also picnic tables here and just a bit further up is the Hunting Tower built in 1582 by Bess of Hardwick.
Tips for Visiting Chatsworth House
As previously mentioned, Chatsworth House is still privately owned and is not part of the National Trust. It is highly recommended to book your tickets online prior to visiting to ensure entry. By pre-booking your tickets, you’ll receive free parking as well! Tickets to tour Chatsworth House are quite expensive as standard prices apply: Adults £21, Children £12.50.
Times for visiting Chatsworth House and Gardens vary depending on seasons, so be sure to check out their opening times, but either way, you’ll want to arrive early to grab a good parking spot and enjoy the castle and grounds before it gets too busy, after all the Peak District is one of the best places to visit in England! We were quite surprised by the time we left around 3pm that there were also cars parked on the front lawn directly in front of the palace – absolute bane of my existence!
If you’re interested in visiting London and are looking for more information, I highly recommend using the Lonely Planet England Travel Guide! I’ve recently converted to LP’s more thoroughly detailed travel guides which I find way more useful, but I am still a big fan of DK Travel Guides!