What a week Matt and I had, and what a start to the new year! It’s all good fun – what a very mobile week we experienced. I’m not talking about mobile phones here. I mean good old-fashioned physical movement. I can barely even remember […]
Hardwick Hall was one of those places I’d heard others talk about often, but had never properly visited. It’s relatively close to where I grew up – just under an hour’s drive – and to call its leading lady of history “interesting” would be a massive understatement.
The story of Hardwick all really begins with Bess of Hardwick, more formally entitled Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury upon her death in 1608. She was ahead of her time, standing almost on a par with Queen Elizabeth I, and a good friend of the monarch. She was in charge of her own affairs and built up strong enterprises. She was also the source of another magnificent piece of British history: Chatsworth.
Bess rose from being the daughter of a local landowner to go through four marriages. The most notable were the second and fourth. In the second, she married William Cavendish, who moved to Bess’ native Derbyshire. They purchased and expanded the Chatsworth estate, and bought the title of Earl of Devonshire (now Dukes).
The third marriage lasted just 6 years, and left Bess fantastically wealthy. She was just 30 years old. Her fourth and final marriage brought the astute young woman a great title – Countess of Shrewsbury – and even greater status. The marriage collapsed, probably due to 15 years hosting Mary, Queen of Scots, and potentially due to a stroke or nervous breakdown in the Earl.
I’d say history has left us four chief points to Hardwick, three of which I can readily recommend as worth taking your time over. These include Hardwick Old Hall, Hardwick New Hall, the gardens of the New Hall and the parkland. We never made it around the parkland unfortunately – there’s just so much to take in!
Hardwick Old Hall
After eating (a delicious apricot scone with jam and cream in my case), Matt and I made our way towards the New Hall. In doing so, we reached the remnants of the Old Hall. This is run by English Heritage, but access is free to National Trust members too. I was intrigued to find out more about this shell of a structure.
After Bess fled her fourth marriage, she returned to her childhood home at Hardwick and set about aggrandising it. The Old Hall was constructed between 1584 and 1596. It incorporated the latest architectural elements, chiefly Italianate. The building still gives glimpses into its past wonder, with a lofty lookout at the top of the accessible staircase, gradually eroding plaster friezes above old fireplaces, and a vast elevated great hall for entertaining.
Interestingly, no fire or storm reduced the structure to its current form. It was in fact the movement of the Cavendish family to Chatsworth as their primary seat. They simply pilfered building materials from the Old Hall, leaving it bare and exposed.
The latest quandary is: should the Old Hall be re-roofed and protected? Should its preservation be as an insight into the unscrupulous treatment by old masters, or as a demonstration of once awe-inspiring grandeur?
The Old Hall became overshadowed from 1590 when Bess had work commenced on the New Hall. You’d be forgiven for thinking the Old Hall a ruin, abandoned by the up-and-coming family. Not so; it was a complement to the newer home.
Hardwick New Hall
Nevertheless, it’s Hardwick New Hall which now gets all the press. No trip is complete without a look inside; I know, because I’ve only been twice, and the first time did not involve entry to the property. It’s a brilliant counterpoise to the ruinous Old Hall.
It’s a testament to the lavishness of Tudor style. If you had it, you flaunted it. Matt and I were treated to an enthusiastic introductory talk, lasting about 10-15 minutes, by a genuinely passionate volunteer named Judy. Bess’ life history and the story of the hall were wonderfully narrated. The mind was perfectly attuned for entering the property.
The entrance hall alone was impressive. This was the domain of the servants, yet it is covered in dark wooden panels and hung with tapestries. Game trophies and armoury bedeck the walls. An ancient elk skull with vast antlers oversees the bustle below. Apparently it’s 13,000 or 30,000 years old – I can’t quite recall!
It’s a hall that retains much of its Tudor heritage. It has been very little altered by the Cavendish family over the centuries. When replaced by Chatsworth, it became more of an opulent museum. One duke loaded it with more and more early modern furnishings. A Queen of Scots room was even established, although she would never have stayed in the hall.
The tapestries are very fine, many being created by Bess of Hardwick herself. Some have been lovingly restored, including by the last Cavendish resident, Lady Evelyn Cavendish. There was an insightful walkthrough of her life and times on the first floor, which made the hall and the family much more approachable. You also get to visit one of the more modernised rooms in the New Hall during that, with its Edwardian style (armchairs, mahogany furniture, photographs). Very comfy!
The top level of the house hits you the hardest with its blatant display of wealth and taste. There are flamboyantly large windows – the sports cars of the day. Cue the old rhyme: Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall. They illuminate the High Great Chamber with its columns, classical scenes and giant fireplaces. This was a space for feasting, dancing and entertaining. Upon a raised dais at the far end of the chamber rest two thrones. You’d definitely be overawed and subdued approaching those.
The Long Gallery runs alongside the chamber, and it houses fine examples of portraits which warrant a good amount of inspection. It’s hard to believe how old some of them are, given the quality after all these years. You also get lofty views of the grounds around from up here, and it is to those we descended via the Lady Evelyn displays and the copper-filled kitchens…
Hardwick is undoubtedly best visited for its two halls – not that I’ve had the pleasure of the parkland yet – but its garden, butting onto the New Hall, holds some pleasant surprises.
There are several compartments to the gardens. The first you’ll encounter is the charming West Court which is packed full of plants. At the time of our visit it was gently fading into autumn solemnity. Three Cotinus coggygria demarcated quarters of one border. Cortaderia selloana (pampas grass) added a charming height to arrangement – a happy change to its use in isolation on domestic plots. Vitis coignetiae’s ember glow cloaked a section of the old wall. All around was the faltering foliage of plants past their flowering season, although some whites and oranges were clinging on. It was a warm welcome to the New Hall.
The South Border is next, composed of white daisies and pink cosmos. After that we find rows of cutting flowers and vegetable crops, although apart from the brassicas it was all well beyond its best. We walked on into the Herb Garden. I struggle here, as I love the concept of the box knots and ancient herbs, and Matt quite appreciated the area. However, it was shabby for me, time of year aside. There was something disappointing about it. I’ll have to make a point of revisiting in the future to see any changes. It felt chilly and impersonal.
But next, my breath was taken away by the unexpected loveliness of a long border of dahlias. It simply blew poor Biddulph Grange’s acclaimed display out of the water (see here for more on their Dahlia Walk disaster in 2017)… I especially adored the decorative variety ‘Arabian Night’. Fullsome and darkly attractive, against its verdant leaves. Imagine it in a hot border at home. Bliss!
Another element we loved was standing at the edge of the East Court rose garden, in front of the ha-ha. For those who don’t know what this is – it’s an artificial ditch into the ground at a boundary. One side is gently sloping to allow livestock to make it down uninjured. The side nearest the garden/house is a vertical face, so creatures can’t climb up and eat your prize plants.
Beyond this particular ha-ha however was the thoughtfully planned and executed goblet of lime trees (Tilia x europaea). The stem stretches away in front of you, the sides of the bowl section reach towards you, and the New Hall is the vintage champagne filling the glass.
Hardwick is an awe-inspiring place to visit. It’s the crowning glory of the Mother of the Cavendish family, often overshadowed by Chatsworth. In my mind it feels much more ancient than that, although equally grand. Its situation might not be as stunning as the rolling hills beside the river Derwent, but the estate’s history, architecture and artefacts will have people of all ages hooked.
What was your favourite aspect of Hardwick, if you’ve ever visited?
Picture the scene: rolling hills in various shades of green, embracing a soft valley as its river gently meanders through. Trees stand here and there as sentinels at their various posts. Their charge? A magnificent golden edifice hundreds of years old.
The location? Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. It’s a place I always slightly took for granted when younger, not growing up all that far from it. I could never quite understand the reverence shown around the rest of the nation.
Strolling into its grounds on June 7th 2017, I now comprehended. At the building’s feet lay the bubbling spring of attendees to the inaugural RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, and boy was I overjoyed to finally have another RHS show happening “up north”. I took Matt along with me to experience the spectacle.
The idea behind the show was pioneers in design, reflected in the modern day interpretation of Joseph Paxton’s long-gone Great Conservatory (the centrepiece of the show, if Chatsworth House didn’t completely steal the limelight) and embedded in the naturalistic landscape crafted by Capability Brown. Along from the show’s entrance gates were the extraordinary and somewhat extravagant free form gardens. I have to confess myself not au fait with these; I like my designs more traditional and down to earth, like my architecture. I rarely like to analyse a garden, preferring simply to soak in its beauty. The studded dinosaur skull I really did not get. More a failing on my part, I suppose.
The show gardens, though few in number and for the most part smaller in dimension than Chelsea, were much more up my street. The IQ Quarry Garden, designed by Paul Harvey-Brooke’s, won Best Show Garden and a Gold medal, although it was not my favourite. I loved the more planted up end of the space, but am no great fan of metal objets d’art or walls. Sorry.
I liked the whimsy and wildness of the Belmont Enchanted Gardens, but did not echo the judges’ sentiment of it warranting a Gold medal, and the wooden spiral staircase in its centre was a design piece too far for me. Pointless and rather distracting, and I overheard quite a few others say the same.
I didn’t much love the Moveable Feast garden either, yet have to admit that I felt the concept was inspiring and important. It was the grey plastic planters that just didn’t float my boat. Sadly, I found the inflatable Great Conservatory a letdown as well. It all appeared a bit giant-kids’-party-setup to me… Maybe the central “paddling pool” didn’t help…
My top three gardens on display were right next to one another. The Cruse Bereavement Care ‘A Time for Everything garden’ had an eye catching range of foliage colours and forms, flowing around the central stone wall and water seating area. Next up was ‘Just Add Water’ by Jackie Sutton (or is it Knight? I’m a little confused). Rockeries aren’t my cup of tea, but the addition of water to enliven the sandstone and naturalistic perennials to soften the construction really won me over. Thirdly was the ‘Experience Peak District & Derbyshire’ garden designed by Lee Bestall: a brilliant amalgam of the region surrounding Chatsworth, comprising its cattle, trees and wildflowers, haa-haas and neoclassical elements of Derbyshire stately homes’ cultivated corners. It also played with perspective subtly yet cleverly – you had to see from both ends to really appreciate the design.
We passed Adam Frost and Joe Swift on a couple of occasions outside, and we then headed on over the blossom-bedecked temporary bridge to seek out the floral marquees and perhaps Carol Klein.
Well we found the marquees – and they did not disappoint – although sadly Carol was nowhere to be seen. No time to dwell on this anyway, as there was simply so much to take in undercover and time was swiftly slipping away. I was determined to leave with something, and my plant of choice was the Dahlia ‘Karma Irene’, whose magnificent, flamboyant colour on the display stand just drew me in immediately. No flowers as yet in my specimens, however!