Everyone I know is following the goings on at Downton Abbey and I very much enjoyed the doc on Highclere Castle which preceded the premier of season three on PBS. In Canada the series broadcasts on Vision TV.
But there’s one real life English dowager even more fascinating than Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham. She’s the formidable Elizabeth, dowager Countess of Shrewsbury, known as Bess of Hardwick and her stately home gives Highclere Castle (which I have not yet visited) a run for its money.
We are driving through the beautiful Derbyshire countryside when we first see Hardwick Hall, which is only one of her homes. The other is Chatsworth (see my blog of December 18, 2012). Both are spectacular, but utterly different in their own way.
From the late 1590s, Hardwick Hall remained in the family until it was handed over to the tax man in lieu of crippling estate duties in 1956. The advantage of being merely a secondary residence is that it has been largely untouched over the intervening four centuries. The antique atmosphere is palpable, which makes it perhaps the finest existing example of a great house from the first Elizabethan age.
Bess was a friend of Queen Elizabeth I and the richest woman in England after the sovereign. She was married four times, each time to a richer man. With her wealth came power, and in Hardwick Hall she was determined to show evidence of that status. The house was designed to impress. Built at a time when country houses no longer needed to be fortified, it is clad with more windows than any other contemporary residence, at a time when glass was a luxury material, leading to the little rhyme: “Hardwick Hall, more window than wall.”
We arrive at the estate in time for lunch, which we enjoy in the Great Barn restaurant, converted from some of the original outbuildings. Our companion is a registered blue badge guide and a long-time friend, so we are expecting some interesting insights. As we walk up to the house, we are already impressed that the ruins of the Old Hall still exist. Bess lived there while she build the New Hall and was wealthy enough not to need to recycle building materials. Her initials ES adorn the decorative stonework atop the highest floor of her new building. Nothing shy about Bess.
A warm afternoon sun kisses the mellow stone of the facade, bracketed by giant Cedars of Lebanon, and the huge windows gleam. What’s immediately apparent is that the ceilings of each floor are taller than the one below. Bess had turned the house upside down with the great state rooms on the top floor and the living quarters lower down. We puff our way up a massive stone staircase, designed to impress. At the top the first reception room is simply amazing. If she were royal, it would have been a throne room. The walls are covered with tapestries, one of the finest collections in the world. Around the ceiling is a painted plaster frieze, wonderfully preserved and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The long gallery equally impresses. It’s long. About 166 feet our guide tells us, and hung with paintings and portraits galore, including one of Bess. More tapestries. More needlework. More exquisite period furniture.
In 1601, Bess ordered a complete inventory of all her household furnishings and textiles, and most of those listed for Hardwick Hall are still there. A miracle.
We wander through rooms steeped in history. Our guide has more information that the brain can possibly absorb. In an ancient bed chamber, there’s a box of dress up accessories. I try them on, but I’m not sure if I’m a courtier or merely a flunkey. I’m amused by the dining room, a later addition, which has been set to look as though the family has just left the table.
After the house, we have time to walk around the gardens. There are perfectly manicured hedges and strange topiary trees. From the house there is a vista of green, barely interrupted by a ha-ha, which keeps the grazing cattle where they belong.
Hardwick Hall, now run by the National Trust closes for the winter so that restoration work can continue. It re-opens to the public tomorrow, February 16, 2013.
The M1 motorway runs less than a mile away and it’s an easy three-hour drive north from London. Watch for the signs for Chesterfield and then follow the brown National Trust directions.
PS: Please leave a comment if you found something useful or interesting in this story. Or please add your own experiences with the stately homes of England for others to share. Enjoy Noel Coward’s song.