Having watched Game of Thrones on television, I’ve finally bought the first book in the series, a great read while travelling. There’re a lot of characters, whose stories we follow, and castles and strongholds all over the mythical map. I’ve been a staunch fan of the series on HBO, filmed in Ireland, Malta, Iceland and Croatia, although it really is all just fantasy fun, sex and gore. The show has too much violence for Diane to watch, but to me it’s all wonderfully wicked, and I’m already looking forward to the season four launch in 2014.
When we climb up to the medieval entrance of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, it is so marvellously old, and odd, that for a moment I feel like a character in the Game of Thrones. This could easily be a location for the series. As we enter the lower courtyard, we can see why so many film makers have chosen this as a location. It was Humperdinck’s Castle 25 years ago in The Princess Bride, and more recently appeared in The Other Boleyn Girl.
It’s supposed to be the finest example of a fortified medieval manor house still in existence in England and we are eager to explore on a warm summer day.
We peek into the chapel, recently restored, where there are pews for the nobility and where the serfs stood. There’s a spookily realistic marble statue of a deceased young son lying atop his coffin. Recent restorations have removed ancient whitewash and revealed pre-Reformation frescoes. It’s cramped and there are too many tourists for comfort so we’re quickly off to the main building. Of course we visit the kitchens, now disused and well restored. Down a dim corridor, stone flags worn by generations of serving wenches carrying trenchers of food up to their lords in the great hall, we discover the bare facts of ancient cooking. The kitchens were added in 1370. Very up to date for their day: there’s a chimney, roasting racks beside an open fire, bread ovens and nothing modern at all. Each function has its own small space, from bakery to butchery. I’m not sure if that was primitive hygiene or old fashioned jurisdictional separation below stairs.
Above stairs it’s a different story. Spacious galleries with portraits of long-dead ancestors, really old furniture, brilliant tapestries, almost no chairs – I suppose everyone stood except the lord and lady. The long gallery was designed for winter walking exercise. The ceiling is a brilliant maze of plasterwork. We visit bedrooms, dressing rooms, little nooks and crannies and the family dining room. It seems we are not seeing the whole house and suddenly all becomes clear. The family is still living here. We are just visiting the bits of the house they’ve opened to the public.
The occupant is Lord Edward Manners, brother of the current and 11th Duke of Rutland. The family acquired the manor house as part of a 13th Century marriage settlement and has hung onto it ever since. Parts of the building date back to the 11th Century, when it was built by an illegitimate son of William the Conqueror, but most was added between the 13th and 17th Centuries. Whenever it was added, it all seems really, genuinely old. In 1703 the incumbent Duke moved to another of his castles and Haddon Hall was essentially abandoned. That’s what has preserved it so wonderfully. For 200 years it was ignored until the 9th Duke and Duchess took up residence and started restoration in the 1920s.
The house is fun, but it is in the gardens that the reconstruction really shines. Terraces tumble down the slope to the river, packed with perennials in herbaceous borders. A medieval knot garden has been started, along with wild flower borders to attract bees and butterflies. On the way out there’s a little gift shop and café in the old stable block. Beside it is a topiary garden with family heraldic devices of a boar’s head and a peacock. I had to read that in the guide book. I thought the fanciful clipped hedges showed a rabbit and a chicken.
We’ve had a good pub meal on the way to the Hall, stopping at Froggatt Edge in the Peak District National Park, where scenes from The Princess Bride were also filmed. Lunch at The Chequers Inn was excellent. I’m stuffed on whitebait and really outstanding bangers and mash with shredded veggies, so we pass on a hike along the top of this stunning escarpment. Fortunately we can get to the top by road, where the views over the heathered heath are magnificent, back-dropped by crags of gritstone. Cutting millstones was a major endeavour in these parts and broken ones can be seen at the bottom of the cliffs if you look carefully.
The mighty Corsa, which has taken us all around England on this visit, enjoys the run to the Peak District and back to our little village in Yorkshire. The next day, our last in England, it expires while I’m backing it out of the driveway. While we’re back in Canada, our friendly local mechanic tows it to his garage and resets the computer. Now it runs fine and is waiting for adventures on our next trip.