Tag Archives: Chatsworth

Britain’s Best Travel Bargain

Polesden Lacey, Tyntesfield, Dunham Massey, Cotehele, Castle Drogo, Wightwick Manor, Charlecote Park, Baddesley Clinton… just listing these names gets me itching to buy a plane ticket immediately.  And there are hundreds more.  All these places are part of Britain’s National Trust.  These are just a few of my favorite country homes to visit.  I could cheerfully spend an hour or a day at each one, but another one just down the road always beckons. There are wonderful nature preserves too, and several properties in London.

Tyntesfield, a glorious Victorian mansion

Tyntesfield, a glorious Victorian mansion

The British–including Wales and Scotland–are the best in the world at preserving historic properties.  I’m told the Irish are great too, but I’ve yet to visit Ireland.  (English Heritage is a related organization that also sells passes.  It seems to concentrate more on historic sites that might be in ruins.  I find that for my passion, country homes along with their art and furnishings, the National Trust is better.  With unlimited time in Britain, I would buy both).

Over the years, as economic conditions changed drastically, families who could no longer afford to maintain their beautiful country homes had to face hard realities.  Some, like the Cavendishes of Chatsworth, were able to turn their at least some of their properties into money-making enterprises.  Others sold them and divided the profits among the heirs.  (Many of these properties ended up as golf clubs, upscale hotels, or homes for rich rock stars, and the history was pretty much lost).  Other families generously planned to transition their homes and treasures into historic sites we can all enjoy.  The National Trust of Britain does a stellar job of preserving and maintaining these properties.

A misty morning on the grounds of Tyntesfield

A misty morning on the grounds of Tyntesfield

Money comes from the National Lottery, generous donations, memberships and the fees visitors pay.  Much of the work is done by dedicated volunteers.  Houses are staffed by kindly local people, standing patiently for hours in old rooms and gardens.  (I always think of Britain as the world headquarters for sensible shoes).  The Trust produces lovely, detailed and reasonably priced little guidebooks which they sell at each property.  They are temptingly slim and easy to stash in a suitcase.

Many of these properties have delightful tearooms.  Fancy a lunch of Stargazy Pie? Toad-in-the-Hole?  Bubble and Squeak?  Or maybe just a nice pot of tea for you, dear.  Perhaps a lovely warm Apple Crumble to go along with it?  The British love their Days Out in the countryside, and it’s a joy to join them.

If I had to choose my very favorite trip to dream of, it would be a very close contest between two:  Vienna in December, or the English countryside in the spring or fall.  Of course I’m blessed with an intrepid husband willing to drive “on the wrong side of the road” while sitting behind the wheel “on the wrong side of the car.”

The best travel bargain in Britain:  the Touring Pass from the National Trust.  It’s available for either 7 or 14 days, at prices ranging from $38 to a high of $90 for an entire family for 14 days. The pass comes with a wonderfully detailed book, including maps, directions, and opening hours.


Just looking at the maps, with treasures dotted all over England, makes me want to get out my own sensible shoes and travel.  For American visitors, there is also the related Royal Oak Foundation.  A year’s membership for a couple is $95.  It includes all entries to National Trust properties, plus a very nice magazine and various special events in the U.S., mostly it seems in New York.

Alas, I have other plans this year and won’t make it to England.  I guess I’ll have to revisit my favorite places using my photos and guidebooks.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Thrifty Duchesses

Like every other Anglophile, I’m breathlessly waiting for Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, to give birth to a new royal heir.  In the meantime, I’m admiring her common touch–she is, after all, a commoner.  This week she made fashion news by wearing a maternity dress costing L17.50 (about $27), off the rack at a chain called Asos.  Naturally, thousands have been sold.  As far as I can see, she has not put a foot wrong in all the years she’s been Prince William’s main squeeze.

I admire another duchess from an earlier generation, too:  Deborah Devonshire.  She was born into a family of not-very-rich minor aristocrats, the Mitfords.  There were six girls and one boy, and very little money to support them all.  Only the son was properly educated; the girls were expected to marry well.  They begged to go to school and were put off. They were given London debutante seasons instead. But they were all beautiful, brilliant and creative.  So they made their own way in the world.

To make ends meet, Deborah’s mother sold eggs.  Her father dreamed of striking gold in Canada.  In spite of several trips where he personally dug for gold, it never happened for him.  Deborah was the youngest of the family and was considered a little dim as a child.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

In my last post I described how Deborah became Duchess of Devonshire when the heir to the Cavendish title and property was killed in action in World War II, and then the sitting Duke died unexpectedly.  The dreaded Death Tax took effect:  the authorities demanded millions of pounds, reportedly about 80% of the total value of the inherited estate.

Deborah personally took charge.  The Cavendish family seat, Chatsworth, had always welcomed tourists.  After all, grand country homes were meant to be seen and admired.  Traditionally, the housekeeper conducted tours–for only the right sort of people, of course–and was allowed to keep the resulting tips.  Many housekeepers saved enough money to eventually open their own shops. (In Downton Abbey terms, think of Mrs. Hughes discreetly pocketing money from well-to-do tourists).  The housekeeper was responsible for vetting the tourists who rang the doorbell.  I’m thinking baseball caps, Bermuda shorts and fanny packs would not make it inside.

Anyway, when Deborah took matters in hand, the only facility to welcome tourists was a water tap outside.  That tap still exists.

Water tap outside Chatsworth

Water tap outside Chatsworth

But Deborah decided that people like to buy things, and they like to eat.  She created a restaurant and extensive gift shop, now so large and full of delights that it’s a destination in itself. She created a Farm Store (think a very exclusive Whole Foods, with everything in it produced on the grounds of the estate). She created a children’s farm, where city kids can learn how their food is produced. She oversaw a huge renovation of the grand house.  She created placards describing the house’s treasures. She began formally charging admission and hiring staff to guide tourists. She created guidebooks and eventually audioguides, with help from historians and art experts. She wrote about a dozen books, about the property and about her colorful life.

Today, a visit to Chatsworth can keep a visitor happy for an entire day.  One of my purchases at the gift shop on my last visit was a wonderful book all about the Mitford sisters, The Sisters by Mary Lovell.  Reading it is a fascinating history lesson.


At age 93, Deborah still presides–pretty much as CEO–over the thriving enterprise she created, starting at a time when all seemed lost for the noble Cavendish family.  Let’s hear it for duchesses with good sense and a common touch!

If I Could Choose a Tiara…

My choice would be the Devonshire Tiara. It’s ensconced in a display case among many other treasures at Chatsworth, one of my very favorite English stately homes.

And my favorite wearer of this tiara?  That would be Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Her home, Chatsworth, has been the seat of the rich and influential Cavendish family since 1549, when Bess of Hardwick decided to settle in the area.

Bess of Hardwick was a remarkable woman who deserves a few posts of her own, along with posts about glorious Hardwick House nearby. Both houses are in Derbyshire, in the magnificent walking country that Elizabeth Bennet famously visited in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Many people think Chatsworth was a model for Mr. Darcy’s home, Pemberly.  Jane Austen herself was staying in the nearby town of Bakewell while she was writing the novel. But I’m told that Chatsworth was actually mentioned, separately from Pemberly, in the novel. (Some scholars read Jane Austen very carefully!)

Chatsworth, like Highclere, is still in the family of the heirs to the property.  But keeping it so has been a saga of its own.  Credit in recent years goes to my favorite duchess, Deborah Devonshire.  She was the youngest of the six famous Mitford sisters.  She married Andrew, a younger son of the Cavendish family, in 1941.

When the heir, Andrew’s older brother William, was killed in action in World War II, Andrew suddenly became the heir and Deborah was in line to become the Duchess.  In 1950, the 10th Duke died and Andrew became the 11th Duke. Deborah became the Duchess.

In her memoir, Wait for Me, Deborah describes how the Cavendish family had carefully (and legally) planned to circumvent the “death tax” laws by signing over the property to the heir a number of years before the death of the sitting Duke.  But the 10th Duke died very unexpectedly just a few months short of the effective date.  So the tax blow was crushing.  Deborah rolled up her sleeves and turned Chatsworth into a thriving, money-making enterprise that still honors history and shares its glories with the public.

When the American businessman Joseph Kennedy was ambassador to England, his daughter Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy met and married William Cavendish, then heir to the dukedom.  He was killed in combat, and she died in a plane crash shortly after the war.  She is buried at Edensor, the village at Chatsworth.  President John F. Kennedy became a great friend of Deborah’s.  (I’m assuming he called her Debo, as she was always known to her friends.  I imagine she called him Jack). She and her husband were invited to his Inauguration in Washington.  She gleefully attended, but kept committing the faux pas of calling it his “coronation.”  Irrepressible–that’s how I like my duchesses!

Today, Deborah is the Dowager Duchess–which means her husband has died, a new Duke is in place, and the new Duke’s wife is the actual Duchess.  (This is the same situation as on the show Downton Abbey, where Violet Crawley, played by Maggie Smith, is the Dowager Countess of Grantham). Deborah is 93 now, the last of the famous (some say notorious) Mitford sisters.  She lives in the village of Edensor, which is part of the Chatsworth estate. She still oversees the commercial enterprise she created.  She loves Elvis Presley. And she keeps prize chickens, some of which roam the beautiful grounds at Chatsworth.

Chatsworth Chickens

Chatsworth Chickens

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles, with a special emphasis on colorful personalities!