A modest plot of Earth

On Wednesday evening this week we celebrated Sarah’s birthday on her own modest plot of Earth, her allotment that she’s been renting from the City Council for fourteen years or so now.

Sarah's allotment in Liverpool. A modest plot of Earth.

Sarah’s allotment in Liverpool. A modest plot of Earth.

We’ll return to see how the celebrating went later in the post.

The next day we set out to continue celebrating Sarah’s birthday by visiting a place of her choice, a tradition we have.

Over the Pennines and into the rolling hills of Derbyshire.

Over the Pennines and into the rolling hills of Derbyshire.

I’ve never been to this part of Derbyshire and had always generally thought of the place as ‘gritty’. It is still ‘the north’ after all.

But this is more like the quintessential southern England of the Cotswolds.

But this is more like the quintessential southern England of the Cotswolds.

All limestone hills and lush secluded valleys.

And it’s in one of these valleys that we arrive at the place Sarah’s picked for our visit today.

Now unlike a few months back where she tricked me into visiting a Nob House, a hated stately home of the English Aristocracy, today I know perfectly well we’re visiting a Nob House. But it’s Sarah’s birthday and she’s asked me to be on my best behaviour and not keep saying ‘Nob House’ to everyone we pass. Fair enough, I’ll do my best.

We arrive at Chatsworth.

We approach Chatsworth.

In fact this pretty much out-stateleys all the other Nob Houses in the land. It’s owned by the same Dukes of Devonshire we visited a few months back. Though unlike that northern bauble this is the house they actually live in.

Chatsworth, home of the Cavendish family, the Dukes of Devonshire. Squatting at the top of the greed-heap of the English class system since the middle of the 15th century.

Chatsworth, home of the Cavendish family, the Dukes of Devonshire. Squatting at the top of the greed-heap of the English class system since the middle of the 16th century.

Driving through several miles of the Chatsworth Estate and crossing the River Derwent we finally arrive at the House itself.

Driving through several miles of the Chatsworth Estate and crossing the River Derwent we finally arrive at the House itself.

First of all passing through what was once the stables.

First of all passing through what was once the stables.

Yes it’s a stable yard. They’ve got form here. You may remember the other Devonshire stable yard we visited in Buxton a few weeks back. That one had a dome on.

The history of the family is here.

The history of the family is here.

As is this curious fact that they rent the place off themselves.

As is this curious fact that they rent the place off themselves.

‘The Boswells did that in ‘Bread’ as some sort of fiddle’ I mutter, before being sharply reminded I’m on ‘best behaviour’ today.

Looking out of the gate of the stable yard. As far as the eye can see it's still the Chatsworth Estate.

Looking out of the gate of the stable yard. As far as the eye can see it’s still the Chatsworth Estate.

From the days when ‘estate’ meant ‘a large area of land peremptorily enclosed by robber barons’ rather than something to do with municipal housing in our inner-cities.

But here in the gateway our day enters a different story from all that robbing and privilege. Something I’d heard about the evening before.

The day before our visit, Deborah, the last and youngest of the Mitford sisters has died, age 94.

Deborah, the last and youngest of the Mitford sisters has died, age 94.

For most of her adult life Deborah has been the Duchess of Devonshire. Giving way, as apparently women still have to, when her husband died and her son took over as Duke. That’s why she’s called the Dowager Duchess there.

But let’s not get lost in all that because Deborah, or ‘Debo’ as she was always called is a part of one of the most astonishing family sagas of the 20th century.

Introducing the Mitfords. Debbo is the youngest girl, sitting at the front.

Introducing the Mitfords. Debo is the youngest girl, sitting at the front.

Clearly Nobs, but Nobs who managed to lose their inherited land before the children were grown. Still, all six girls were launched enthusiastically into the debutante world of between-the-wars to find themselves good rich husbands. And along the way became the prototypes for the ‘celebs’ that seem to fascinate so many people today. But this lot would never have been content with winning ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or having their wedding photos in ‘Hello’ magazine.

The best story of them, ‘Hons and Rebels’ is told by sister Jessica Mitford, ‘Decca’ – the one who became a Communist, fought in the Spanish Civil War and wrote the still defining work on the American funerals system. That one.

But what all the sisters got up to is summed up succinctly in this blog post from ‘Bibliodaze’.

Highlights, or in these cases Lowlights?

Unity Mitford with her besotted friend. Yes you know who it is.

Unity Mitford with her besotted friend. Yes you know who it is.

Unity was so upset when World War Two started that she shot herself in the head. Nevertheless she lived on for a further eight years, nursed on a private island off the coast of Mull.

Now you’d think you couldn’t get much more fascist than being in love with Adolf Hitler.

But Mitford sister Diana managed to out-fascist even Unity.

But Mitford sister Diana managed to out-fascist even Unity.

She married ex-Labour MP Oswald Mosley who’d turned into the leader of the British fascist party. Both of them were considered so dangerous that they spent most of the war imprisoned. But after her release Diana continued to be  an unapologetically enthusiastic fascist for the rest of her life. Viciously anti-semitic and doubting the holocaust ever happened. Nasty.

Of the other sisters, Nancy became a hugely successful novelist. Writing stories mostly lampooning her own family. Pamela lived quietly and raised rare breeds of chickens. An enthusiasm she shared with the youngest of the sisters, Debbo.

Now Debo managed to remain close to all of her sisters throughout their lives, even Diana, because she didn’t let their politics bother her. She considered herself above all of that, becoming the very grandest kind of English Lady.

Debbo's House, Chatsworth.

Debbo’s House, Chatsworth.

And yes, that’s gold-leaf round the window panes.

Debbo had it done because it last longer than paint and she liked to see it glinting in the evening light.

Debo had it done because it lasts longer than paint and she liked to see it glinting in the evening light.

Obviously.

Now I could carry on lampooning Debo Mitford all day, but I won’t. Not merely out of respect for her death. But because from what I’ve heard, I suspect she’d have easily been able to give me as good as she got. This was a formidable woman.

Marrying a younger Cavendish, they unexpectedly inherited the Devonshire title after an older son died in the War. They also inherited a family deeply in debt and a Chatsworth falling into seemingly terminal disrepair.

Moving in ‘over the shop’ as Debo called Chatsworth, she proceeded to get them out of their hole by skilfully and determinedly turning the place into, well, a shop. The hugely successful visitor attraction we’re standing in today. They didn’t have to sell up to the National Trust or to anyone else. So whatever you think of the landed aristocracy (and you know what I think) Debo’s achievement here is staggeringly impressive.

Let’s walk on.

Another impressive English woman, Sarah Horton. Happy Birthday Sarah.

Another impressive English woman, Sarah Horton. Happy Birthday Sarah.

We’re not going into the house, other than the shop and café bits, because Sarah wants us to spend all of our time in the garden. For the most part it’s not horticulturally impressive, Sarah describing it as ‘a vista garden’. It’s all about scale and views.

Long sculpted walks.

Long sculpted walks.

Gunnera big enough to hide in.

Gunnera big enough to hide in.

Anciently shaped trees.

Anciently shaped trees.

And there are monkeys.

And there are monkeys.

(Followers of ‘Monkey Map’ – Sarah’s quest to map all monkey puzzle trees, will be pleased to know this was a ‘9 monkey’ day, soon to be written up, no doubt, on Sarah’s blog.)

The garden is turning gently to autumn.

The garden is turning gently to autumn.

Deeply red.

Deeply red.

Autumn with monkey.

Autumn with monkey.

And contains many a grotto and quiet sitting place.

And contains many a grotto and quiet sitting place.

Almost despite myself I’m enjoying this.

Then vista and scale return.

Everything, even the other side of the valley, sculpted around this view, of this monkey puzzle tree, over that maze, from precisely here.

Everything, even the other side of the valley, sculpted around this view, of this monkey puzzle tree, over that maze, from precisely here.

They've got a water feature too.

They’ve got a water feature too.

The view from where Sarah is standing.

The view from where Sarah is standing. Other side of the valley once again involved in the symmetry.

Yes.

Yes.

The place is monumental.

The place is monumental.

It's a film set, a concert venue, a museum, a huge success. A few people live here and hundreds work here.

It’s a film set, a concert venue, a museum, a huge success. A few people live here and hundreds work here.

And we are treated with constant civility all day. There place is hugely well run and a credit to everyone involved, especially Debo Mitford. I  should like to have met her.

She loved Elvis Presley and Alan Bennett was amongst her closest friends. Not so close though as Diana, the fascist Mitford whom she ‘adored’ as they both aged. A contradiction of a woman and one who, to quote Debo herself, talking of her womanising alcoholic husband:

‘Was at least never boring.’

Being boring, you see, was the greatest of sins to all of the Mitfords. And now they’re all gone.

So we leave Chatsworth.

So we leave Chatsworth.

The Devonshire’s own ‘modest plot of Earth.’

And see, I’ve been polite about the Nobs nearly all day. It can be done, if only as a special offer for Sarah’s birthday!

And after the vistas of the day, we return home through the clouds on top of the Pennines.

And after the vistas of the day, we return home through the clouds on top of the Pennines.

Meanwhile, what of Sarah’s own ‘modest plot of Earth?’

On the Wednesday evening, her birthday, a three course meal is being prepared from scratch.

On the Wednesday evening, her birthday, a three course meal is being prepared from scratch.

The hands of a master chef at work.

The hands of a master chef at work.

No, of course it’s not me.

This is our great friend Bren, preparing the meal over an open fire.

This is our great friend Bren, preparing the meal over an open fire.

Assisted and occasionally bossed around, by his great friend Sarah.

Assisted and occasionally bossed around, by his great friend Sarah.

And me, am I doing my usual virtuoso exhibition of idleness? Mostly yes, apart from helping to eat the food and wash up.

But I'm also doing the music.

But I’m also doing the music.

Yes that is indeed a portable turntable. A gift from Sarah on my own birthday. This evening’s sounds, all on vinyl, coming from Charlie Rich, Hank Williams, Maria Muldaur, the great jazz and soul of Manhattan Transfer’s first Atlantic LP and, as the moon rises, the smooth big band of Glenn Miller.

We are happy here, the three of us together.

We are happy here, the three of us together.

Celebrating her birthday on Sarah's modest plot of Earth.

Celebrating her birthday on Sarah’s modest plot of Earth.

3 thoughts on “A modest plot of Earth

  1. The Accidental Amazon

    Ah, the iconic Chatsworth, which of course I have seen many times in films, but not like this, and without the lens of the backstory. Monkeys?? Yes, Debo sounds like quite a gal. Sarah, if you see this, I’m so sorry I missed your birthday!! A belated large hug from me. xo, Kathi

    Reply

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