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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Boswells did that in ‘Bread’ as some sort of fiddle’ I mutter, before being sharply reminded I’m on ‘best behaviour’ today.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
And yes, that’s gold-leaf round the window panes.
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.
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.
(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.)
Almost despite myself I’m enjoying this.
Then vista and scale return.
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.
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!
Meanwhile, what of Sarah’s own ‘modest plot of Earth?’
No, of course it’s not me.
And me, am I doing my usual virtuoso exhibition of idleness? Mostly yes, apart from helping to eat the food and wash up.
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.