Devon in Derbyshire? by Dr. A. C. McNeil

If there is one government department which will always provide exact data - though those that work on it may be less reliable - it must be the legendary Air Ministry Roof. It cannot be bribed; it cannot be swayed by political opinion, by the fashions of the times; by anything, in fact, except the prevailing weather. That it may not be so important these days in the face of satellites, gas and oil rigs and the like does not detract from the idea. Whatever comes off the Air Ministry Roof is objective fact. What its servants do with it afterwards is anyone’s guess. It served D-Day. No doubt it served Group Captain Leonard Cheshire as well.

At the end of the war, after those famed dam-busting raids, Leonard Cheshire and his wife Sue Ryder formed a charity for those disabled by the war. This charity grew and expanded to include non-combatants as well. Cheshire ultimately died, and Sue Ryder fell out with the progressives in the charity. With the founders gone the charity renamed itself ‘Enrych’. When my good lady friend became crippled with arthritis in her last years she joined the said charity, and attended an exercise class to which I drove her at regular intervals. I would sit at the back of that class with my computer and concoct many of the articles which carry my name in Countryside La Vie.

After my good lady died I was invited to join a coach trip for members to Chatsworth House, the Duke of Devonshire’s ‘country’ retreat. I had heard a lot about this place, its legendary fountain, the grounds, the house itself, but I had never been there; it was one of those places one always intends to go, but never does. So I jumped at the opportunity. But what has all this to do with the Air Ministry Roof, you ask. Well, it was one of those days when spring finally came this year. You could not really predict it, even with a long range forecast, so it was either a coincidence or the Group Captain was smiling on us.

The house is full of collections built up by previous Dukes. Here I have to be careful - when the Cavendish family bought the estate in 1549 they were not ‘Dukes of Devonshire’ - the family acquired various other titles along the way, the Dukedom being one of the later ones. To cut a long story short, the family had money. Successive heads spent the money on collecting items and remodelling the house, after which the next in line had to marry into money, and it all started again. True, some properties and collections had to be sold as well to balance the books, but once money was there...

By the 1950’s this pattern of life was disrupted as death duties required 80% of the estate. It took until 1967 for this to be paid off, and the present Duke spends much of his remaining monies on repairs and maintenance.

So, what of the house? Whatever structure was in use in 1549 has vanished. The original structure built for the Cavendish family has been entirely remodelled; the only known (possible) picture of the west front as it was is a tapestry. In fact the earliest building which has not been reconstructed at any time seems to be a hunting tower up on the hill behind the house. The south front was rebuilt with state apartments in 1686; that particular incumbent then got carried away and rebuilt all the other aspects as well. In 1763 it was decided to move the stables to their present position (now a tea room - I recommend it).

Next the garden; the 4th Duke had that legendary gardener, Capability Brown, create the ‘garden in fashion’ for him. In the 19th century the 6th Duke appointed Henry Paxton, then aged 20, as his head gardener. Paxton is known now for the Crystal Palace, its structure based on a species of water lily which Paxton had succeeded in growing after everyone else in this country had failed. Paxton was really responsible for the modern greenhouse, and it was this structure which allowed him to achieve what no-one else could. In addition to the greenhouses of Chatsworth, Paxton also had the village of Edensor moved, as it was an eyesore in full view of the house. And he was responsible for the famed Emperor fountain. By the way, this account was extracted from the guidebook, reasonably priced – I had to say that.

So, what of the exhibits? It can be said, straight away, that most walls are smothered in painted portraits of ancient dignitaries, not all well lit by any means, and it probably requires a guide and several days to appreciate them all. In addition there are numerous statues and in one place a collection of minerals – this collection may only be a sample, as one of the Cavendish family was very keen on them. To see everything requires covering parts of three floors, and thankfully lifts have now been provided. The layout of the gardens away from the house was designed almost with photography in mind, though I doubt that the designers had ever heard of it. In fact the only disappointment I had was the fountain, the upper parts of which were lost against the blue sky.