When planning our itinerary to England, there were about a hundred grand estates that I would have loved to visit (and I still hope to one day), but at the tops of my list was Chatsworth. This was the main reason I wanted to head to the Midlands – although the other towns that we visited in this area made the trip even more worth it. Now, I have a slight confession to make – the reason I wanted to visit Chatsworth above all the others is because of the gardens. My botanist heart had eagerly read all about the incredible gardens and plant collections in the estate’s heyday and I wanted to see these treasures with my own eyes.
The magician responsible for the famed gardens was Joseph Paxton (you might remember that I mentioned him in the post on Kew gardens). He was invited to be the head gardener at Chatsworth when he was 20 years old and is largely responsible for all the glorious features of the grounds. I should mention here that Capability Brown designed and landscaped the grounds from 1750s-1760s – altering the terrain, putting in lakes, and planting trees to give the now-iconic look of an English country estate.
Paxton was retained by the 6th Duke of Devonshire in 1823 and was allowed free-reign on the grounds. One of his fabulous contributions was the rock garden. I won’t tell you exactly how long Mom and I wandered about the rock gardens, but it was at least a few hours. The garden, hands down, was the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen.
This huge monolith was fashioned into a towering waterfall, with huge aquatic plantings surrounding the pond. Meandering paths allow you to wander about, always coming upon a new scene of beauty.
Moss covered boulders built up into small mountains are interspersed with ferns and flowers in a stunning display. The main trail eventually brings you to this breathtaking view.
The rock garden flows seamlessly in a garden pond filled with water lilies, boulders, and banked up with a breathtaking assortment of blooming perennials. Benches with snowdrops carved into the backs line the path so you can stop and admire the amazing view and maybe do a bit of knitting.
Along the back of the rock garden is the whimsical Willow Tree. I had read about this and was very excited to see it in person. The original was crafted in 1695 as something of a practical joke, as the copper tree was designed to randomly squirt water on unsuspecting visitors. In Paxton’s day, he reconstructed the tree and moved it to its current location along a path that winds away from the rock garden. It’s a delightful sculpture and now acts as fountain since it sprays water all the time.
The other main reason I wanted to visit the Chatsworth gardens was something of a personal pilgrimage for me. Paxton designed multiple conservatories for the Earl of Devonshire’s extensive collection of tropical plants, including the famed Great Conservatory (started in 1836). At it’s completion it was the largest glass house in the world, and quite possibly one of the greatest world’s wonders at the time. It housed the Earl’s collection of orchids – which was also the largest in the world at the time. I have dreamed of what this magnificent structure filled with exotic and rare orchids would have looked like. It gives me goosebumps to imagine it in all its glory.
Such extravagant dreams never last and unfortunately the Great Conservatory became prohibitively expensive to heat and maintain. By WW1 there wasn’t enough coal to heat the greenhouse and the remaining plants died. The Great Conservatory was dynamited in the 1920s. I was gutted when I read about its fall and I shed tears for the great loss. All that remains is the foundation (shown in the photos above). It now houses a maze and garden area.
Eventually we managed to pry ourselves away from the garden and enter the house.
The magnificent staircase and wrought iron filigree railings made a magnificent statement in the main hall. The home was elaborately decorated and each room was like a darkened jewel box full of treasures.
The room on the left was unique in that it held a collection of china plates in rows from floor to ceiling along all the walls. It was fun to move through the rooms and imagine what they must have seen in all the centuries they’ve been standing.
There were so many things to look at – the floors, ceilings, artwork, collections, but I was immediately drawn to the light fixtures in nearly every room we went in. The dining room boasted the most elaborate crystal chandelier. My favorite room had to be the library though.
I loved everything about this room and could have happily lived here as a little mouse. The ceiling, carpeting, and woodwork paneling are just gorgeous and lit to perfect effect with all the lamps. The comfortable chairs and floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with books would keep me occupied for the rest of my life. Ahh.. bliss.
The final room you pass through on your way out of the house and into the gift shop (in the old orangery) is the Sculpture Room. This room was built specifically for the 6th Duke to house his enormous sculpture collection. He had originally planned for the walls to be brightly painted, but fortunately they were left natural and this lends a much more soothing aspect to the room. Here are a collection of some of my favorites on display during our visit – a woman spinning. a carved lion, and a sculpture of Napoleon’s mother.
It was an idyllic day spent at this iconic estate. I’ve roamed the gardens often since then in my mind and I’ve imagined meeting Joseph Paxton among the rocky boulders he placed in the grounds. This beautiful place will long haunt my dreams.
Blessings to you,