28/10/2014 11:12 GMT | Updated 28/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Remembering the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire


The Autumnal leaves look crisp and beautiful cascading over the car that I have the pleasure of driving this week, the Jaguar F Type V6 Convertible. It seems only natural for me to say goodbye to summer with these golden leaves lining the road on the Batsford Estate as I remember the one meeting I had with the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who recently passed away. Debo, as she was known to many, one of the Mitford sisters, grew up on this very land before marrying the Duke of Devonshire and moving to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.

It was indeed just one meeting, however it is firmly fixed in my memory as one of the most enigmatic encounters of my journalistic career so far: I was working on a story about Private Theatres for Country Life magazine, and as well as visiting Crag Y Nos Castle in Monmouthshire, where Adelina Patty, the Opera singer, renowned for only singing the first act of any opera so she wouldn't spoil her delicate voice or some have said it was so that her audience would not get bored and others have said it was simply because her guests wanted to 'roll' the auditorium up and dance the night away. (The whole of the floor had a marvellous Victorian contraption that raised and lowered so it would become raked or flat depending upon the activity placed upon it). I had also visited Capesthorne Hall in Cheshire, where many a family get together was staged with the Bromley Davenports and a visit to Wales to Lampeter House where the garden would be transformed every summer for a season of Opera.


But it was my visit up to Chatsworth House that sticks in my memory with such delight that I sometimes wonder if it really happened at all. I had been allowed to take some time over this story and decided that I would not think of Darcy coming out of the pond (Collin Firth, Pride and Prejudice was fairly new to the television) nor would I think of Steven Tennant and the Bright Young Things rallying around from London to Derbyshire on treasure hunts or indulgent weekends in rather lovely historic cars. I would be concentrating on the renovation of the Chatsworth Theatre, the Helmsley backdrops and the statuettes made specifically for the costumes to be fitted and to rest on after each performance.

The Main Hall was being used at this time for an embroidery repair session whilst the house was effectively closed for visitors (The Dowager Duchess was one of the first to turn these large country houses around to make money with a farm shop, succinct public visiting, corporate venue hire and seasonal festivals). It was my task to document the renovation of the theatre and even though my story would only be about six pages, I fell in love with the house.


Looking up at the ceiling in the Theatre room, I had noticed the two chandeliers missing and asked where these were. The Dowager Duchess was also puzzled and the two of us, along with the Estate Manager went to the study to look in the large leather bound book of listed items of note... the Insurance Book as I called it. It turned out that Spencer Compton Cavendish; the 8th Duke of Devonshire in the 1860's had removed the chandeliers for cleaning and for some reason had never been replaced. It also suggested they had been placed for safe keeping in the left wing staircase. So the most adventurous expedition within Chatsworth House occurred with now, a few more staff in tow, to look for the lights. En route I found Prince William doing work experience in the kitchen and when he learnt of our expedition, he laughed and wished us luck. We found the chandeliers and they were brought out for cleaning, (surprisingly relatively dust free for all of that time in the stair well).

My documentation continued and the opening of the theatre happened with a few dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet performing and a particularly elite selection guests in attendance. Sitting up in the balcony of the now fully renovated Chatsworth House Theatre with some members of the Tennant family (my whole catalogue of curiosities about 'Steven Tennant' had to be quashed for the moment), I was able to watch the Ballet. The performance started and then screams from the lower auditorium began, the dancers stopped and all was a confusion. It seemed that the protected bats that had once lived silently amongst the beams and woodwork had been disturbed. The screams soon turned to silence and we waited. The Dowager Duchess asked us all politely to keep calm and deadly silent whilst she went to fetch someone.

Ten minutes later, a voluptuous woman appeared dressed in black, called the bats with a 'cooing' vibration, the bats flew into her bosoms and the voluptuous woman in black now with bats in her dress, walked out in total silence. She was indeed the 'Woman of Hardwick Hall' known to me as the Bat Lady of Hardwick Hall.

The performance restarted and it was a total success. To this day I have longed to asked more about the 'Bright Young Things' to the Tennant Family, and as I drive around the Mitford Sisters' Batsford Estate, with the F Type Jaguar, I am laughing that I met the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire at a time when the Private Theatre at Chatsworth had a colony of bats living there unbeknown to her.


I feel very comfortable in this F Type taking a Sunday drive. Jaguar are renowned for making cars that are modern, futuristic yet with such a decent amount of historic quality built within them, and this F Type is exactly that: concise controls, fluid lines and wealth of history for making it a thoroughly superb pedigree. Fitting for a tribute to the late Dower Duchess of Devonshire.