Set in and around the remains of Sherwood Forest, grand former estates of the great and the good have since the 18th century, been known as The Dukeries.
Brian Spencer takes a gentle tour through this still rural part of north Nottinghamshire.
The four times married and ambitiously illustrious Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury founded several dynasties. Five of them at one time or other became owners of estates which fortuitously sat on vast deposits of coal. Using their fortunes they built themselves grand mansions, usually on the site of abbeys closed by Henry VIII’s dissolution.
As Bess produced a whole string of daughters, many of whom only had daughters in their turn, through subsequent marriages most of the properties came into the hands of other titled families. Even though their ownership subsequently fell outside ducal ownership and until the likes of the National Trust, with only two exceptions, all were abandoned by their original owners. The one thing they all have in common nowadays is that they come within the heading of being part of the Dukeries.
Starting in Worksop in the far north of the Dukeries, the first property is one of the two still privately owned and not open to the public. This is Worksop Manor, now a comparatively small residence standing in its own grounds; nevertheless it has a history stretching back to a priory that was closed in 1539 and handed over to the Earl of Shrewsbury. He and subsequent earls especially Bess of Hardwick’s final husband, extended the property by employing the famous architect Robert Smythson to build what became one of the largest manor houses in England with over 500 rooms. Through marriage Worksop Manor passed to the Dukes of Norfolk, the 8th of whom modernised the house, but in 1761 a disastrous fire gutted the place. It was replaced by another house but built in the Palladian style, however for reasons known only to them succeeding dukes rarely visited Worksop. The 12th Duke carried out general repairs and sold it to the Duke of Newcastle for £375,000 but it ceased to be a ducal seat in 1890 when it was sold to Sir John Robinson, High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire whose descendants still live there.
Welbeck Abbey is another house still in private hands, but unlike Worksop part of the extensive supporting buildings have been converted into a garden centre, restaurant and the Hartley Gallery. Welbeck Abbey at the time of its dissolution was one of the richest in England, eventually coming into the hands of William Cavendish, Bess of Hardwick’s grandson. An ardent royalist who lavishly entertained Charles I not only at Welbeck, but at Bolsover Castle, he was created the 1st Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne. Although he had several sons, all of them died young and so Welbeck passed to Margaret Cavendish, who married William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland. It was his successor, the 5th Duke of Portland who built the massive stables visible down the lane from the visitor facilities, along with a Riding School second only to the celebrated Spanish Riding School in Vienna. A shy and reclusive man, some say due to his having been spurned by an opera singer, he spent all his energies building the extensive stables and developing a renowned stud; he also spent thousands ensuring his complete privacy. Using miners he had them dig literally miles of tunnels beneath the estate, most were gas lit and there was even an underground ballroom, but whether he graced its maple floor is unlikely. When travelling, his coach with its curtains drawn would arrive at the end of one of his tunnels where it would be put on a flat-bed railway wagon and he would then travel by train to London, where or so the story says, he lived a completely different life and had an illegitimate family. When he died Welbeck was a chaotic jumble of unused rooms suffering from general neglect. In fact the 6th Duke of Portland on inheriting the place in 1879 seriously considered abandoning the place. Changing his mind he restored Welbeck, making it by 1881 into a suitable place to invite the party loving Prince of Wales, the first of 63 years of grand receptions. Today Welbeck is owned by the grandson of the 7th Duke of Portland, who lives there with his family.
As an example of the 5th Duke’s reclusive eccentricity, whenever he moved around the house, away from the handful of rooms he used, any of his servants who happened to be going about their duties at Welbeck had to turn and face the wall until he had passed. Anyone disobeying this injunction was punished by spending an hour skating round a specially built rink!
Over on the other side of Sherwood Forest, Clumber Park, a huge area of woodland and lakeside walks covering over 38,000 acres where visitors are free to ramble at will, is now owned by the National Trust. Very little remains of the former seat of the Dukes of Newcastle-under-Lyme apart from stables and the family chapel whose spire soars like a moon rocket over the surrounding woodland. The dukedom came by way of its links to Frances, Bess of Hardwick’s middle daughter; it was first created as the Dukedom of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but changed its allegiance to the Potteries Newcastle in later generations.
The house built around 1770, was an immense edifice that stretched above the lake at the end of doubled rows of magnificent limes, the descendants of which are still there, leading present day visitors to the central features of Clumber Park. In 1879, a month after the death of the 6th Duke, an inferno raged through the house, destroying over 20 rooms, but luckily most of the valuable paintings and furniture it contained were saved by the prompt action of estate staff and firemen. Trustees on behalf of the 7th Duke, who was still a minor, had the house restored to its former glory. Unfortunately for the house subsequent generations abandoned Clumber and from the 1930s onwards it was gradually dismantled with many of its glorious features such as the grand marble staircase being sold off. During the Second World War it was taken over by the military for training purposes as well as storing munitions. Realising that something had to be done in order to save what was left, a campaign was launched by the National Trust so today’s visitors can walk, ride, watch the graceful swans gliding along the lake, or simply enjoy the beauty of its mature woodlands.
Thoresby Hall a short drive from Clumber by way of a minor road off the A614 still retains its former glory, thanks to its present owners, Warner Holidays Ltd. Now run as a hotel and leisure complex, the Grade 1 listed building was originally the home of the Dukes of Kingston whose family name was Pierrepont. The present building is to the design of Anthony Salvin, who was asked to create a romantic Elizabethan palace along the lines of Burghley House. Today the property is open to guests or day visitors who can enjoy a whole range of facilities offered by the leisure complex.
Lady Arbella Stuart, Bess of Hardwick’s wayward granddaughter – who, if she had been more amenable towards Queen Elizabeth, could well have followed her glorious reign but ended up in the Tower of London – lived for a time at Rufford Abbey whose attractive ruins set above a rose garden are now in the care of Nottingham County Council. The 12th century abbey stands amidst pleasant woodlands off the A614 south of Ollerton. Originally run by a group of Cistercian monks, following its dissolution Henry VIII gave it to the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, Bess’s fourth husband, it later became neglected and by the 1950s the house was in danger of total collapse. Luckily funds were available and now the tranquil ruins overlook a courtyard where the Savile Restaurant is an ideal spot to make for after wandering round the grounds, or viewing the imaginative sculpture garden.
Technically although Rufford is geographically part of the Dukeries, it was never actually owned by a duke. Likewise Newstead Abbey closer to Nottingham can be included, but it too never reached ducal ownership. What it did do, however, was to be the home for six years between 1808 –1814, of the romantic poet, Lord George Gordon Byron, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. The façade of the original monastery sold by Henry VIII to one of Byron’s ancestors for £810, still stands despite minor earthquakes and abuts on to the main house. Set above a manmade lake and amidst inspirational gardens, it is run by Nottingham County Council and is open at weekends; the grounds every day until dusk.