Derbyshire’s second most important grand house, Kedleston, is a short distance from the centre of Derby. Brian Spencer took a stroll around its park and managed to glean something of the history of this stately home.
Set amidst open parkland, Kedleston Hall sits in splendour at the head of the long sweeping drive. It was designed by the great eighteenth-century architect, Robert Adam for Sir Nathaniel Curzon, the 5th Baronet who had inherited the estate in 1758. Like all stately houses, Kedleston was not meant as a home, but as a statement, somewhere the owner could impress visiting royalty. The family, as they still do today, lived their day to day lives in the east wing and only used the main building on special occasions.
The first Curzon came to England with William the Conqueror and for his help was given lands around ‘Ketelestune’. Whilst the Cavendish dynasty was the leading light of the Whig party, the Curzons were head of the Derbyshire Tories. The Lord Curzon most associated with Kedleston is George Nathaniel Curzon, Viceroy of India, but although he managed to fill rooms with the treasures he brought back from India, he only inherited the estate nine years before his death.
Looking at All Saints’ Church, adjacent to the hall and realising that its origins are older than the house, it becomes apparent that it was originally the parish church of a village. This was the old Kedleston village which was obliterated to make room for the hall. Fields tended by generations of Saxon yeomen were landscaped to make the rolling acres of parkland where the hall now sits proudly at its highest point, backed by masses of mature woodlands.
Almost from the beginning, visitors have enjoyed visiting Kedleston, both the park as well as the house. The house divides the park into two distinct sections, the park proper (known as the Old Park) and the Pleasure Grounds at the rear beyond the south front. A series of interconnected lakes created by rocky cascades are crossed in their middle by a triple arched bridge designed by the architect Robert Adam who landscaped the park. He also built the elaborate boat house that stands upstream of the bridge. Known correctly as a Fishing Pavilion, it was decorated by still-life paintings by artists such as Zuccharelli and carvings of sea monsters by George Moneypenny. Large in proportion to the lake on which it stands, the pavilion was meant as a kind of changing room for visitors who came to enjoy the dubious delights of cold water bathing. It was during this time that Kedleston became something of a spa; there is even a Sulphur Bath House on the golf course above the northern bank of the lower lake. Here bathers would convince themselves that bathing in what we would now call polluted water, was doing them a power of good. There is another well this time on the opposite side of the lake. Known as the Lion’s Mouth or Bentley’s Well, even now it has much cleaner water and stands a few yards to the left of the drive, halfway between the bridge and house.
As befits what have been designated as the Pleasure Grounds, a path known as the Long Walk winds its way beside the lower lake before reaching the manicured lawns to the south of the hall. Passing through the surrounding woods, it is still meant to be enjoyed by all who stroll along its shaded glades, making it an ideal place for children to explore. There are badger setts galore and a special place where fallen branches small enough for tiny arms to hold, can be used to make dens.
A pair of stone gate posts that once adorned the House of Lords marks the entrance to the Pleasure Grounds proper. Here the gentry would take their ease in times gone by, murmuring scandalous nothings, or discussing the politics of the day. The copy of a Medicean lion stands on its plinth, another of Robert Adam’s designs; various urns and a pretty gazebo complete the ornamentation of this pleasant frontage to the hall’s south front. There cannot be a more posher back door than that at Kedleston; two elegantly curved stone staircases sweep up to a terrace backed by the windows of the Marble Hall and was once trod by the nobility. This front is in complete contrast to the main entrance, the north front where six pillars separate allegorical figures, laying to the claim that it is the ‘grandest Palladian façade in Britain’.
To reach that façade it is necessary to walk round the outside of the hall, passing on the way the Norman doorway to the hall’s family chapel. Weathered fish heads carved into the stone surround proclaim the Christian beliefs of its medieval builders. Inside are the tombs of long gone Curzons, but the oddest is that of Lady Mary Victoria, Viceroy Lord Curzon’s American first wife who died quite young. The tragedy of her passing is made all the more poignant by the fact that Lord Curzon is shown in effigy alongside her. He was still very much alive and in fact remarried eleven years later to another American lady. You can tell that he is alive even though his eyes are closed because he has kicked the coverlet away from his right foot.
There is another strange effigy, this time not in the church, but seen briefly from the churchyard bridge on the way towards the front of the house. This is the statue is of a young man dressed in tight fitting silk breeches and open necked shirt who is shown lying on his back with his right arm across his chest. It represents the young poet Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide in 1770 when he was accused of attempting to pass off his own work as that by an imaginary 15th-century monk, Thomas Rowley. The tragic tale inspired Wordsworth to pen one of his more turgid poems.
Moving round past the modern restaurant based on the original kitchens (incidentally a long way from the dining room in order to minimise cooking smells), today’s entrance is by way of what was the garden room. It leads, not only to the formal part of the hall, but to Lord Curzon’s collection of memorabilia amassed during his tenure as Viceroy of India. This is a vast collection of gifts ranging from the mundane to the fabulous together with a huge tiger skin glaring with malevolent eyes at anyone daring to get too close. Of all the treasures in the Eastern Museum, two stand out beyond all others; first is the silver howdah in which dignitaries rode on the back of an elephant during the Delhi Durbar, held to commemorating the coronation of King Edward VII in 1903. Amazing though it may be, it is surpassed by the dress made for Lady Curzon and is the first thing to greet visitors as they enter the room. Known as the Peacock Dress, it was embroidered by a team of Indian craftsmen with metal thread and jewels on cloth of gold in a pattern of peacock feathers incorporating tiny beetle wings that would scintillate as Lady Curzon moved in a room lit by electricity.
Visitors in the eighteenth-century would be taken round the hall by Mrs Garnett, who was the housekeeper at the time. Today a National Trust volunteer dressed exactly like that formidable lady is only too happy to carry out the same duties as Mrs Garnett and regale visitors with interesting anecdotes of life in and around the state rooms of Kedleston Hall.
The hall and estate is a National Trust property that is open on advertised days. Since acquiring the house and estate, the Trust has recently carried out a programme of necessary redecoration which tried as far as possible using modern materials, to replicate the original. Fabrics such as the faded damask hangings in the State Apartments have been replaced with silk materials, covering 1,470 metres in total!
Four walks around the park have been laid out by the Trust, the ‘Long Walk’ mentioned above which is 3.2 miles in length and also a short walk of 2 miles covering the middle section. There is also a ‘Wilderness Walk’ of 2.5 miles from the bridge and through woodland bordering the drive that runs from Kedleston Road; the fourth is also 2.5 miles and is round both sides of the upper lake.