A-Z of England : W is for Welbeck Abbey
Some journeys are carefully planned. Some are so unplanned that they don’t count as journeys until they begin to unfold. The local DIY didn’t have any seed trays (they’re out of season they tell me) so I drove to The Dukeries Garden Centre. It’s on the Welbeck Estate. I knew very little about the Estate and what I did know served to deepen rather than to illuminate my ignorance.
As garden centres go it is rather a good one. The Harley Gallery next door is much better. The Portland Collection is the jewel in its crown. The lighting is suitably dimmed but the displays shine. All of it belongs to the estate. A small selection of books includes a second Folio of Shakespeare from 1632 and letters from Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. The miniature portraits are exquisite. Once again England had exercised its infinite ability to surprise and dumbfound. At best I had expected mugs so unsuitable for drinking out of that they had to pass as art, and some earrings that dangle. The Harley has these as well.
I was being given a glimpse into the workings of a powerful family. What was slowly dawning was that an intended jaunt, to collect flower pots, had landed me slap bang at the heart of English history. It quickly extended beyond the Cavendish and Portland families to the dissolution of the monasteries and the development of agrarian techniques over eight centuries. It took in legends of Robin Hood and extended to exploiting of commercial opportunities in the twenty first century.
In brief the Welbeck Estate is part of a series of Ducal desmesne in this part of the world. They are all within the bounds of the original Sherwood Forest. It had been a monastery. The man who came to own it, and all of its thousands of acres, was the same man sent, by Thomas Cromwell, to pass judgement on how it operated. He decided it would operate better as a private house. His private house. With a nod and a wink from a fat king the monks left and centuries of wealth and power were transferred to the family Cavendish.
Next door to the gallery was a café where they knew how to poach eggs but not how to serve them. Across the yard was the best food shop I’d been in for a month or two. This was more like it. I buy a flat rib “Jacob’s Ladder” of beef and two big pieces of cheese: one made on the estate and one from Somerset which looked very good.
“What would go well with that?” I ask.
The girl smiles and suggests something sweet.
“Like a plum chutney?” I suggest.
“Oh yes. That would work well.”
“Or a big bar of chocolate?”
She gives me a winning smile and then serves me an ice cream that makes the journey worthwhile on its own. Along with the Chatsworth farm shop this is the best place to buy good food in north Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire. There used to be a superb food shop in Bolsover but middle class foodies seem happier to visit an aristocratic estate, than an ex-mining town. Welbeck is thriving. Bolsover’s shop is now a funeral parlour.
As I leave the courtyard things look very different. Garden centres are rarely attractive and this is no different. The car park should suffer the same fate but doesn’t. Behind the cars is a Victorian walled garden of impressive proportions; three acres, maybe more.
I take a wander into what look like the campus of an affluent university. Large two storey buildings that would grace Admiralty Arch house a curious array of ventures. One is the School of Artisan Food, another houses one of the biggest, and grandest, indoor riding schools in Europe. A strange, ugly, military annexe houses the Worksop Gymnastics Club. Under an imposing wall and entered into by even more imposing gates is the home of the Welbeck Abbey Bowls Club. I’ve never seen an ugly bowling green and never seen one as attractive as this. (A pity they need a plastic sign to tell you where you are.)
I’m aware that the estate is guarded but major construction schemes mean that the barriers are up. My sole intention is to see the house and enjoy a pleasant drive along a well manicured approach. Some of the impressive rooflines are coming into view at the same time as a gentleman of comfortable girth and determined gait. Something had been telling me that I was being watched. That same something was now telling me that it was a private residence and my presence wasn’t at all welcome. It’s a civilised, though one sided, conversation. I ask if I can take a photograph. I may as well have asked if I could relieve myself against the abbey walls. He doesn’t move until I am well on my way back from whence I came.Out of badness I take a picture of the abbey reflected in a wing mirror.
Few people know very much about the workings of Welbeck and those who do tend to clam up. I’m sure there is nothing secret going on in there but there seems to be some sort of omertà among the employees.
I’m a law abiding fellow but show me a piece of turf with a ‘keep off the grass’ sign and I’ll have a sudden urge to picnic or play French cricket there. I want to know about the Welbeck Estate and there seems a determination on the part of an unseen body that I shouldn’t. It seems odd. There is no equivalent at places like Chatsworth and Blenheim.
It could be partly explained by the fact that the Abbey was leased to the Ministry of Defence until 2005. My security friend had told me that I can book a tour of the place at the Harley Gallery. There the woman smiles and says that the tours are strictly limited and only take place in August. “I’m not certain if they will be going ahead in 2015 but if you watch the website and book then there is a chance you might get in.”
I come back on my bicycle, following the waters that emerge as springs in my village, and flow as streams through the beautiful and deserted limestone valley of the Markland Grips before continuing through Creswell Crags. Here caves have revealed prehistoric paintings and tools. Across the main A60 Worksop to Mansfield road I turn onto a bridal path that takes me into the heart of the estate. The streams have been dammed into a large ornamental lake. It is very peaceful. The path is open to the public but I still have the sense of being watched. Farmers in tractors pause in their ploughing to talk on mobile phones.
But it is glorious. From field to field it changes from arable to forestry. A roe deer jumps out forty yards ahead of me followed a few seconds later by her fawn. Buzzards dance over the newly ploughed land.*
The estate is renowned for underground tunnels. In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson, goes in search of the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland. A man who had 15,000 men digging tunnels and underground chambers and rooms. In addition to twelve miles of tunnels (some wide enough for two horse drawn carriages to pass each other), he oversaw the building of a 250 foot long subterranean library and the biggest ballroom in Britain.** I pass tunnel entrances looking like fortresses. I know of several grand mansions in the area but am surprised to find another between Welbeck and Worksop. The man on the tractor tells me it is Worksop Manor. Once the biggest stately home in Britain it is now a centre for training race horses. (And, inevitably, a place where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned). I know the area well but had no idea it was there.
I continue my stately pedal. The only paths not labelled private involve shouldering the bike and climbing over stiles. I’m happy to do this. The sun is shining and I could almost be back in the nineteenth century.
The beauty of the thousands of acres are kept private. Extraordinary buildings are hidden from view and guarded by veterans. I begin to feel a little sad about this until I remember the food shop and the gallery. The school of artisan food is building a reputation for the training of chefs and food lovers. And then I remember other stately homes: Alton Towers with its roller coasters, Longleat with its zoo and the Welbeck’s secrecy no longer seems such a bad idea.
Footnote: The fifth duke travelled through his underground passages in a sealed carriage into Worksop where people were encouraged to look the other way if they accidentally saw him. He passed through the Lion Gates. These are merely the most impressive of the many gateways into the Welbeck Estate. The wrought iron here would have made quite a contribution to the war effort. When everyone else in Worksop was obliged to give up their railings, nobody thought to ask for these.
*A habit that has given them the nickname of the dancing hawk.
** Notes From a Small Island Bill Bryson Black Swan. pp187 – 193