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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 108

I’m cycling through the Chatsworth estate and singing in full throated ease:


Yes I’m the man, the very fat man, 

That waters the workers’ beer,
And what do I care if it makes them
ill,
If it makes them terribly queer,
I’ve a car and a yacht and an
aeroplane,
And I waters the workers’ beer.

I’ve passed notices and collection boxes on this estate that say things like: “The upkeep of these grounds is expensive. Your donation is appreciated.” Well, it’s nice to know that one of the richest men in England is happy to beg money of those of slender means. I declined the invitation. But I’m entranced. Despite my man of the people singing, you can’t help but admire the parkland. I’d prefer it to belong to the National Trust but it is astonishingly lovely no matter who owns it.

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Like a great deal of eighteenth century parkland in England, this is very much the work of one Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Garden design is an art form when taken to the highest levels. Vita Sackville West was  accomplished enough as a novelist to secure her place in the country’s roll of honour. It is for the gardens that she created at Sissinghurst in Kent that she will be remembered. You can’t beat a well designed garden. I love to walk among the rhododendrons and azaleas at Muncaster Castle. Newstead Abbey is council run and the gardens there do full justice to the memory of Lord Byron and the art of the municipal spadesman.

If you make a mistake in gardening though, it soon becomes obvious. Most garden plants grow, mature and flower in a year,  and those that don’t will have established themselves within a handful of years. If you’ve put them in the wrong place then all you’ve got to do is to dig them out (at the right time of year) and re-plant them somewhere else.

It’s not quite so easy with parkland. First of all the groundworks require skill and patience in planning and enormous man-hours in accomplishing. It takes years for them to bed down and  take on the desired form. Then you have the problem of the planting. Parkland requires mature, slow growing, English broad leaf trees to achieve its desired effect. It could take fifty years to even notice if you’ve planted one of these in the wrong place and a further fifty years for it’s replacement to grow in the right place. Vision is the most over-used word in the world of mediocre management. (I know what I’m talking about here. I’ve been a teacher for nearly thirty years and (with notable exceptions) have experienced some of the most mediocre management the country has produced. Managers who talk of “the vision thing” and who use expressions like “clear sky thinking” and “thinking outside the box” are invariably people who don’t even know where the box is or which way is up. One man who did have the vision thing though, was old Lancelot Brown.

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Here at Chatsworth he diverted the river, re-landscaped the grounds, planted hundreds of trees, over-saw the eviction of tenants and created a work of art. He didn’t look at what he was doing from the point of view of the present but looked instead at how it would appear in fifty or a hundred years. Almost every landscape in Britain is man made in that what you see is the result of human activity.  The land I am cycling through is almost exclusively man made. It really is a stunning achievement.

The road is going up and down like a wave machine. Old Capability liked his humps and his hollers. It’s by far the most tiring terrain to cycle, because it gives you the impression you can go fast. It’s like the PE exercise older teachers used to call fartlek, and the new, trendy ones, with their initials on the chest of their matching track suits, call interval training. It’s slow, flat out, slow, fast, very slow, sprint. Within fifteen minutes I’m deadbeat.

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Stopping under a tree and eating a Mars bar and finishing off the large bottle of cola I bought in Cheadle, I look down at the house. It has been in more films than most British actors. Many visitors think of it as the big house out of Pride and Prejudice and it’s been the family home of the Cavendish family; otherwise known as the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire; since it was sold to the first Duke by his brother, the son of original owner and builder; Bess of Hardwick. Bess was an attractive woman in her way and she made it her life’s work to marry and see off a succession of extraordinarily rich husbands. They brought vast wealth and huge estates to the union; she brought her not inconsiderable physical charms. They had their ways of making a living in the sixteenth century that involved emptying other people’s pockets. Today the 12th duke is able to stand by the cash registers as hordes of visitors get charged £65 for a family ticket that lets them see not only parts of the house, most of the garden and even (gasp at the value for money), the farmyard.

In addition to the house, the parkland, a working farm and a large number of other tenant farms across the whole of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, the estate has priceless paintings by old masters, a collection of classical and neo-classical sculptures and some books that only a Getty could afford to take off their hands. The Duke, Peregrine Cavendish and the Duchess (the former Amanda Carmen Heywood-Lonsdale) live in one of the most desirable residences on the planet while assorted children, cousins, step sisters and hangers on contemplate the accidental but entirely fatal mini-bus accident that would bring them wealth, riches and leisure beyond their wildest dreams.

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In recent times the family has shown themselves in step with the egalitarian nature of the modern world. In 2010 the Duke announced his intention to renounce his title on the grounds that the aristocracy isn’t what it used to be if and the toffs can’t run the country then what is the point. His son and heir has shown similar man of the people tendencies in declining the right to be known as the Marquess of Hartington, preferring the altogether more plebeian Earl of Burlington.

I get back on my bicycle and pedal past the village of Edensor which was built especially for the estate workers, and onwards towards the little town of Baslow. I’ve got my breath back and I’m once more in fine voice and belting out the words of the Woody Guthrie song. It is hard to believe that it is the twenty first century.

“This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the red-wood forests to the gulf stream waters

This land belongs to you and me.”

photo by Wesley Trevor Johnson

I don’t think I’ll get much of a sing song going. And then it’s dilemma time. There’s a farm shop on the estate, and it is no ordinary farm shop. It is one of the finest food emporiums in the East Midlands. Here you can buy a whole or half grass fed lamb, all neatly jointed and presented in a cardboard box, organic beef that has been well hung, venison, partridge, grouse and pheasant. Much of the meat comes from the estate. You can enjoy breads and pies baked on site. There are fish and seafood and all sorts of produce and provender from the better northern suppliers. The revolution will have to wait. I’m joining the queue for potted shrimps and a freshly churned ice-cream. The movement of money from poor to rich in England claims yet another victim.