Monday, August 20, 2012
Nobody seems to know where the Peak District is. Despite the fact that it is right smack in the middle of England, surrounded by four major airports, and just 91 minutes by train from London, it seems to get overlooked in favor of other UK travel destinations or confused with the Lake District or Yorkshire.
It’s funny that the region is so little known, though, not least because the Peak District and Derbyshire—with which it overlaps—are famous settings for the likes of Jane Austen novels and Jane Eyre films.
In fact, there are at least three stately homes in the region that feature in a number of well-known films. One is Chatsworth, the residence of the Duke of Devonshire and the home of Mr. Darcy in the most recent film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
A second is Kedleston Hall, which plays a starring role in the movie The Duchess.
A third is Haddon Hall, a medieval fairytale of an estate where all of the millions of TV and movie versions of Jane Eyre have been filmed.
Given the Peak District’s famous film locations and my love of all things historic, when VisitEngland invited me to travel to the region to experience the three properties firsthand, I couldn’t say no.
On Saturday morning I boarded a big red bus with a group of other travel bloggers and journalists and spent four hours heading north to Derbyshire. We arrived at our hotel, Breadsall Priory, in the afternoon just as the sun was illuminating the beautiful gardens and golf courses.
I checked into my room, which was spacious and light, then headed to a historic part of the hotel for a big buffet lunch overlooking a manicured lawn with a fountain. It was there that I learned that the hotel was over 700 years old and used to belong to Charles Darwin’s family. Not bad!
As if that wasn’t enough history, our first stop in the Peak District was Chatsworth. The stunning stately home stood proudly, surrounded by dazzling green gardens and a bucolic stream.
Inside Chatsworth was a wealth of art ranging from Old Masters to contemporary works. In addition, there were impressive collections of everything from Neoclassical sculpture (including the fake bust of Mr. Darcy created for the filming of Pride and Prejudice) to first edition books.
The library alone was enough to make me want to move in, park myself in front of the fireplace, and never leave. But the grounds outside were enough to lure me into the fresh air, what with the stunning water feature and the historic hunting tower that can now be rented out for short stays.
After exploring Chatsworth, we made a quick stop for afternoon tea in a nearby village called Edensor, where the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire lives. The thick slices of carrot cake and copious cups of tea gave us the energy we needed for our next stately home tour in Derbyshire: Kedleston Hall.
Kedleston was just as impressive as Chatsworth, what with its Robert Adam-designed Palladian architecture and undulating grounds full of pretty bridges and woolly sheep. The house was used extensively for the filming of The Duchess, but its real history was equally fascinating.
In particular, the story of young Mary Curzon—an American heiress who became Baroness Curzon of Kedleston and Vicereine of India—piqued my curiosity. She not only held the highest position an American woman ever had in the British Empire, but also served as the model for Lady Grantham in the popular TV series Downton Abbey.
After learning all about Kedleston Hall and the films that were made there, we went outside to watch Pride and Prejudice at an outdoor cinema in the garden. It was amazing to watch the film in the area where the footage was shot, and great to see scenes that were filmed at Chatsworth and other parts of the Peak District.
And there were some added bonuses. First, we had a gorgeous picnic dinner with local food from around Derbyshire, including wine made in the area. Additionally, the landscape behind the screen matched the setting of the film perfectly, and the baa-ing of so many sheep was a very authentic addition to the audio portion of the film.
Yesterday morning we woke up early and were off to our third stately home tour in Derbyshire: Haddon Hall. Older and more medieval than Chatsworth and Kedleston, Haddon Hall was reminiscent of Hampton Court Palace, with its 15th-century wooden interiors.
Much of the furniture was original, which was great to see, as were the medieval kitchens and stunning woodcarvings in the drawing room. In the Long Gallery there was an exhibition with costumes from the various versions of Jane Eyre that had been filmed in Haddon Hall.
Outside were beautiful gardens. They were wilder than the ones at the other stately homes we visited, but just as stunning. In the distance were stone bridges over rivers and curious cows grazing in the fields.
Closer in was a Norman chapel that featured stunning art and beautiful woodwork.
The sense of history that pervaded the whole estate made Haddon Hall my favorite of the three stately homes I toured in the Peak District.
After our visit, we drove down the road to The Peacock at Rowlsey Bed and Breakfast. The hotel was a preferred place to stay for the likes of Keira Knightley, Dame Judy Dench, and other celebrities while they filmed in Derbyshire.
We weren’t there to stay, though, but to experience the restaurant. The hotel set up a private dining room for us, and served an excellent meal of pea soup, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and all the trimmings one would expect from a proper Sunday Roast.
While we ate, we learned about the movie stars that had stayed at The Peacock at Rowlsey. We even got to see the guest book they signed and the DVDs they autographed for the hotel. It was a fitting way to end our travels in the Peak District given that they had focused so much on film.
But that wasn’t the only thing there was to do in the region. There were plenty of places for adventure travel, outdoor activities, shopping, retail therapy, and more. There were even bizarre little towns like Matlock, which reminded me of Brighton or Llandudno with its endless variety of fish and chip shops and carnivalesque atmosphere.
Now that I know how close the Peak District and Derbyshire are to London, I might head back on my own to explore more of the region. Or just to reenact historic novels at my favorite stately homes.