24 February 2013

All Change

When I arrived at Chatsworth on Tuesday there was a circus atmosphere, with horse muck being swept away after a hunt meet and crowds of families surging up from the car park toward the adventure playground. In the stable yard, the tables were adorned with very peculiar-looking purple plastic chairs. Anything a bit different and nutty like that I usually like, because it's the opposite of what the National Trust would do. But, oh dear, Elisabeth Frink's War Horse, and indeed her "Head" were both plonked in there too, with people taking turns to sit on the horse. The life-sized animal used to stand proudly by the canal, looking over Paxton's incredible jet of water with the South Front of the house beyond. Things have changed.
"Future generations will no doubt change much of it," writes the Duchess of Devonshire (now the Dowager Duchess) in her entertaining book The Garden at Chatsworth. "Inhabited by its own family who have ensured that it is unfrozen and malleable is the reason this house and garden have stayed alive over the centuries." How true. I am met by the garden administrator and we pass through a door, down a passage (nicely frozen: painted in gloss buff to the shoulder line, with a narrow black band and pale pink above). Out of another door is the garden: empty, vast, sunny, peaceful.

Because I am sent around by a "well-to-do magazine" I sometimes find myself in these amazing spots. It doesn't matter that there are no flowers besides a few snowdrops. The "genius of the place",  to coin a phrase, reveals itself. This is also possible with crowds of people but it is a different kind of experience. Since these were made as pleasure gardens it follows that there should be people looking around. When I was gardening at Cottesbrooke last year I felt sad that the garden was almost always empty, except for the people grooming it. As DD says in her book: "It is the visitors who make a cheerful atmosphere."
 Even so, without people I have a soul-enriching tour. By the gardeners' workshop I find some discarded bits of statuary and immediately take a picture of the pair of bunnies: new garden ornaments could take something from these simple lines. Next to them are some very ornate but equally charming lion heads, which seem to have a story to tell. On opening the Garden book at home, they are the first thing I see on the frontispiece: a lovely informal vignette of self-seeded flowers in front of a stone bench. On either side of the steps leading up are these same lion heads, in pride of place.