Travels through Middle England

Just returned from my road trip around the part of England that is sandwiched between the north (Yorkshire, Northumberland etc) and the south (Somerset, Wiltshire etc). It’s the area that in the past I’ve rushed through en route to somewhere else.

This year however we decided to stop and look. Over the course of almost two weeks we traversed Derbyshire (home of the renowned Peak District National Park), Leicestershire and Warwickshire. We saw stunning scenery, picturesque villages oodles of historic buildings and, finally, a Jacobean tragedy which oozed more blood on stage than I have ever seen previously.

Let’s begin with Derbyshire.

Even if you’ve never heard of this place you might know of it via the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice since this is where Lizzie Bennett takes a holiday with her aunt and uncle. Cue lots of shots of dramatic scenery and of course that view of Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s ancestral home. We never got there but we did manage to visit another modest abode: Chatsworth House, home of 16 generations of the Cavendish family.

This is the rear view from the vast gardens landscaped by “Capability” Brown. It’s only a part of the estate – missing from this view are the fountains, a rock garden (I say rocks but these were ginormous boulders); meadows, stables etc etc.

Less grand but teeming with atmosphere was our next destination: Haddon Hall. It’s a fabulous example of an English medieval and Tudor country house. The chapel dates from the 12th century and bears many of the original frescos and wall decorations.

Some of you might recognise this house too – it’s been used as a film set on multiple locations including three versions of Jane Eyre. Elizabeth (the version starring Cate Blanchett) and  The Other Boleyn Girl.

It was empty from about the 1740s except for a caretaker but in the 1920s the Duke of Rutland (owner of the house) decided to restore it and the gardens. The current holder of the dukedom lives with his family in Haddon Hall. All I can say is that they must have a greater tolerance of draughts than I do. The house is spectacularly atmospheric but it doesn’t come with central heating and there is only so much a tapestry can do to keep out the icy blasts…….

PS: If you visit Haddon Hall do try the cream-filled scones in the tea shop.

And then to Lincolnshire and the town of Stamford which has more than its fair share of historic buildings though these are more modern being from the late 18th and mid 19th centuries. Sadly there was far too much traffic to capture on my camera.

But once again we have a literary connection for the town was used by the BBC as  a location for the adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I whiled away a few hours delving around corners and going into various courtyards in search of places I could recognise from the series. I never did find the building used as home of Dr Lydgate and his wife Rosamund but I did wander into St Martin’s square which was used for the memorable scene of the election hustings.  The photo shows filming in action. The building at the rear is now the tourist information centre.

Stamford also boasts a superb Elizabethan dwelling set in a massive parkland. Burghley House was built by Sir William Cecil, Lord Treasurer and trusted aide to Queen Elizabeth 1. 

Looking at the ornate nature of those chimneys and all the windows you can understand why it took 30 years to complete this structure. It was designed to impress visitors with the wealth and status of its owner. Sadly Elizabeth never got to see it. She was due to arrive with her entourage but there was an outbreak of smallpox in the house so it wasn’t deemed safe….

For my next destination we stayed in the sixteenth century. I’ve been to Stratford Upon Avon several times but have never seen a play in the Swan Theatre.

What a special place in which to see a play. It’s housed in a Victorian Gothic building at the rear of the main RSC building and is designed around a thrust stage which means if you are sitting at ground level you are within just a few feet of the actors. For the production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, this meant we got to see the blood in great detail.

And boy was there plenty of it to see. You get to expect with Jacobean tragedy that there will be blood and lots of bodies ( I counted eight in this production). But this had blood like I have never seen before on stage.

At one point a lake of formed and spread across almost the entire stage, in which the actors rolled and fell and fought. By the end there was barely a cast member who wasn’t caked with the stuff. I know the costume people at the RSC are masters at creating different kinds of blood but they seemed to have gone for a particularly viscous product this time around. It had a sticky, oily look to it that must have been a nightmare to wash out…. Fortunately we were not in the front room because otherwise we’d have been asked to wear capes to protect our own coats from splashes……

An incoherent play but as a theatrical experience this was unsurpassable. And what a way to end our holiday. It was yet another reminder of the treasure of delights that is in my backyard (well not far away). I’ve travelled far and wide across the world and will do so again soon. But I’m coming to realise that you don’t have to go too far to be entertained and stimulated.

Has that been your experience too? Are there some magical places in your home country that you keep thinking you should visit – but never seem to get around to following through on that idea?



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