The Chatsworth estate, Derby-shire. I am overwhelmed by marketing literature. I am prostrate. I am weeping.
I am staying in one of the Duke of Devonshire’s barns, renovated into a one-bedroom ‘cottage’ with no interior doors. Maybe it was home to a horse once, maybe not; I do not know. I am a short walk from the Chatsworth Estate Farm Shop and Café, a longer walk from a branch of the Devonshire Arms, and 20 minutes from the Cavendish Restaurant, which is definitely in the stables at Chatsworth. (You probably want me to say something about Chatsworth House. OK. It is almost as ugly as Blenheim Palace.) I know this because the cottage is full of marketing literature with photographs of the duke — ‘Peregrine’ or ‘Stoker’ — and his wife ‘Amanda’ (no recorded nickname), smiling at me with papery and covetous malice. ‘We’re delighted you’re here,’ says one. ‘The Best of Friends,’ says another, with a direct debit form on the back. This is the marketing strategy of Chatsworth, and it is the most duplicitous and effective I have ever known: give us your money and we will be friends with you. Really? In a planet without inheritance tax the leaflet would surely say: ‘Peregrine, release the hounds. [And get the shot-gun for the more persistent ones.]’
Chippy, you may say. Well, yes. The Devonshires are a marvel of fortune and industry. Their estate is almost anti-Baroque in its efficiency and gloss, a flurry of teal doors on green hills; it is an antithesis of what we have learnt to consider poshness, which is stupid men (from banging heads on small medieval doorways and marrying chorus girls?) and women wandering around with dead animals in their hair saying ‘Call me Amanda. Duchess is a dog’s name.’ Would any dedicated toff insist on a title? It’s so needy! A says it is because they are Whigs.
The thing is, I liked them — well, I forgave them — until, after extensive analysis of their website, I learnt that they employ school leavers for £330 a month. Also, they require a head housekeeper for ‘a great deal of entertaining on both a formal and informal basis’. What about me? The leaflet said we were friends! I watched a documentary in which the duke and duchess asked gardeners to hold up bronze statues until their fingers ached — but they smiled on chirpily! — and in which Stoker responded to Amanda’s interior decoration ideas with a series of insane yet disinterested repetitions of the word ‘brilliant’.
To the food. The Cavendish is fine dining in the stables. You know it is fine dining because it is carpeted like a cruise ship in bold, easy-to-Hoover shapes. There is waitress service — friendly segueing to cowed — and the Devonshire crest, a serpent, is burned into the glass. (Go in the gardens and they will stamp you with the serpent for re-admission.) The food is excellent — A has pork loin and mash and I, living in a stable, succumbed to a ploughman’s. None of this is as interesting as the gift shop, with which I have developed a dark and consuming obsession. Under a sign saying ‘Duchess’s Choice’ you are invited to buy her mother-in-law Deborah’s book about the internal lives of chickens. The duke pushes socks and a book about local barn interiors. What is this but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past on a wave of crested lemon thins and Mr Darcy porn? Where is the languor? Gone, all gone. You will find it at nearby Haddon Hall, which is lovelier and more ancient than Chatsworth; a dusty rope, a sub-standard gift shop, empty rooms. I am certain there are people living in homage to the Devonshire lifestyle all over Britain; this is both the worst thing the aristocracy have ever done, and the reason they continue to enjoy such cracked affection.