A look at the Christmas season at Tissington Hall
PUBLISHED: 13:05 27 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:03 05 December 2019
As Tissington Hall prepares for its sixth Christmas opening, Pat Ashworth discovers what is in store for visitors
When it comes to putting on Christmas for the visitors, they like to be a little bit different at Tissington Hall. A house dating back to the early 17th century has amassed quantities of stuff over the generations, and the designer of the festive experience, David Walker, exults that he gets to 'raid the Hall for three months, wandering around saying, "Can I have this?"'
So an ancient typewriter discovered in an old cupboard was just the thing when they had a Peter Pan theme, providing the perfect centrepiece for J M Barrie's desk in the Library. And while few visitors would have known that the overflowing treasure chest was perfectly authentic and actually full of the family silver, the incorporation of things not routinely on display here is one of the things people love about the experience. It's a place where you are likely to find a Roy of the Rovers annual as much prized as an ancient artefact.
Tissington starts off with an advantage: this beautiful gated village with its church, Hall, teashop and contentedly grazing cows resembles a film set for Miss Marple. Add a frosty Christmas season to the mix and it's pure enchantment. This year's theme, Star of Wonder, is inspired by familiar Christmas carols, imaginatively matched to the different rooms on the tour and beginning with Silent Night, a recreation of the truce between British and German troops in No Man's Land in 1914.
Upstairs, visitors will for the first time be able to see the servants' quarters, and the long corridor trodden by generations of household staff is set to be one of the highlights of the tour. It becomes a fantasy country lane for 'In the Bleak Midwinter', lined with trees and magical with falling snow. And then there's 'O Holy Night' in a shuttered room, where a Nativity beneath suspended stars will be beautifully depicted in silhouettes. Children can 'follow the star' here this Christmas and hunt for stars all over the house.
There are delights too numerous to mention - stand on one of the upstairs landings and you'll be treated to 'Carol of the Bells' with real bells, suspended like the chandeliers. Part of the lure for those who come each year and for whom a visit to Tissington is the start of Christmas, is seeing the familiar rooms transformed.
Take the Dining Room, for example. When the Hall had a Charles Dickens theme, this was the natural setting in which to find Miss Havisham (of Great Expectations) and the cobwebby wedding breakfast that had never taken place. It was nothing if not authentic: the withered flowers on the table were real flowers, gathered fresh and placed for six months in the cellars of the Hall.
The room will be unrecognisable as a dining room this year, but hospitality is still very much the emphasis, with visitors transported to the sumptuous setting of a Bedouin tent for 'We Three Kings'. It is to be a golden opulence of ostrich plumes and sari fabrics, fragrant with frankincense and myrrh, and I can tell that David Walker and his team of five regular Tissington Hall staff just can't wait to get in here and work their magic.
And magic it is. Narnia was one previous theme, when visitors stepped through the fur coats ('belonging to a deceased aunt,' Sir Richard remembers) hanging in a giant wardrobe ('one we found in the attics') to emerge into a kingdom of snow. David recalls with amusement the occasion when he politely waited to accompany an elderly woman on crutches via an alternative and more accessible route. 'I said to her, "Would you like to come this way if it will be easier?" And she said, "Like hell I would. I've wanted to do this since I was six years old."'
Sir Richard credits Lady Fiona with the idea of opening the Hall for a period at Christmas, building on the popularity of ghost stories told by candlelight. Derbyshire abounds with great houses and its people are almost spoiled for choice in the festive season, but Tissington was designed from the start to be different. It was not to be a big budget extravaganza and it was to benefit the upkeep and continuing restoration of the house. They're proud to have done it for £500 in the first year, five years ago: something achieved, says Sir Richard, by thinking outside the box and using the Hall's existing resources.
'It's about the celebration of the home but also the preservation of the home,' he reflects. 'It's our house but we want it to be as successful as possible for everyone. Each year, we're able to restore a bit more with the entrance money. People do feel they've contributed, by supporting the event and helping the house carry on for generations. It was entertaining people in 1509 and it's still entertaining, but now it's for the public.'
They'd experimented with a craft fair at Christmas but concluded that such an event didn't really fit the bill. 'Then David, who'd been talking to Fiona, rang up and said, "You've got an asset and I've got an idea... let's turn the house into something from Dickens at Christmas",' Sir Richard remembers. David owns and runs Edward and Vintage, the authentically 1940s sweetshop in the village, which he created from a run-down cottage. He relished the challenge of the enterprise. 'I see the place with the eye of someone coming to visit, and ask myself, "What would I want?"' he says.
What visitors like are houses where the family still live and where they can get to meet the owner. Sir Richard takes time out to be here as one of the guides at Christmas and to 'give them a show', something acknowledged as one of the keys to Tissington's success. We're sitting comfortably in the Library, with ancient tomes floor to ceiling and late October sunshine streaming through the bay of an Arts and Crafts window. They don't fully decorate in here - it has what David describes as 'two of the heaviest sofas you've ever tried to move in your life…' but it's seen some fine centrepieces on the long table, not least an eight-foot crocodile with an alarm clock in its jaws.
Christmas 2019 has been in the planning since January, when coach companies do theirs, and it marries nicely with Ghost Stories by Candlelight, a regular winter event of blazing fire, flickering candles and mulled wine. I get to step out on to the roof of the Hall and take in the whole sweep of the landscape as well as getting a bird's-eye view of the stone path to the door through which the Christmas visitors will come. They'll be met by flaming torches and twinkling lights and I can't wait to see it all.
Star of Wonder runs from 22nd November to 8th December.
* Photographs taken in 2018