Visiting Casterne Hall at Christmas
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 December 2017
Pat Ashworth visits Casterne Hall, the home of Charles and Caroline Hurt
Photographs by Andrew Eyley
THE THOUSANDS of ramblers who walk the Wetton trail above Ilam each year will have passed by Casterne Hall, a tall and exquisitely proportioned Georgian mansion standing proudly aloft the hilltop. For visitors driving up the steep and open ground to the house, it hugs its presence to itself until the very last bend on the track, when it reveals itself with a flourish clearly intended to say, ‘Surprised you!’
There are Bronze, Iron and even Stone Age remains in the fields around here, and there’s been a dwelling of some sort or another on this spot at least since Roman times. Charles Hurt’s family acquired it around 1480. I ask him what it feels like to inhabit a place where so many of his ancestors lived and he’s refreshingly matter-of-fact about all that. ‘All this stuff about old families is a lot of nonsense really,’ he suggests. ‘All families are old families when you think about it. Some families kept records and some didn’t. It’s as simple as that.’
The family decamped to Alderwasley in 1690. This estate had been given to their ancestors by Edward I in 1284 in exchange for a horse – ‘A very good bay stallion, apparently,’ Charles says with a smile. The move left Casterne to be handed down to younger brothers, one of whom – Nicholas – pulled it down and rebuilt it almost exactly as it appears now. The front of the house is 1735 but the rear of the house retains many vestiges of the medieval dwelling.
The wind is gusting round but I’m sitting in the large warm kitchen, with a coffee and one of Caroline Hurt’s chocolate brownies. She’s a trained chef, which partly accounts for the popularity of the Christmas tours and teas that the couple have been running for the last few years. ‘They were Caroline’s idea,’ Charles acknowledges. ‘I said, “You’re mad, no-one will turn out at that time of year”, but we sell out every time. Some people come back time and time again.’
They come to share in the enjoyment of a house decorated in the traditional way for Christmas, an endeavour that takes five days to complete. Holly, ivy and large quantities of moss come from the garden and grounds; Caroline has a collection of antique decorations and the house is illuminated with up to 300 candles. ‘An old-fashioned Christmas in a family house. We light all the fires on the ground floor and our guests can wander round at their leisure and sit in any room they like,’ Charles says.
‘Mulled wine, homemade Christmas cake, mince pies, scones, crumpets, Christmas canapés, sandwiches…’ – the abundance of the tea menu prepared by Caroline and her daughter, Francesca, has echoes of Ratty’s famous picnic hamper in The Wind in the Willows. They’re doing two Christmas lunches as well this year, one for a Huddersfield gardening group and another for a car enthusiasts’ club, who’ll enjoy driving up here in their sports cars. As Charles says, ‘It all helps to keep the roof on. We are very lucky to live here but it needs to make a bit of money for itself.’
He moved here 20 years ago, when his resident father became infirm, and married Caroline, Lady FitzHerbert, in 2011. He pays tribute to her for the transformation of a house that was ‘quite austere, with no softening touches. It is friendly now,’ he says. The ghosts are benign too: Charles has never seen the elderly lady dancing with two children but others have, and a farmer’s wife once took him aside to ask him whether he knew that when the house was rented out at one point, one room had been hired by a lady to give dancing lessons to local children.
We ascend via short flights of a Jacobean staircase to what is now the guest floor, with a living room and four beautifully appointed bedrooms for visiting friends or for B&B accommodation. These large rooms were originally created for Nicholas Hurt’s four servants, who must have been the best accommodated in the whole of England. The bathroom has the best view of all, up the valley on the Wetton track, but the views on all sides are stunning, through Tudor windows at the back in some cases, and Georgian windows at the front.
Windows have loomed large for Charles Hurt. Fourteen of them were blocked, remnants of the window tax, when he came here. He’s unblocked 11 so far, the site of some of these just detectable by slight changes in the panelling – itself a survivor of a 17th century house dating from around 1600 and about which little is known. There are around 30 windows in all at Casterne Hall and next year, they’ll all need painting.
No-one really knows who the architect was, but the house has a striking resemblance to Calke Abbey. ‘It looks very like a town house in the middle of the countryside. The front of it makes a very strong statement,’ Charles suggests. ‘At the time Nicholas Hurt rebuilt it, the family were cousins of the Harpurs at Calke, the biggest house in Derbyshire. The fronts of the two houses are reminiscent of each other. Casterne is tiny in comparison but I’m sure they used the same master mason.’
The house has lost none of its period features but it looks and feels comfortably lived-in and Charles Hurt is pleased about that. ‘We do show it off the whole time but it is a family house and that’s what people love,’ he says. ‘It’s got a good vibe to it. It’s very much what it is. When people come on a tour, they spend as much time looking at the family photographs as at the paintings on the wall, and that’s really nice.’
He just manages to catch and dismiss the cat – ‘Puss, don’t go down there’ – before it vanishes down the precipitously steep steps that lead off the drawing room into the cellars. We peer into the depths.
‘You’re looking down here at what was the ground floor of a medieval or Roman house, depending on who you listen to. It’s all very, very ancient,’ he says, noting that the Wetton track, which leads to the old lead mines, is itself a Roman road. In the fields beyond, lies the body of a Roman soldier buried with a lump of lead: evidence of early mining activity. ‘The lead mines still exist that were built by my family in the 15th century,’ he says with respect. ‘Amazingly well built. They’re blocked up now but a dropped stone will fall 400 feet.’
Back in the kitchen, itself transformed from one that ‘could have been taken straightaway to the V&A’, we reflect on the fortunes of Casterne Hall. It had frequently been tenanted and went out of the family altogether for a spell from 1919, when Charles’ great-uncle Francis, who lived at Alderwasley, was faced with crippling death duties equating to around £8 million.
‘Like all these places, it was land-rich and cash-poor. He started divvying things up and then sold the house, the land, everything, lock, stock and barrel. What is here is what remained,’ he says. ‘My parents bought it back in 1951 at the request of the farmers, who said they couldn’t cope any more. So they did.’
His parents couldn’t have foreseen the popularity of the house for filmmaking – it’s been a location for films as various as Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Far From the Madding Crowd and Jonathan Creek. Many of the people who stay here, in the B&B and in the holiday flat (there’ll soon be four more of those) come for the walking, and Charles – a walker himself and author of Peak District walking guides – is very happy about that.
‘Around 30,000 are reckoned to pass by here each year. On a Saturday in August, you’ll get two or three hundred. And even on the most miserable day in February, there’ll be two or three.’ Christmas is a story in itself. ‘People seem to like it,’ he says. ‘We get fantastic feedback.’