A family Christmas at Haddon Hall

PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 December 2018

The candlelit chapel Photo: Ian Daisley

The candlelit chapel Photo: Ian Daisley

ian daisley

Pat Ashworth talks to Lady Edward Manners about Christmas at the Hall where they’ll be celebrating the first family Christmas for 300 years

View to the courtyard from the entrance Photo: KahlerView to the courtyard from the entrance Photo: Kahler

There’s something eminently fitting about this year’s Christmas theme at Haddon Hall. The manor house – dating from the 12th century and considered one of the best preserved and most romantic houses in Britain – lay dormant for over 200 years from 1700, becoming the stuff of fairy tales as the ivy covered its walls and the briars curled up around it.

So where better to find Sleeping Beauty than in the glorious Long Gallery with its ancient tapestries and mullioned windows? It’s a room that breathes history and legend from every pore. Christmas visitors will see it transformed into an enchanted forest of trees and toadstools and dusky roses, with a silken bed and a princess… all part of Once Upon A Time, created by designer, Julie Mellor and a team that loves Haddon with a passion.

There’ll be the lasts and leather of the Elves and the Shoemaker in the Orange Chamber; Grandma’s knitting in Red Riding Hood’s cottage in the Parlour, and Cinderella in the Great Chamber – with a stunning ballgown created from foliage by florist David Jayet-Laraffe, ‘elaborate and really high,’ Julie says with satisfaction. ‘We didn’t want frocks from panto – that’s just not us. We wanted to go for something a lot more natural.’

Where else would you find Goldilocks and the Three Bears but in one of the glories of Haddon – the kitchen, originally dating from 1370 and marvellously Tudor with its stone baking ovens and chopping blocks. I’m here at the approach of Hallowe’en, and it’s full of eager children on half-term, making lollipops and constructing nosegays from herbs and fragrant flowers to ward off bad humours.

Dried fruit and ribbons on the branches of the hall's largest tree Photo: Andrew EyleyDried fruit and ribbons on the branches of the hall's largest tree Photo: Andrew Eyley

Upstairs in the State Bedroom will be the massive Wish Tree on which visitors for the past three Christmases have suspended their hearts’ desires. ‘People remember it and ask for it. In January, we sit down and cry over the tags as we take them off the tree. They speak of people who are ill, loved ones who have passed away… it’s always very moving,’ Julie says.

For Lady Edward Manners, what happens at Christmas is very much part of what the family is making of Haddon since they moved in two years ago – the first time for 300 years that it has been a family home. The contrast with when she first saw it, cold, dark and shrouded in dust sheets, couldn’t be more marked now that it’s alive with children and dogs. Christmas is ‘an opportunity to fill every nook and cranny with candles, and bring the house to life with all that celebration and decoration,’ she says happily.

Growing up, she spent most Christmases away from home, so Christmas at Haddon with young children is ‘the chance to really go for it, really create something.’ Weaving a storybook element into the traditional decorations has, she says, made a deeper connection with visiting children, whose feedback frequently includes the words ‘fairy tale’. You feel it as you cross the ancient, cobbled inner courtyard: an experience so authentic and perfect that it almost has to be a film set (and has been on many occasions). Every doorway is a vista. And that turret in the corner will lend itself enchantedly to Rapunzel’s plaited hair…

Sometimes you do have to pinch yourself that Haddon is authentic, Lady Edward agrees, reflecting that the house is still revealing its secrets as the family gets more and more involved. ‘The discovery is still going on,’ she says.

A stunning Christmas display takes pride of place in the banqueting hallA stunning Christmas display takes pride of place in the banqueting hall

‘When the oak steps in the Long Gallery had to be removed, we sifted through the pile of accumulated dust and out came coins and glass. We’ve found a musical instrument dating from medieval times, a garter on a knitting needle, like an action shot… The research element is very strong. That’s when I know how much more there is to learn about how it was lived in and cooked in and celebrated at Christmas. But I’ve explored the the house intimately and I think it likes that.’

The golden light changes in the Long Gallery are one of her favourite things. But mostly what she loves is that Haddon is ‘first and foremost a home. Having visitors reinforces that, really. There are no ropes, and you’re allowed to explore.

‘Visitors are almost guests here. Please relax, don’t rush, enjoy it… There are so many joyful elements of Chrismas such as the decorations made with fresh greenery from the gardens, the local choirs and bellringers who perform in the firelit Banqueting Hall. Haddon has its own community and that comes out really strongly at Christmas.’

She pays warm tribute to the estate team for helping to bring about an experience that is enjoyable and multi-generational. They scour Derbyshire for the finest work for the mid-November showcase that is the Christmas Artisan Market, and continue to work on development areas such as music at Haddon – a particular passion of Lady Edward’s. Nothing delighted her more than unearthing a piece of medieval music in the course of her explorations.

The table is set for a Christmas feastThe table is set for a Christmas feast

‘Music just wafts through this house. It brings it alive,’ she observes of the programme that has seen performances increase from three a year to more than 20. She is delighted that Buxton Music Festival wants to connect with Haddon and equally pleased at the prospect of the myriad community groups who will be singing and playing here during the 23 days of the Christmas festival – from the Tideswell Singers to the Dronfield Handbells and the lute music of Ayres and Graces.

And not forgetting carol services in the Chapel, for 
those who work on the estate. Then there are Candlelight Tours, the Christmas Menu in the restaurant and storytelling in the Parlour. ‘It’s going to be extraordinary,’ Lady Edward concludes. There’ll be celebrations too in the private part of the house, where she has just taken delivery of a box of her favourite Christmas tree decorations – blown glass baubles discovered on a holiday to Malta but ‘not to be opened until 1st December,’ she says firmly.


Glass angels add to the sense of occasionGlass angels add to the sense of occasion

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