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The Hardwick Experience - a guided tour of the county’s Elizabethan masterpiece

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 July 2017 | UPDATED: 15:52 22 February 2018

Hardwick Hall from the south-west

Hardwick Hall from the south-west

mike smith

From the renovated Stableyard to the splendours of the state rooms, Mike Smith tours Derbyshire’s precious Elizabethan masterpiece with volunteer guide Jane Gregory

The High Great Presence ChamberThe High Great Presence Chamber

The ‘Hardwick experience’ begins for visitors well before they reach Bess of Hardwick’s great hall. From its hill-top location, this magnificent cathedral of a house dominates the surrounding countryside in much the same way as Lincoln Cathedral, 40 miles to the east, dominates the flatlands of Lincolnshire. In the words of the topographical writer Henry Thorold, ‘the six great towers of Hardwick seem to beckon the traveller from far and near.’

Since 2012, the final leg of the approach to the hall has followed a long loop around the perimeter walls of the house, which open up at one point to provide a mesmerising view from the east of the long and perfectly symmetrical façade of the building. Famed as ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’, the house has an array of huge windows that grow in size as the building soars upwards.

The approach road ends in a large car park and a reception area at the entrance to the beautifully restored buildings of the 400-year-old Stableyard, which have become an important part of the Hardwick visitor experience. The Great Barn Restaurant, with eating areas on two levels below a spectacular ceiling of restored original wooden beams, has a menu with seasonal ingredients selected by the head chef and the head gardener from Hardwick’s herb and vegetable gardens. Alongside the Great Barn, there is a shop selling local produce and gifts, a plant shop and a small book shop with a wood-burning stove to give extra atmosphere and browsing comfort.

A patio area behind the restaurant contains additional seating and provides extensive views over the surrounding countryside. The large lawn in front of the stables block is enclosed by a wall pierced at its centre by a step-gabled gateway, perfectly placed to give a straight-on view of one of Hardwick’s towers that sits centre-stage at the head of a long avenue in the gardens of the hall.

The Long Gallery with the Gideon Tapestry on the leftThe Long Gallery with the Gideon Tapestry on the left

The long cobbled path that leads from the Stableyard to the hall runs along the outside of a boundary wall. To the right, there are glimpses above the wall of Bess’ carved initials, E.S. (Elizabeth Shrewsbury), which are placed on the summit of each of the hall’s six towers in an ostentatious statement of her status. To the left, stand the gaunt and romantic ruins of Hardwick Old Hall, which Bess had started to extend and develop before the death of her fourth husband, George Talbot, the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, when she became so fabulously wealthy that she was able to build a new hall on an adjacent plot of land. The new Hardwick was designed by the brilliant architect Robert Smythson, who incorporated many of Bess’ specific requests in his plans.

Hardwick Old Hall is in the hands of English Heritage but the later hall is owned by the National Trust, whose administrators are ably supported by a team of 600 volunteers, including 250 room guides. Jane Gregory has been a room guide and learning volunteer at the hall since retiring eight years ago from her role as an Assistant Headteacher at Silverdale School in Sheffield. After three decades working as a popular teacher of history, Jane’s passion for teaching and her love of history are still very much in evidence in her current voluntary roles.

Having known Jane for many years as a teaching colleague and realising that her enthusiasm would give me the perfect Hardwick experience, I obtained the permission of Nigel Wright, the House and Collections Manager, for her to take me on a personal tour. Before we went into the house, Jane showed me a new flagstone she has purchased in memory of her late mother and as her contribution to the recent renovation of the path that leads visitors to the main entrance.

As the first of the many unusual aspects of Hardwick’s design, the Grand Entrance Hall is placed centrally and runs from front to back. Commenting on some of the features in this double-height room, Jane said: ‘The plaster-work on the overmantel illustrates the coat-of-arms that Bess had designed as an expression of her status. Doric columns support a gallery that is similar in style to a minstrels’ gallery but was actually built to connect rooms in Bess’ apartments on the first floor.’

The hall framed by a gateway leading from the Stables YardThe hall framed by a gateway leading from the Stables Yard

After leaving the Grand Entrance Hall, we inspected a restored wall hanging, embroidered on material cleverly shaped to give a three-dimensional effect, and we peered into the muniments room, stacked high with documents that tell of Bess’ role as a powerful manager of a grand estate.

To reach the state rooms, placed on the top floor of the building, we ascended the stone-floored Grand Staircase. Emphasizing the importance of the staircase in Bess’ ambitious scheme to impress, Jane said, ‘The staircase is far wider than was necessary, because it was clearly intended as a processional route to raise the expectations of guests as they approached the great state rooms.’

Those expectations are more than satisfied in the High Great Presence Chamber, described by Sir Sacheverell Sitwell as ‘the most beautiful room, not in England alone, but in the whole of Europe.’ Jane said: ‘The chamber, which is most visitors’ favourite room in the house, was Bess’ way of saying ‘Haven’t I done well?’ It includes all the ‘must have’ features of its day: tapestries; a frieze; large windows; a chimney piece and vast space. The inlaid table, with its mosaic of musical instruments, playing cards and board games, was probably made to celebrate Bess’ marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1568. Was marriage being portrayed as a mixture of harmony and chance?’

The pièce de résistance in the room is a huge plaster-work frieze featuring forest and hunting scenes and illustrating early travels to far off lands where exotic animals could be seen. The centrepiece of the frieze is a depiction of the goddess Diana surrounded by her court, with three stags to her left protecting her from wild animals. According to Jane: ‘Most experts believe that the panel is a reference to Queen Elizabeth I and that the three stags, copied from the Cavendish coat of arms, express allegiance to the monarch shown by Bess, who would have loved the Queen to visit Hardwick. Elizabeth never came, possibly because Derbyshire was too far from London.’

'Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, also known as Bess of Hardwick' (1527-1608) by Rowland Lockey (c.1565-1616). Hanging in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond'Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, also known as Bess of Hardwick' (1527-1608) by Rowland Lockey (c.1565-1616). Hanging in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The other great room on the top floor is the Long Gallery, which stretches along the full length of the house. As Nikolaus Pevsner noted, ‘the great sensation of the gallery is its three bay windows, each the size of a twentieth-century council house.’ Pointing to the Gideon Tapestries displayed here, Jane said: ‘When some visitors comment that the tapestries are rather dull in colour, I explain that they have faded over the centuries. Showing them a restored section, I ask them to visualise the brilliant colour of the walls in Bess’ day. When asked about the black clothing of the people depicted in the portraits in this room, I explain that black was used to indicate wealth and status.’

After leaving the Long Gallery, we visited several other rooms, including the Dining Room and the Cut Velvet Bedroom, where an overmantel of a family tree was a proud reminder for Bess of the dynasty she created through the marriages of her children. We also looked into a room filled with objects associated with Mary Queen of Scots that were brought from Chatsworth by the sixth Duke of Devonshire. Although a myth persists that Mary visited Hardwick, she had been beheaded before the hall was built.

Even though this particular visit never took place, Hardwick is packed with many other reminders of the golden Elizabethan age. The superb tapestries, portraits, wall decorations, furnishings and the unique architecture of the house are clues to fascinating stories. Like all the other volunteer room guides, Jane never tires of sharing this information with the visitors who come to this marvellous building.

Opening times in July: house: 11am to 5pm (closed Mon, Tues); garden: 10am to 6pm; park: 9am to 6pm; restaurant: 9am to 6pm; shop: 10am to 6pm. ‘Walking for Health’ walks, both short and long, in the Hardwick estate and the surrounding countryside on Thursdays throughout the summer. A special exhibition on the middle floor of the hall is devoted to the life of Duchess Evelyn, the last Lady of Hardwick.

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