Alexandra Hayward settling in at Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 17:04 25 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:46 20 February 2013

Alexandra Hayward settling in at Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire

Alexandra Hayward settling in at Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire

Pat Ashworth interviews Alexandra Hayward of Renishaw Hall

Alexandra Hayward remembers as a child of seven sitting excitedly in the car and shutting her eyes tightly all the way up the long approach to Renishaw Hall. It was 1965 and her father, Sir Reresby Sitwell, had just inherited the 5,000- acre estate from his uncle, the writer, Osbert Sitwell.

There had been talk in our home in London about this big house and where everybody was going to sleep and the bathrooms and who was going to share what, she recalls. I didnt know what they were talking about until they said, Weve wanted to keep it quiet for a bit, but weve just inherited Renishaw. Sir Osbert, the heir, had never married, and passed the estate to his nephew when he went to live permanently in Italy for the sake of his health.

Now the wheel has come full circle and its Alexandras turn to take on the responsibilities of a family home whose colourful history is characterised by mixed fortunes and larger than life characters and which found new fame for its twentieth century literary connections. The only child of Sir Reresby, who died last year, and Lady Penelope, she could not inherit the baronetcy but the house and estate are now hers and she has moved into Renishaw with her husband, Rick, and teenage children, Rosie and Bertie.

Its a very different homecoming from the one her parents had. Half of Renishaws rooms then were barely habitable and the house was so cold that the couple were in the habit of retreating to the car after breakfast, to read the morning papers in the warm. Sir Reresby records in his own definitive guidebook, Renishaw Hall and the Sitwells, that the house slumbered under dust sheets for many cold months every year.

They took the decision not to bring me up here. I suppose it certainly hadnt had a female touch for quite a few years, Alexandra reflects. But she loved coming for the holidays, loved having friends to stay and had the run of the house and gardens, always beautiful, she remembers.

Now, more than four decades of hard work later, its a wonderful place to live in and to visit. The hall, a manor house built in 1625 and later extended, holds many treasures but is a home as well as a showplace and Alexandra was familiar with its history from an early age. My father used to take tours round, particularly friends, and I used to trot round with him or plod around after him, she remembers, reflecting that it was probably then that the Sitwell history began to grow on her.

I used to tease him did you ever see that play with Maggie Smith, Lettice and Lovage? she asks delightedly. It was like that the basis of my fathers stories didnt change but he would slightly embellish it depending on who he was talking to.

She remembers as a child visiting Osbert Sitwell at his Italian home, the Castle of Montegufoni, in the four years before he died from the Parkinsons disease that had dogged his later life. Renishaw has mounted a stunning exhibition, Osbert Sitwell Champion of the Arts, this summer, featuring not only the collected art and memorabilia of this famous literary man but also, most movingly, an early TV interview in which he talks about his favourite authors, Joyce, Eliot and Lawrence, and his pleasure in writing his autobiography.

It was Alexandras greatgrandfather, the eccentric, outspoken Sir George Sitwell, MP for Scarborough and father of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, who researched much of the familys early history and was responsible for Renishaws Italianate gardens, laid out between 1886 and 1936 and regarded as among the finest in England.

Each generation has its own plans for Renishaw and it will be the same but different here under Alexandras stewardship. Nobody wants to lose the essence of Renishaw but its more modern day living, I think most of us live in the kitchen, dont we? she suggests. The children, 17-year-old Rosie and 16-year-old Bertie, both pupils at Stowe School, are slightly overawed by it but sort of beginning to come round to it and take it on board. Once they start having their friends to stay and having as much fun as I had, then theyll really enjoy it, she says.

If she has a favourite part of the house, its the front hall, the hub of the house, where were sitting with coffee. The black Labrador, Humphrey, lopes across and settles himself on the soft cushions of his favourite sofa, regarding our camera with a practised eye. The wood burning fireplace is enormous but the glow in todays June sunshine comes from the murals of John Piper, who stayed at Renishaw many times during the Second World War. Venetian scenes flank the fireplace but its his Derbyshire Domains that catch the eye, a vivid celebration of the countys great houses, from Hardwick to Sutton Scarsdale.

Visitors love Christmas here, with mulled wine, fires blazing and an enormous Christmas tree in each of the principal rooms. Its proved so popular that that theyll be extending the four or five days to a full fortnights festivities this year. One especially beloved room is the cosy library, part of the original manor house, with a beautiful aspect on to the gardens and beyond to at least three horizons.

Here we linger, while Hector, the dachshund, looks confidently into the camera lens, enjoying the celebrity. There have always been dachsunds at Renishaw: they are embroidered into footstools, celebrated in paintings and laid to rest in a dogs graveyard in the gardens Gothic Temple, a former aviary. We move through to the impressive Great Drawing Room with its famous Chippendale Great Commode and John Singer Sargents portrait of Alexandras great-grandfather and great-grandmother, Sir George and Lady Ida, with their three children Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, Alexandras grandfather. One of Renishaws great Brussels tapestries was taken down to Sargents London studio for the portrait, as was the commode.

Does she feel a great sense of history, I ask? Absolutely, totally, she says with conviction. Renishaw might have been lost when the third baronet, Sir Sitwell Reresby Sitwell, died at the age of 42, worn out by coping with his fathers debts Sadly, he put the house up for sale and sold a lot of the furniture and books, Alexandra comments, adding impishly of the quite lavish room, It makes you think, there must have been an awful lot of furniture...

The billiard room, drawing room and ballroom were all added in 1803 by the flamboyant first baronet, Sir Sitwell Sitwell. He got the title from the Prince Regent, for whom he gave a ball and who is commemorated in the Prince of Wales feathers in the ballroom ceiling. Its a wonderful room, Alexandra says in genuine admiration. They love it and use it: she and Rick were married in the village church at Renishaw but held their reception in this treasure-laden room, hung with tapestries bought after the French Revolution, often used as a chapel and still having something of a holy touch, she says.

Henry de Sacheverell is reputed to haunt Renishaw, a benign ghost who kisses the ladies good night. His picture, The Boy in Pink, hangs in the Dining Room, licensed for weddings and gleaming with polished furniture. In Osbert Sitwells day it was all a deep mulberry red below, with black dado rails..., Alexandra says, clearly preferring the light and beautiful oyster colours with which it was repainted 30 years ago. Here hangs the famous portrait, A Young Lady and her Brothers, painted by John Singleton Copley in 1787.

The gardens face south, complementing a softer side to the hall than the more austere north face of the building, which Sir Reresby described as gloomy and weatherbeaten. We step out onto this southern terrace and to a sensational view of the gardens. The sky is a bright blue with white clouds and the sun is drawing out the scent of the wisteria, jasmine, honeysuckle and roses which smother the walls and frame the windows. Its an unrivalled backdrop for the reception being held on the terrace and lawns that night for all the staff and volunteers at Renishaw.

These gardens, largely laid by unemployed people from Sir Georges Scarborough constituency, are said to be Derbyshires best-kept secret. They undoubtedly are. Its a combination of formal Italian garden and huge English herbaceous borders to give a lovely overgrown look, Alexandra says with pleasure. In a proper Italian garden, you wouldnt get any flowers; they dont do colour and flowers. You might get green and possibly white, but you cant not do colour, can you? Its glorious.

Everything is flourishing, spilling over with abundance. Snowdrop Sunday in early spring is followed daffodils, then by Bluebell Fortnight in mid-May, when the woods are ablaze with a carpet of blue, flanked by avenues of pink camellias. After that its the turn of delphiniums and lupins A knockout at the moment, Alexandra says with satisfaction. Giant poppies include bright pink as well as flashing orange. There will be giant sunflowers in September.

They scribble a daily notice board for visitors on what shouldnt be missed in the garden, which today is the peonies, the lilacs, the lupins and the oriental poppies. The garden is on a human scale. You can see that people were involved in the planning and planting of it, Alexandra says with pride. She loves the magnolia and the fluttering pocket handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, but is fondest perhaps of the tall and stately Wellington oak, planted in 1815.

Detailed research had shown it to be suffering from stress. The amount of people walking past and round it, vibrating it, were almost giving the roots a headache, she says in wonder. So we changed the route and planted a flower bed around it, full of roses. Now its so serene. You cant get better than that. Its just wonderful we found out it wasnt happy.

Our photographer is ecstatic: theres a shot to die for around every corner, through every little vista. An avenue of ancient lime trees is testimony to plans for a house that would have faced north to south, drawings that happily were abandoned. The Buttress Walk is mostly roses, a thousand of which burst into bloom in the summer months, and what was once the Wilderness is now the Woodland garden. Water sparkles in the fountains and fishponds and Renishaw even has a vineyard, once the most northern of the hemisphere.

Alexandras memories stretch back to when the sawmills were in operation on the estate and the old straw-burning sawmill engine, commissioned in 1911 by the Czar to go to Russia, was still in use. Now it stands in the sunny stableyard close by the fascinating museum of Sitwell memorabilia and the restaurant and shop, which add to the visitor attractions here. Edith Sitwell, who died in 1964, was deeply attached to Renishaw, the childhood home from which she drew inspiration and to which she frequently returned.

Its splendid isnt it? Alexandra, Ediths great-niece, concludes. She credits her parents, and her mother in particular, for continuing to expand and enrich the gardens, and says of visitors this summer, I promise theyll be inspired.

Renishaw Hall and Gardens, north of Chesterfield, are open from Thursday to Sunday every week until 26th September, and also on Bank Holiday Mondays. For information, telephone 01246 432 310; or email

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