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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Duke of Devonshire: ‘Some of our changes to Chatsworth upset my mother greatly’

His mother, I suggest, must have been a very hard act to follow. “Certainly to start with,” he agrees. “We didn’t ask her to move out but she decided to as she was getting older. That was quite sensible.”

The transition from one devoted custodian to another was not, he recounts, without its tensions. “We started making changes quite quickly. Privately my mother wasn’t very comfortable with some of those, but publicly she was fine and that was all one could ask of her. I know that some of the things we did were regarded as pretty disloyal to her.”  

An avenue of lime trees she had planted from the North Gate to the house to celebrate millennium was cut down. “It was clear to me,” her son explains, “that the green tunnel they created, though wonderful, missed the point of the park because you couldn’t see it [through them]”.  

It was, however, his decision to close the estate’s dairy farm that, he says, “upset her greatly. But it was losing a lot of money.” All but two of the people who worked there were found other jobs, he points out, in case he is coming over as too cold-hearted.

These must have been tough calls to make. In a foreword to the new book, which he has jointly penned with his wife, he refers directly to the pressures of having to make “on-the-spot decisions” as the renovation programme he had started progressed, and of how, in such a building, “the past has a tendency to rear its head when you least expect it”. 

The entire facade was encased in scaffolding for a mammoth facelift to remove three centuries’ worth of grime, while, he writes: “For two years our bedroom was in the attic; there are 82 steps from the ground floor to the top, so it was better not to leave your spectacles upstairs in the morning.”

There must have been times when the responsibility of taking on Chatsworth felt like a burden. “I don’t have to live here,” he gently corrects me. “I can live anywhere. I don’t have to accept the title of duke. So we are here by choice because it is a real pleasure and a privilege and… just wonderful.”

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