Stately homes by stagecoach

The old stagecoach raced along, the four horses gathering speed as it swept past the deer and black and white Jacob sheep grazing in Chatsworth Park. An elegant mansion nestling above a river loomed into view. Finally, the coach crossed an old stone bridge and drew up at the front door of Chatsworth House. Down stepped Mr. Pickwick, an Edwardian couple, and a team of 1980 trendies.

It was all part of the stagecoach tours run by the Red House Stables at Darley Dale in Derbyshire, about 130 miles north of London. A coachman called William Smith started collecting carriages as a hobby 50 years ago. For the past 20, his daughter, Caroline Dale, has been running the trips, designed to show the scenic Derbyshire countryside and some of its stately homes from a different perspective.

You can take your pick: broughams, landaus, an original Hanson Cab, the Siamese, Demi-Mail, or Spider Phaetons. Or the Gay Gordon Stage Coach that regularly did the Edinburgh-to-London run from 1832 to 1864.

Tickets can be booked for trips organized by the stables, or you can hire the carriages individually for weddings or other occasions. For L200 per person (the exchange rate is about $2.35 to the pound at this writing), there is a luxury three-day tour of Derbyshire's Peak District by stagecoach and four-in-hand, stopping at traditional coach inns like the Peacock at Rowsley which dates back to 1652. The price includes full board, VAT (England's ubiquitous sales tax), and service charges. Tours can be booked by parties of 10 or less "on dates to suit."

A three-day "Introduction to Driving" course comes in at L70, excluding food and accommodation -- but there is a well-equipped caravan for hire at L5 a day. Week-long riding holidays for unaccompanied children (8 to 16 years) cost L85, which includes room and board with the Dale family. Prices for other intermediate and individual driving courses vary.

Since you are riding in style, you may want to dress the part too, like Mr. Pickwick and the Edwardian couple at Chatsworth that day. For those interested, a firm named Nelly Smith's in Nottingham, 30 miles from the stables, will provide the costumes.

Both Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall are on the coach route, each only three miles from Darley Dale. Chatsworth, the home of the dukes of Devonshire, is one of Britain's finest stately homes. Originally built in 1552 by Sir William Cavendish and his wife, Elizabeth (Bess) of Hardwick, all that remains of the first building is the Hunting Tower on the hillside above the present house. That dates from the first duke of Devonshire's extensive rebuilding program between 1686 and 1707, and what remains is lavish.

Wonderful painted ceilings and tapestry-hung walls; brocade-canopied beds; the family's private chapel; huge libraries. Sets of old china -- 1760 Derby, 1725 Meissen, 1700 Imari. Pictures like Rembrandt's "Portrait of an Oriental" and Sargent's oil of Evelyn, Duches of Devonshire, in a black evening dress. Wherever you turn are treasures: a trompe l'oeilm painting of a violin on a door; a vivid set of Liberian malachite pieces, a present from Czar Nicholas I in the 17th century; and a huge vase made of Blue John, the Derbyshire spar found in the Castleton mines.

Chatsworth has had numerous connections with royalty. Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned there for 15 years while the earl of Shrewsbury was her jailer. The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was mistress of the robes to the present Queen from 1953 to 1966. While for American visitors, President John F. Kennedy's sister, Kathleen, who married the 10th duke's son, William, marquis of Hartington, in 1944 and died four years later, is buried in the Devonshire family graveyard on the Chatsworth grounds.

Set in rolling parkland that was landscaped by Capability Brown, around 1760, Chatsworth also has beautiful gardens. The Great Cascade survives from the first duke's garden. But credit for much of the gardens goes to Joseph Paxton, head gardener to the sixth duke. His work included the new greenhouse he designed to grow exotic plants in an English climate; the Arboretum; and the Emperor Fountain to the south of the house, which remains the highest gravity-fed fountain in the world, thanks to the lake and miles of conduits specially built by Paxton.

Haddon Hall is very different. Located on the River Wye just ouside Bakewell , it is much older and more intimate. Sparsely furnished in contrast to Chatsworth, Haddon has been described as one of the most complete medieval manor houses in England. William Peverel, illegitimate son of William the Conqueror, held the manor at the time of the Domesday survey in 1087. It passed to the Averel family in 1153, later to the Vernons and Manners, and today is owned by the duke of Rutland.

The crusader Richard Vernon added the huge banqueting hall and kitchens in about 1370. The minstrel's gallery attests to past revelries.

In the dining room, heraldic ceiling paintings depict the Tudor rose and the Talbot dog (Sir Henry Vernon married one Anne Talbot). Above a fireplace is carved: "Drede God and Honor the Kyng." And throughout the house hang Haddon's famous tapestries, including the five "Senses" tapestries that were probably made for Charles I.

Haddon, meanwhile, is the stuff of legend. In 1563 Dorothy Vernon supposedly fled during a ball held to celebrate her sister's wedding to join John Manners who was waiting outside with horses for their elopement. Visitors, in fact, descend from the wood-paneled Long Gallery, or ballroom, into Haddon's terraced gardens by the same route, now known as Dorothy Vernon's Steps.

Behind the history of Hardwick Hall, another of Derbyshire's grand houses, lies an indomitable woman. If Louis XIV was France's master builder, Bess of Hardwick is England's contender for the title. Born in the old manor house at Hardwick in 1520, the third daughter of a country squire of modest means, Bess married her way up the social scale, outlived four husbands, and used their fortunes to indulge her enthusiasm for houses.

She spent 25 years rebuilding Chatsworth, built four houses herself, and inherited seven from her fourth husband, the earl of Shrewsbury. Following his death, when she was 70, she began her last and greatest house, Hardwick Hall. Infinitely more grand than her birthplace, 100 yards away, it bears her initials (ES for Elizabeth of Shrewsbury) in fretted stone on its four turrets. She also built her four marriages into the structure.

"The cellar window is one pane high," explains the house steward, George Hague, "representing her first marriage. The ground floor windows are two-high, as she married a little higher, a knight this time. The third floor three-high, as she next married a courtier at Elizabeth I's court, and the top floor four, since her last husband was an earl."

So the higher the rank of the marriage, the more panes of glass and the more light the rooms received. This also ties in with the use of the house: the ground floor was for servants, the middle for family, and the top for VIPS.

Various tapestries, furniture, and coats of arms complete the picture. But one of Hardwick's most impressive features is the Long Gallery, a positive portrait-fest. Among them, naturally, is Bess: head held high above a stiff ruffle, hand clutching fourm long strands of pearls.

Derbyshire offers various other stately homes and castles --Elvaston Castle, to name a few. It would be difficult to see everything the county has to offer in a couple of weeks: opera at Buxton; trams at the Crich Tramway Museum; lead mining paraphernalia at Matlock Bath's Peak District Mining Museum (especially good for children who are encouraged to touch and try everything in sight); stalagmites and stalactites in the caverns at Castleton; incomparable scenery and fishing in the Dales; even the "Stonehenge of the North" at Arbor Low.

The list seems endless, but for this visitor at least, the first step will be by stagecoach.

Check with the British Tourist Office, 680 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019 (Telephone: [212] 581-4700) for dates and current entrance fees. Information on the stagecoach tours can be obtained from: The Red House Stables, Old Road, Darley Dale, Matlock, Derbyshire DE4 2ER, England (Telephone: 062 983/3583).

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