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December 18, 2013

England: The Peak District and Chatsworth House


Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House

A three-hour drive to the north of London is the United Kingdom’s first national park, the Peak District.  The park was established in 1951.  Today the park is popular.  According to the Park Authority, the Peak District attracts 10 million people annually.  Some higher estimates put the yearly visit number at 22 million making the Peak District National Park the second most popular national park in the world.

In truth there is no way to get a completely accurate count of who is actually coming to the park to visit.  The park has no gates.  There is no easy way to differentiate those who are in the district for a dedicated visit and those who are passing through the park on the way to another destination.

The Peak District, on the international standard, is a different kind of national park.  Instead of being an isolated, preserved, and undeveloped area, the Peak District is a zone of limited and controlled development.  Here the goal of the national park designation is to preserve the historic character of the region.  The designation does not seek to return the environment to its native, prehistoric state.  Thus many villages and farms continue to thrive within the park’s borders.  If you don’t see the unobtrusive signs that mark the borders you never know that you’ve entered a national park.  There’s no sudden change at the park’s edges–the terrain for miles outside the boundaries is similar to that within.  The Peak District’s lush green pastures edged by rock walls don’t stop at the line on the map.  Nor do the quaint stone villages.

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Curiously there are no peaks in the Peak District.  Despite its name, the park’s landscape generally lacks sharp peaks.  In fact none of Britain’s highest peaks are within the boundaries of the national park.  Indeed, the highest point in the park, on the moorland plateau of Kinder Scout, is only 2,087 feet above sea level.  Nevertheless, though the terrain does not match its name, the pastoral Peak District makes for a pleasurable visit.

A prime destination in the Peak District is the stately home Chatsworth House.  Chatsworth is the historic residence of the Duke of Devonshire, an inherited title passed through a branch of the Cavendish family.  Since the 16th century the Cavendish family has been one of the richest and most influential aristocratic families in England.  Confusingly, the Chatsworth estate is not near the county of Devon, as Devonshire is now known.

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Today Chatsworth House is open for visitors and tours year around.  Some visitors find the house and grounds familiar; Chatsworth House was used as a location for the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  But there’s much more than Chatsworth’s movie history that recommends a visit.

Like other estates of its kind, Chatsworth House is grand and ornate on the inside.  A visit reminds that it was good to be the Duke.  Indeed, it is still good to be the Duke.  The current duke, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, calls Chatsworth home.  Today the Duke’s private apartments, kept separate from the tourist throngs, sit amongst the sprawling building complex.

Though he still lives there, the Duke no longer owns Chatsworth House.  As a consequence of Britain’s 80% inheritance tax in the 1950’s, Chatsworth House, like many other large estates, ended up in the hands of the National Trust.  Today the Duke, one of the wealthiest people in Britain, pays rent to stay in Chatsworth House at the “market rate”.  (Just how the “market rate” for such a residence is determined is beyond me!)

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Outside the confines of Chatsworth House’s thick walls is 35,000 acres of land retained from the original 83,000-acre estate.  Even with its reduced size, the estate is over twice the area of Manhattan Island.  Adjacent to the house is a vast area of tight-cropped lawn that links garden zones and water features.  Beyond the tended lawn, stretching up the valley sides, are miles of woods and open pasturelands.  Large herds of livestock graze in the park-like setting.  Past the estate is the Peak District National Park.  Even with the over-the-top lavish interior, Chatsworth’s location might be its most impressive asset.  It’s hard to imagine a nicer location.

To review, the Duke of Devonshire, one of the wealthiest people in Britain, rents an apartment in his family’s historic home Chatsworth House.  The house is located far from his dukedom in Devonshire in a peak-less region called the Peak District National Park, a park that doesn’t fit the usual definition of national park.  It’s all so confusing.

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Gigi was welcome in Chatsworth House's gardens.

Gigi was welcome in Chatsworth House’s gardens.

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