I do love a mystery, and Kedleston Hall appears to hold a secret to this very day regarding their housekeeper, Mrs Mary Garnett, as well as ghost stories abounding of heavy breathing, banging doors and phantom footsteps.
On a recent trip to the Derbyshire Dales, we decided to pay a visit to Kedleston Hall, a National Trust property.
Kedleston is set in beautiful parkland with grazing sheep, fishing pavilion and series of lakes and cascades, as well as a fine bridge designed by Robert Adam. This18th century spectacular mansion is the seat of the Curzon family and takes you back in time to the 1760’s when it was designed as a ‘showcase’ rather than a house to be lived in.
The original village of Kedleston was very close to where the Hall is today, but was moved 2km in 1757 by Sir Nathaniel Curzon, first Baron Scarsdale. The highway was replaced by a new toll road and only the church remains in it’s original spot.
Today, where the village once stood, stands the magnificent Georgian Hall – a classical Palladian Mansion, designed by Robert Adam.
‘Kedleston’ is a Saxon word and derives from ‘ton’ meaning place of.
A manor house has existed at Kedleston since medieval times and legend has it that in 1066, Earl Godwin, the father of King Harold, was the owner of Kedleston. In 1100 it then belonged to Robert de Curzon and to this day, the family still live there.
In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops visited the Hall twice. The first time they were looking for horses, weapons and food and staff at the Hall were in fear of their lives. Forewarned of the visit, the horses were all hidden. On the second occasion, the army was in retreat and left behind a canon (heavy siege mortar) which can still be seen on show in the Hall.
We are told that Dr Samuel Johnson called at the Hall, as did Mr Walpole who was robbed of 9 guineas!
After parking the car we climbed the curved double stair-cased steps outside the Hall to take pictures of the surrounding scenic views before heading for the main entrance and showing our tickets.
As you enter you are confronted with a splendid Marble Hall designed to suggest an open courtyard with rows of 25 feet high pink alabaster columns with Corinthian capitals supporting the decorated, high-coved cornice. The main block of the Hall was never designed to be lived in, but rather for entertaining guests and showing off all the treasures and sculptures collected by the family over time. These included many items from India associated with Lord Curzon who was Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905.
In the Smoking Room, hangs a portrait of Mrs Mary Garnett (1724 -1808), by Thomas Barber the elder. Mrs Garnett was the housekeeper at Kedleston Hall and you will see in the portrait that she is shown with the guidebook to the house in her hand, as if ready to take a visitor round the place. The presence of the guidebook gives a hint into well-established practice of respectable sightseers being allowed entry to country houses. What is rather strange, is why was this housekeeper given such prominence and was she held in very high regard? It was most unusual for a housekeeper to have a portrait taken!
The design of the Hall is that of a three-floored house – three blocks linked by two segmentally curved corridors. The ground floor is rusticated and the upper floors are smooth-dressed stone. The state rooms are in the central, largest block and usually only in use when there were important guests staying.
The East block was a self-contained country house, having all the rooms for the family’s private use. An identical West block contained the kitchens, domestic rooms and staff accommodation.
Walking through the ground floor you can see many curiosities belonging to Lord Curzon, including his collection of Far Eastern artefacts. Also on show is Lady Curzon’s Delhi Durbah Coronation dress of 1903, perhaps better known as the ‘peacock dress’ because of it’s many precious and semi-precious stones sewn into the fabric. These have now been replaced by imitation stones.
While wandering through the place it is good to stop and talk to the volunteers who ‘man’ the rooms because they often have extra information which is very interesting.
The State bedroom suite contains fine furniture and paintings. Currently, the State Bed is away for restoration, so, in it’s place is a large four poster bed prop for you to experience sleeping like a King! It is the first time that visitors are able to view this luxurious room in horizontal mode! Restoration work on the bed is being completed by many skilled local craftspeople. This includes the recreation of silk damask fabric and tassels, fringing, lace and braid made of pure gold. You can watch a short film to see some of the restorers at work.
The dining room has a gigantic apse with its ceiling that Adam based on the Palace of Augustus in the Farnese gardens.
There is an excellent ivory chess set given to the 2nd Lord Scarsdale’s wife, along with a letter of condolence for her son, William who was killed at the Battle of Waterloo.
The oldest book in the library dates back to 1486 and is a Latin history of the life of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. It was bought during the French Revolution by the 2nd Baron.
I have to say one of the highlights of the visit, is to meet the ‘Housekeeper,’ who, appears fully dressed in her fine costumed uniform of the time and looks very much like the original Mrs Garnett in the painting. She gives an 8 – 10 minute talk to visitors on how the Hall was built, plans and life at the time. In her day she had to show visitors around the house when the owners were absent. They would be welcomed in Caesars’ Hall then taken upstairs and shown through the state rooms. It was said that reactions varied – Dr Johnson grumbled, ‘It would do excellently for a town hall,’ while Walpole thought Kedleston was ‘in the best taste’.
Although her status was very high, Mrs Garnett only got paid half the amount of Lord Scarsdale’s butler. This apparently, was because the butler had to travel around with the family.
She was housekeeper for 43 years. Nothing seems to be known of her life before becoming housekeeper (in her 40’s) and she is buried near the family in All Saints Church next to the Hall.
Why was she held in such favour? What secret has lain uncovered over the years?
We had an interesting talk with her after she finished her official tour talk but my lips are partially sealed, except to say that on one occasion, one other member of staff ‘acting the role of Mrs Garnett,’ was taken aback when she felt a pat on her bottom after completing her somewhat ‘nervous,’ talk for the first time. She accused the ‘Mrs Garnett’ who had given us the talk of doing it, but she denied this as she was quite some distance away from her at the time. Was this the ‘phantom’ hand of the original Mrs Garnet giving her seal of approvement?
After completing our interesting visit we went along to the NT restaurant for a hot bowl of soup, then a look round the church before we headed back for the car surrounded by colourful autumn leaves and the start of some misty rain.
I haven’t forgotten the other ghost stories which I touched on at the beginning. One of the most haunted parts of the Hall is said to be the main staircase, where a lady wearing a mop cap and apron is said to be seen and believed to be the Halls first housekeeper!!
Another ghost roams the grounds on moonlit nights and is believed to be the poet, Thomas Chatterton. He committed suicide by taking arsenic in 1770 at the age of only 17 years. He has been seen by a member of staff who, looking out of a window on a foggy winters day, saw what she believed to be a young re-enactor looking rather sad, wandering around the gardens. Only after the figure vaporised did she realise she had seen a ghost. (A marble statue of Chatterton stands near the church).
A story is recounted by a Peter Slater, who used to spend time at the Hall during the war. During the war his mother belonged to the Women’s Institute and she had to look after the room they used every Friday to sell their garden produce, cakes and home made jams.
The room was on Derbys Cockpit Hill, in what once was the bar of the old Canal Tavern. Peter’s mother kept the room, ensured the fire was always lit when the weather was cold, and made sure that everything was ready for the next meeting. It was from these meetings his mother made friends with a Violet Huddlestone who lived with her father, (thought to be a gamekeeper), in North Lodge Gatehouse at Kedleston Hall.
Through this friendship Peter and his mother often used to stay the weekend at the lodge. The bus would drop them off at the end of the lane and then they would walk to the lodge. There was no traffic just rows of unspoilt hedgerows, so the distance didn’t seem too bad. Although Peter was given free range in the park to play, he was told on no account to ever to go over the bridge at the end of the main drive which led to the forecourt of Kedleston Hall.
It was September 1944. Several small brooks ran down into the river across the park and Peter followed one river right down to a reed bed, where he used to watch the water rats and water hens. It was mid-morning and slightly misty as he made his way along the bank to the foot of the stone bridge. Over the ‘forbidden’ side he saw a bottle caught up in the reeds. He crouched down and ran across the bridge, retrieved the bottle, only to discover it empty. Then suddenly, along the river bank, he saw a horse and rider coming towards him.
The rider was a young, slim woman, dressed in a grey long coat with a black veiled hat. She was riding side-saddle, and carried a riding crop in her gloved right hand. The horse was a chestnut colour. Passing about six feet away, she smiled at him and carried on along the bank. Taking to his heels he ran to the bridge, but on looking back, the woman had disappeared! There was no cover at all, no hedges or trees – nothing! She had disappeared as though she had never existed.
Peter later learnt during tea that he had seen the lady in grey as, apparently, had several villagers and estate workers.
I hope this will encourage you to visit what is thought to be Robert Adam’s ‘masterpiece’ not only in the house and outbuildings, as well as the pleasure grounds and park, but maybe just the possibility of encountering someone from history’s past!