Before leaving for Europe, I’d mentioned to a British friend that we would be staying in Derbyshire, England for three weeks in May, and his immediate response was, ‘why?’ It is true that Derbyshire tends not to rank very high on the list of European destinations. Still, we had reasons for choosing to stay there. First of all, the house was an elegant manor house on a half-acre of land in the English countryside surrounded by an expansive lawn and lovely garden, an ideal place to retreat for a bit after my final semester of work and gather strength for the eight months of aggressive tourist activities that lay ahead of us.
This was well planned because no sooner had we arrived than Lois and I both came down with respiratory ailments that left us quasi-incapacitated for two weeks. Our second reason was that Derbyshire gave us access to the Lake District, Wales and the Peak District, which would have been much more difficult to reach from London. As we got back on our feet, though, we were able to walk the trail along the canal that connects up with the River Trent, and we found Derbyshire itself to be charming. It was May; the earth was dark and wet; trees and flowers were blooming; everything was deep green.
Our friends Janice and Steve Chapman, owners of the home in Derbyshire, had left us National Trust passes, which gave us free access to a number of England’s palaces, castles, gardens and parks. We made good use of these, visiting Calke Abbey and Gardens three times
Kedelston House and Gardens, which had recently hosted the “Bearded Theory” festival, a funky, wild music extravaganza that celebrates beardedness. ZZ Top did not make an appearance, however. The house and gardens, though, were anything but funky.
Melbourne Hall and Gardens
Chatsworth House and Gardens in the Peak District, setting of a recent “Pride and Prejudice” film starring Kiera Knightly.
The gardens are known as pleasure grounds, which actually makes them sound vaguely erotic ….in a Victorian sort of way. They are truly….luvely.
The mansions were magnificent, the architecture was grand, and the artwork displayed inside was impressive. In Kedelston it was actually inspired by the Italian renaissance. Always evident in tours of these mansions was the strict separation between classes that existed in traditional English culture. Extraordinary efforts were made to enable the nobility to avoid contact with gardeners and other servants, who were sometimes forced to use tunnels to move from place to place so that the lords and ladies of the household weren’t forced to cast their eyes upon them.
Lois and I spent an evening attempting to understand the hierarchy of British titles (king, queen, duke, duchess, prince, earl, baron, baronet, sir, dame, squire, peasant, vermin, etc.), but it was even more inscrutable than a college administrative organizational chart, and I have to confess that I simply lack the ability to comprehend the details.
Preparations were being made for the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, a celebration of her 60-year reign over the United Queendom. Unfortunately, we left England just as the Jubilee was beginning. I don’t fully grasp the nature of the celebration, but I understand it involves a good deal of pomp, pageantry, partying down and getting totally pissed. In honor of the Queen, Lois and I even attempted to divine the hereditary rules governing a person’s accession to the throne, or to a dukedom, or ownership of a Rose-and-Crown pub franchise. Lois seems to grasp the essential details, but they still elude me. My ancestors are from the other side of the Irish Sea, and as far as I’m concerned, the rightful rulers of the British Isles would need to trace their ancestry back either to St. Patrick or Oscar Wilde—a task that would frustrate even the cleverest of genealogists.
Preparations were also being made for the Olympics to be held in England later this summer. People seem to be trotting through every neighborhood park, palace and pub with an Olympic torch. Fearing what promises to be a poor showing in the Games by the host team, England has convinced the International Olympic Committee to add a new competition to the Games – royal fox hunting from helicopter gunships. Prince William is the odds on favorite for the gold; Prince Harry for the Silver; and Sarah Palin for the Bronze.