The Halls at Hardwick on the eastern fringes of Derbyshire are lasting memorials to two formidable ladies, Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608) and Evelyn Cavendish (1870-1960).
Bess, or to give her her full title, Elizabeth Cavendish (later Talbot), Countess of Shrewsbury, managed, with the help of four marriages, to become the second most powerful woman in the land (after Queen Elizabeth I). She not only had the Old Hall built on the site of her birthplace, but, before it was finished, arranged for the grander New Hall to built just a 100 yards away.
Evelyn Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, having had a distinguished career in public service, spent the last years of her life at Hardwick, where she oversaw conservation work ranging from fighting woodworm to repairing tapestries.
The estate was transferred to HM Treasury in 1956 in lieu of death duty and then on to National Trust in 1959, although the Old Hall is administered by English Heritage.
National Trust members have free parking and access to both the Old and New Halls as well as the gardens by the New Hall and Parkland. English Heritage members have to pay for parking (currently £5) and then have access to the Old Hall and Parkland.
Hardwick Old Hall
It is worth visiting the Old Hall first as the exhibition in the Visitor Centre provides fascinating background to Bess of Hardwick’s life. It is possible to climb four floors in the ruined building (the Hall was demolished in the 1750s) to get great views over the New Hall and surrounding countryside. However when I visited in August 2019, the building was closed for renovation.
Hardwick New Hall
The external appearance impresses, as it was designed to do. It is one of the earliest examples of Renaissance style in England and its unusually large windows were themselves meant to impress – glass was a luxury item in Elizabethan times. To top it all, Bess had her initials (ES for Elizabeth Shrewsbury) added as sculptures at roof level.
Entering through the Grand Entrance Hall immediately gives a feeling of the stylish but ostentatious wealth of Bess. This continues when ascending the Grand Staircase to the top floor state rooms, which contain furniture and textiles dating back to Bess’s time.
The most imposing room is the massive Long Gallery which has walls covered with tapestries illustrating the biblical story of Gideon. By contrast, the tiny Muniments Room’s interest comes from it containing over 400 boxes where all the documents relating to Bess’s properties were filed.
The floor below has more modest rooms, including those used by Eveleyn Cavendish. Her bedroom is quite simple compared with rooms on the upper floor, although still draped with tapestries.
The Gardens consist of four almost rectangular areas, although three of these sections are orchards or grassed areas. The one bedded area has a fine collection of herbs. I found the most attractive parts of the Gardens to be the long and colourful herbaceous South Border and the Rose Garden in the East court that was planted by Evelyn Cavendish.
The National Trust has signposted four walks varying in distance from 1.5 to 3.5 miles within the several hundred acres of Parkland.
I took the 2.5 mile Sculpture Walk, in part because the Hardwick Inn is halfway along the route – a great place to stop for refreshments. Further along the Walk, there are some great views back to the Halls across the Great Pond.
If formal gardens attract you to visit stately homes, then I wouldn’t recommend Hardwick’s limited displays. If parkland walks are your forte, then Hardwick has some pleasant routes, although less agile senior travellers should take care with regard to some steep inclines and muddy stretches. If you have children in tow, then opportunities to keep them entertained are fairly limited, although there is a Woodland Play trail.
However, if history and house interiors are your main interests, then I can strongly recommend visiting Hardwick New Hall, with the Old Hall providing some fascinating background.
Nearby Heritage Sites
Stainsby Mill, a National Trust property situated on the Hardwick estate a couple of miles away from the Halls, is a working 18th Century watermill.
Bolsover Castle, an English Heritage site six miles to the north of Hardwick, is basically a Stuart mansion rather than having any defensive purpose. Nevertheless, it provides sweeping views over the Derbyshire countryside.
About 15 miles to the north-east, is Clumber Park, a National Trust site with a scenic four mile walk around a lake.
See also: National Trust Derbyshire: Calke Abbey
Joining English Heritage and/or National Trust
If you plan to visit several sites in a year then you could save money by purchasing annual membership. See: English Heritage versus National Trust – Which to join?
POSTED 30th AUGUST 2019 by STEVE HANSON. Photographs were taken by BARBARA HANSON.