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Mrs Bee Wickens (nee Beasley), Senior Historical Advisor, Friends of Elvaston

Roy Christian, writing in a Derbyshire magazine some years ago called Elvaston "the strangest castle of all Derbyshire stately homes"! He continues, "Everything about it is unexpected, almost weird, so the absence of a ghost is in itself surprising." Well, firstly I'd take issue with the label 'strange'. I've heard many say that when you've seen one stately home, you've seen them all and I can agree to a point that there is a certain sameness about many, but that remark of Christian's re the 'unexpected' is what makes Elvaston not Weird but Unique. AND WHO SAY'S THERE'S NO GHOST?

Apparently no substantiated written record has been found, I understand, but I believe that is because cynical purists won't listen to local's gossip/rumour. As late as my year of 1948/9 there were rumblings and I can confirm that, more than once to my knowledge girls have refused to sleep more than one night in the LINEN ROOM on the top floor, yet we all came as strangers to the house and mainly to each other! At a reunion, one past student pooh-poohed this saying that she'd got up in the night and moved things around, which is why next day, two of her room-mates refused to stay another night, but she wasn't my year, so that wasn't the case with our two students! Well, young Phyllis was moved next to my governess' room into the nursery and we had no more histrionics from her, so was she psychic or had a vivid highly suggestive imagination?

I only know that another member of that nursery bedroom told me, quite matter-of-factly that she'd heard the galloping horseman in the middle of the night, clattering over the cobbles. Well, I keep an open mind over such things, and I never heard him, though my bedroom had two windows looking out on to the courtyard straight opposite the archway. The route he was supposed to take. Mind, the nursery bedroom did have a big window on to the south front and another smaller one next to mine, overlooking the courtyard, so I suppose had double opportunity, especially as he was said to stop outside the Gothic Hall!

Added to this tale, is the fact that he wasn't supposed to be a Headless Huntsman so maybe this came about as an amalgam of the 10th Earl who did break his neck in a hunting accident. Because of this, the present 11th Earl of Harrington, who will be 84 years old next August 24th, succeeded his father at the age of 7 years, because the 10th earl (Chas. Joseph Leics) had reigned but I year, coming into his inheritance at 42 years old and was, like his father, an accomplished horseman fond of the hunt but met his death, being thrown at a barrier head first and dying shortly afterwards, thus one can assume he broke his neck.

Horses and hounds always played a big part in the life of the Stanhopes' and employees on the estate, and one gets a strong feeling that there were many superstitions regarding any deaths concerned. A curious incident occurred following the 8th Earl's request that the hunt take place as soon after his death as possible and it was noted and spoken of, one imagines, with bated breath, that the hounds, careering full tilt, made over towards the churchyard where they almost halted "to a dog" at the Earl's burial place! Well, it does verge on the uncanny, doesn't it? and the stuff that ghost stories are made of. I think Mr Stuart Madeley could enlighten us somewhat, as his father was a pall bearer for the 10th Earl and must have heard many interesting conversations on this and many other subjects.

As you can gather, I take great exception to Roy Christian's attitude towards Elvaston commenting, on seeing it for the first time, wondering why it was built, "for not particularly attractive", then conjecturing that that is maybe why the Earl chose to leave and live in Ireland! I believe this to be far from the truth. The trust in charge of the family's welfare, the widowed countess and her seventeen-year-old son, and their valueable string of race horses, decided on their evacuation to Limerick in Ireland at the beginning of the 2nd World War in 1934 taking with them some of their loyal staff and families. Also, possibly high taxation had something to do with the decision. We know of many similar cases where beautiful homes were lost through crippling death duties (Chatsworth almost becoming such a victim).

However one has only to read past cuttings to learn that the family stayed a while in Thulston village and constantly returned for family celebrations and the young earl particularly checked the house was being kept in good order and rulings were being adhered to! As late as 1947, after the war, when the majority of students had returned to their main college in Uttoxeter New Road leaving a nucleus of 2nd year students to oversee the 1st year's, a friend of mine arrived back with her room mates, from lectures in Derby to their "Gilt and Leather" bedroom, to find a handsome young man there, yes, the 24-year-old earl on leave from the Army, checking the wall paper was not being scuffed or damaged in any way. "You look after this, it was most expensive!" he told them. Situated at the end of the corridor on the 1st, floor over the Butler's Pantry, he said it had been for special guests and the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret had stayed there, though there are no records to substantiate this. Maybe, it was to make sure they took extra care?

Also the family returned for weddings and funerals, held in Elvaston Church. As we were a Diocesan Training College, we had to go to church first thing every weekday morning and last thing in the evening. One anecdote related to me by an earlier student, who was the Elvaston College organist, told of putting away her music and, being after all the other students, deciding to take the short cut via Gothic Hall, ran straight into the family preparing to take the baby viscount for his christening in 1945! Two years earlier in 1943, his sister Jane had been baptised there. Their mother, the Countess of harrington, nee Eileen Grey, was a descendant of that unfortunate queen, Lady Jane Grey.

The young woman, who almost gatecrashed the wedding party, (whose name eludes me at present), was herself of a high class, racing trainer's family, who are well-known to the Queen, told me of 'morning-after' sortees onto the roof with sand bags and buckets to check no incendaries had been dropped during an air raid. A wooden framework had been made by the college joiner in the meat and wine cellars, a maze of passages and little pantries leading from the old kitchen and under the water tower that was later demolished by the DCC. These formed bunk beds for the students when the sirens went to warn of an air raid but, later, when most of the students had returned to the college building in Uttoxeter Road and only about fifty of us held court at Elvaston, we were each allotted one to store our personal PF equipment. That consisted of items we had to make to take on 'School Practice', treacle tins bored with 2 holes and strings threaded through to use as stilts, bean bags we had to sew ourselves in spare time (ie holiday time at home!) and any other bright ideas one could come up with.

I liked to go into the old kitchen and chat with Mr Springthorpe, our caretaker, when he had his tea break. His tiny home was the strangely-shapedbbuilding beyond the outer courtyard still called "Springthorpe's Cottage". I also, regularly roamed the grounds which very few of the girls did. If it hadn't been for the tennis courts near the Moorish Temple, which I have always called "'The Pagoda", thinking it more Chinese than Moorish, I am sure that many of them would not have known it was there. One day, I ventured through the slightly open iron gates and it seemed that no-one had taken that path for years, it was so overgrown with brambles, I felt like Prince Charming searching for Sleeping Beauty and, when I reached the top of the steps, I saw lovely hybrid Tea Roses on the border. I broke one of the Earl's rules by picking one, also our Principal's order never to take any plants inside! As you will know, the steps at the other side are wider and more open and, as I went out onto the wide green avenue, turning towards, the great Californian Redwood, I saw one of the gardeners and strolled up with him, concealing the rose behind my back. Not as clever as I thought, for he said, "That rose was one of the earl's favourites", but he let me keep it.

Another of the estate workers let me go up into the clock tower to see how it worked and they told me how their numbers had been reduced to just four from eleven, to cope with all the hedge cutting etc. I think they did very well under the circumstances, the arbours were kept nicely shaped, though the yews merged together down the sides of the parallel green avenues to make one solid hedge. I loved going along there, as it was always alive with little tomtits twittering as they ate the red berries.

The maze, a star-shaped yew tunnel, fronting Gothic Hall was, however, getting worse for wear, collapsed in a couple of places but still making a super passageway at Halloween when we did the CONGA all round the house, through the cellars and out through the coal hole by the water tower door, round to the maze where our 2nd year (senior students) were cloistered, dressed as witches with cauldrons and spiders on sticks they shook at us; imitation cobwebs strung from the roof of the maze.

Other vivid memories of other activities bring to mind, particularly, the drama productions produced evey year. Obviously, usually connected with our literature syllabuses so mainly Shakespeare and his "Midsummer Night's Dream", "Much Ado About Nothing", "Love's Labours Lost" but my year did Milton's "Comus" when the god, Bacchus, turns the peasants into animals and Sabrina, the water goddess, floats in diaphanous robes with her entourage of Naiads, up from the lake and dispels his evil and breaks the spell. Imagine what a perfect backcloth Elvaston made, particularly with ornamental pool and the lake beyond. Now dried up, water used to be drawn up into the ornamental pool from next to the boat house where the water wheel drove it to the storage tank in the water tower then to a tank on the roof.

My hope is that we can yet again have drama productions on the terraces and some of the historical military re-enactments that are frequently held at Bolsover Castle, and show all the Roy Christian types that Elvaston is, and always has been, a beautiful and vibrant place dedicated to Chivalry and Love, maybe not quite of the 4th Earl's ilk, but both come in many different forms.

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