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Castle History

Friends Forward Plan

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

You all know of EIvaston Castle and, more than likely, the running battle to decide its future, the furore and public feeling it has stirred up against the Derbyshire County Council, willing to let one of the few national, historic edifices close to the capital of the county (Derby), be desecrated and sacrificed to satisfy the whims of a monied minority to spend their extended leisure, basking in up-market hotel luxury.

You may have taken the occasional tours of the house, being ably conducted via the splendour of the gold canopied and pillared Gothic Hall of the Fair Star, through the Drawing Room, or rather, what was known in past days as the "Withdrawing " Room, which used to boast a fireplace round which one could cosily sit and mull over the day's activities, or sit and read on the window seats and drink in the calm beauty of the long cast lawn and distant "ha-ha", bounded by tall conifers, with a blissful corner view of the lake and willows, overtopped by long-shelved branches of one of "Capability's" Cedars of Lebanon. You would note the more ancient style mullioned window to the right as you entered, knowing that this was an example of the original house of 1633.

Passing through the far corner door, into the library, your attention would be drawn to the interesting fireplace, displaying the Harrington coat-of-arms. And of the two other exits, one was to the far end, an oak panelled billiard room and, to the side, access to the wonderful, while marble staircase, the largest unsupported, cantilevered, lanterned staircase in England if notin Europe! The stairwell is also spacious and benefits from plenty of natural light from the lantern structure that forms a centrepiece, railed round by a decorative wrought iron surround in the top floor central Orchid Room which, with boarded floor aiding the circulation of warmth, bore a boiler which truly expounded the meaning of the phrase "Central Heating". Thus used for growing exotic flowers like of orchids though, in our student days, it became the Art Room due to light either end.

The wide marble stairs were in three turning sections leading, firstly, up to the niche where Venus romped with the dolphins, turning to traverse a few steps at right angles to turn left again to teach the lop landing and admire the massive marble statues of the Three Graces, (which three of my friends disgraced themselves by dressing in pyjamas. What they dangled from the crystal chandeliers I will not say. Suffice to remark that the Matron was not amused). The balustrade made this landing almost a balcony from which to gaze on those between and below, including the portraits up the side wall. These, of course, in the past, were members of this prestigious family, but replaced for our benefit, so it was to Sir Walter Raleigh I paid respects as I paused lo bid him "Goodnight" for, his portrait so reminded me of that famous picture of Christ entitled "The Light of the World".

Then, with a further wistful glance of appreciation, taking in the beauty by which I was surrounded, I turned from the entrance to the large luxury 'Morning Room' and 'Lady Harrington's Bedroom', that bedded about five students in each and, turning left, passed into the corridor leading to the servants' quarters. Along the polished light wood floor, past other fine family and guest bedrooms, which accommodated around four students in each and had famous names like "Chippendale", to negociate the far barer, more austere further fights of worn, stone steps to the top floor, where I had the governness's bedroom, next to the Nursery (don't envy the children of the aristocracy; they were often bundled off vvell out of the way!). Mind, we had central heating radiators and I had pretty pale green velvet lined curtains left for us by the family.

Now, no longer welcoming, I found my room piled with junk and the walls in the passage stripped to the brickwork but, as we often see on TV in shows like "I Want That House", it is amazing what a bit of determination, "elbow grease" and a few of the right materials & even make-shift tools, can do to put things right without a fortune to back! I should know as I've seen it done "before my very eyes" to absolute broken down ruins at home and abroad, and have a daughter and son-in-law on the look-out at this very minute! The pictures they have sent us, have left me appalled! "Impossible", I cannot begin to tell you except that they make Elvaston Castle look in perfect condition!

Thus, I say again that the neglect and dereliction can be put right comparably easily in the upper reaches, as the lower floors continue to give pleasure and activity, raising necessary funds to rectify the rest. Before terminating our tour, however, I vvill mention the parallel passage to our nursery, one, where l and my room-mate were compensated for its austerity by only having to share with one other and also having a vievv of the clock tower, which gave us extra minutes each morning.

However, our counterpart, on the other side of the Orchid room, though similarly sized, had more attractive views, and allocated to tutors, thus we rarely trespassed. However, a room at each end is of extra interest as the one immediately off the balcony over the stairs was allocated to four students who, if they needed the toilet in the middle of the night, had a lone and scary troop down below stairs and along the outer kitchen passage to almost the back exit of the property - an almost unenviable situation! On reflection, it occurs to me to wonder why they did not use our facility, just down the passage, through the Orchid room and down circa four steps?

Well, this begs another question: were they more scared of that route then the longer one? because the atmosphere in that area was distinctly spooky! It meant coming almost to the door of that Linen room of which I spoke on the subject of ghosts, where a maid is rumoured to have suffocated her new-born babe and ever-more haunts, suffering from her guilt. I had to pass this room also but, so enjoyed my moments on the balcony (flat roof) leading from the Orchid room to overlook the lake, exciting at night as the mists rose from the water, and the cock pheasants raucously registered their prescence, that I did not worry until it was dark and chill and I was scared to return, which I had to do - in a rush!

However, to return to the tutors passage where, at the far end, stout Miss Codd had the most intriguing, charming little bed-chamber, such a waste, I always thought! It was wood panelled, with a low secret door hidden in the panelling. I just had to see it, so, one afternoon, when we knew they had all gone into main the college in Derby, and "my lot" (infant trainees taking a subject, like "Music & Movement", which did not depend on specialised equipment, and could be equally well conducted in the Gothic Hall) vvere between activities we, conspiratorially, went to investigate. Miss Codd could never have got down that low door, lot alone through it, poor dear, but we all did, to discover thatt it went down to the back passage behind the stairs, where the Principal had a couple of rooms for her fortnightly visits to check all was running smoothly.

I am sure she looked on these as her happiest moments as she would bring her adored little scottie dog and stroll by the lake. Once, as l sat high up in "the ruins", a seat in a rock alcove, atop of little steps up from the far side or the lake where now is the children's Adventure Playground, with a super view of the house and the, then, Water Tower with the church tower showing between, I heard a sudden screech of an animal in pain ! As I shaded my eyes from the bright sunlight, I saw elderly, prim Miss Hawkins suddenly start to run from the way she had just come, then noted her little dog struggling as if caught up in brambles or something.

There followed an anxious few minutes as she bent and struggled with something and bravely extricated her trapped pet from what I learned later were the jaws of a viscious little weasel. Such was the mettle that these dedicated maiden ladies were made of. I have seen a platform full of well begartered and cushioned bishops and other officials of the clergy, virtually quake and melt, file ice-cream puffs, as she has taken centre stage, and we had no doubt that she would have, similarly, put her life 'on the line' to save one of us! Like our beloved castle, the memory of great ladies like her should not be allowed to die!

My 2nd year at Elvaston came about due to a vacancy in one room, for which I was given first chance, as I had expressed to the Principal my love of Elvaston, when due to move into Derby with other students. A great example of her fair-mindedness, despite a hint of insubordination, and a lesson to stick to your principles even in the face of what might seem insurmountable opposition!

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