In the centenary year of the birth of the 11th Duke and Duchess, we’ve been taking a look back at the impact they had on the Chatsworth we all know and love today. Christmas is one of the most special times of year at Chatsworth and it is thanks to the 11th Duke of Devonshire, who decided to open the house at Christmas, that we can now enjoy such fabulous displays each year. For our final blog in this series, former head housekeeper Christine Robinson looks back at how Christmas at Chatsworth began.

It’s hard to imagine now that Chatsworth hasn’t always been open at Christmas for visitors to enjoy, but when I started in the 1970s, the house and garden always closed after the horse trials (then held over the first weekend in October), and didn’t reopen until the following Easter.

However, with the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in February 2001, the countryside was effectively closed to visitors until the summer, which had a huge impact from the loss of visitor revenue for Chatsworth, and with a similar outcome for local businesses. After much debate with staff, in August of that year the Duke decided to extend Chatsworth opening until Christmas and introduce Christmas displays in the hope that it would encourage visitors to come into the area and help the local economy. There followed a meeting with the Duchess and colleagues from the garden, textiles and housekeeping teams to decide what we could do in such a short time, and as it was intended to be only for one year, we decided to limit ourselves to traditional decorations throughout the house, including the State Apartments.

It was a huge team effort; the gardeners pieced together and dressed the garlands; the housekeeping team wired and sorted thousands of baubles; joiners prepared frameworks to be fitted around the fireplaces; the house engineer sorted out the attachments for garlands and other decorations; the electrician sorted out safe wiring for all the tree lights, and the textile team dressed snowy scenes.

Once decorated, the house did look spectacular, with wonderful garlands up the staircases, a fantastic kissing bough suspended from the Stag Chandelier (hanging on the Oak Stairs at that time), a huge real tree from the estate in the Painted Hall and a sumptuous display on the Great Chamber table, including silver gilt from the vaults. The State Drawing Room now housed two 1940s beds complete with hot water bottles and bulging Christmas stockings, which were actually Duchess Deborah’s shooting stockings hanging alongside the wartime painting of the Penrhos College girls using the room as a dormitory. Duchess Deborah walked round the house with me on the day before ‘Christmas opening’ was officially declared, and said, “Aren’t we having any tinsel?” We had decided against tinsel, but now had to re-think, as she was adamant that although some people might consider it ‘rather vulgar’ it was also a lot of fun, and so all the marble busts in the house were duly crowned with tinsel wreaths. The final touch, and my personal favourite, was the addition of hundreds of real candles throughout the house. I must admit that the team and I did not relish the task of lighting and extinguishing them all every day, however the atmosphere they created was truly magical. Real candles have of course long since been replaced with twinkling replicas, and although they aren’t quite the same, I think it’s the right choice and I’m sure the fire safety team agree!

The Stables looked equally magnificent, and we even managed to persuade Father Christmas to come along and take up residence in the area now occupied by the Stables Shop. I popped into his grotto at one point to check that he was all right and had to laugh when he told me that one child had arrived clutching a scrap of paper with the Argos catalogue number of the gift he wanted written down!

Our policy of only opening for one year had to be re-thought, since in that first year we had a staggering 88,000 visitors through the door, all eager to know what we were going to do the following year. The extra income for the charity had made such a difference to what we were able to achieve with regard to restoration and conservation, and it wasn’t long before we had agreed to open again the following year.

Since 2001, Christmas at Chatsworth has grown in size and scale, with displays becoming more elaborate each year. We’re proud that our displays are still designed and installed by the team at Chatsworth, and that we can continue to support our local economy through our 10 goals for 10 years. Although we’re disappointed that Christmas hasn’t gone as we planned this year, you can still enjoy some festive cheer in the garden. We’re also working on some exciting plans for Christmas 2021 and we can’t wait to welcome you back for another magical year.

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