By tonight, the treasures will be on their way back to the Treasure Houses, just as we'd begun to think they really belonged here in Washington. But there is a way to follow them home.

You could compare Rex Whistler's "View of Haddon Hall, Derbyshire" with the medieval manor so carefully restored by the ninth duke of Rutland. Or go to gaze at the portrait of Bess of Hardwick hanging in her own long gallery at Hardwick Hall, the house she started to build when she was 70 years old. Think of seeing the Hellenistic colossal foot in place at Chatsworth House, the ancestral seat of the dukes of Devonshire. Imagine the elegance of the blue-and-gilt Linnell sofa at Kedleston Hall, where it is one of a pair.

The treasures that have been on display at the National Gallery since November will seem like old friends. And all four of these Treasure Houses -- Haddon Hall, Hardwick Hall, Chatsworth House Kedelston Hall -- are in Derbyshire, my favorite county of the 114 in Britain.

Ironically, the brilliance of "our" treasures is likely to be diminished by the company they keep, not to mention their surroundings. After all, the ancient marbles, elaborate furniture and beautiful paintings are mere samples of the kinds of art that fill Britain's mansions. For years tourists have inadverently passed right by some of the selections we have stood in long lines to see.

Of course, the beauty of these works of art commands our attention. But for me their importance lies in what they reveal aboiut social history -- about the houses they come from and about the way real people lived in those houses.

The centerpiece of a holiday in Derbyshire should be the Treasure Houses, but the ingenuity and imagination that produced Chatsworth and a dozen other such estates are matched by the beauty of the surroundings. Rich in history and literary echoes, Derbyshire boasts picturesque villages, lovely hotels and even a museum or two.

Much of Derbyshire is designated parkland, the Peak District National Park, which covers 542 square miles. There are two distinct areas in the park. The northern part is marked by the high crags of the Pennines, the tallest of which is Kinder Scout, at 2,088 feet a height considered Alpine by th English. Don't be fooled, however; the views near its summit are breathtaking. The southern area -- home of the Treasure Houses -- is gentler, its green pastures separated by winding walls of limestone. Moors, woodlands, rivers and steep ravines cut by rushing water add to the diversity of a landscape that is beguiling at first glance, and then gets better and better. It's easy to understand why noble families have chosen to build their manors here through the centuries.

A logical way to approach the houses is chronologically, because their architecture demonstrates both artistic and social developments. Haddon Hall, the incarnation of its romantic portrait at the National Gallery, is about the most perfect medieval house in England. Just two miles from the village of Bakewell, this random pile of gray and tan stone is reflected in the lively River Wye flowing beneath it. Although turrets and the relic of a curtain wall indicate Haddon was originally built in the 11th century as a fortified manor, the bend and sparkle of the river below, which looks like a decorative moat, soften the lines of the house. But a walk up the hill to the entrance, a small door within a sturdy stone tower, is proof that marauders would have found access difficult.

First cousin to the defensive castles built by kings and barons between the 11th and 14th centuries, Haddon Hall appears at first empty, even chilly, with its sparse furnishings. But fill it up in your imagination with the people who congregated there, the community it was designed to shelter.

In its hall, for instance, the landlord, aided by a jury of his major tenants, held the manorial court. Here the claims and disputes of the neighborhood were settled and nearby landowners assembled to see that justice was done, then remained for manorial hospitality.

The Banqueting Hall at Haddon, dating from about 1370 (and somewhat altered since), was thus an early multipurpose room, and its size and high ceiling, with modern roof-timbering, suggest a small gym, cum auditorium, cum cafeteria. But paneled oak wainscoting warms the stone of walls, window frames and doorways. Antlers hung along the galleries suggest that huntsmen supplied the house with meat, and there is a rough-hewn carving table with a deep circular groove cut to catch gravy.

The fourth Sir Richard Vernon dined in Haddon's Banqueting Hall with his family, at a high table on the dais, much like the one now in place. A tapestry depicting the royal arms of England hangs behind the high table, indicating the amity between Henry VII and Sir Henry Vernon in the 15th century.

Social and official activities at Haddon Hall gradually diminished as the countryside settled down in the late 15th century after the Wars of the Roses. Later Vernons developed a taste for domestic life. The overhead gallery that runs along one side of the Banqueting Hall was added to serve as a passage to the upper rooms, so the family could move about without scrutiny. They could retire through a small curtained doorway behind the dais to the Withdrawing Room, leaving of this private parlor in 1500 signaled the decline of the medieval household.

Subsequent remodeling shows how Haddon bridges the gap between the fortified manor and the unprotected country mansion. When private armies of feuding knights in armor ceased to threaten the neighborhood, the Vernons felt safe enough to enlarge the entryways and windows. Wide doors and gracious oriels signaled the end of civil strife. Peace promoted the pursuit of pleasure. Homeowners added Renaissance innovations like the long gallery, an Elizabethan hall used to display portraits and for entertaining. They also planted gardens. The formal ascending terraces at Haddon Hall were laid out in the early 17th century, and views down to the River Wye from the gazebo were -- and remain today -- spectacular.

So Haddon has evolved through the centuries. But despite Elizabethan alterations, the bedrooms and the Great chamber -- an upstairs sitting room -- conjure up a few of the unpleasant aspects of life in the Middle Ages. They are nearly vacant; beds and chests were so valuable that they were taken from house to house when families traveled, and few members of the household were entitled to chairs.

A spiral staircase leding to the duke's suite recalls the defensive role of such stairs in fortresses; Narrow and always rotating clockwise as they ascend, they prevented more than one invader at a time from mounting, and cramped his sword arm into the pivot. The defender, wielding his weapon in his free right hand, had a definite advantage.

Although they didn't make it to the National Gallery, the tapestries at Haddon Hall equal those displayed in Washington. Sets of hangings from 16th-century Brussels and 17th-century Mortlake decorate the walls. The "senses" series of tapestries, three of which are on the staircase landing, is allegorical; far more captivating are the hunting scenes in the State Bedroom because small patches of them are virtual snapshots of daily life on the rural manor.

Pause at the picture of Haddon Hall, now returned from the National Gallery to its proper place as part of the chimney piece in the long gallery. In 1933 Rex Whistler depicted the ninth duke of Rutland and his son, the present duke, gazing across their patrimonial acres.

Some country houses are indicators of social change. Hardwick Hall, near Chesterfield, represents the Tudor genre faithfully, having remained virtually unchanged since its builder, Elizabeth, the countess of Shrewsbury, commissioned architect Robert Smythson to design the house for her in 1590. If you approach it from the road, you'll see how it commands the countryside, lofty on the horizon, gleaming over, the forested hillsides. It eclipses the ruin of the Old Hall, the residence it replaced.

Hardwick Hall makes visible many of the ways in which attitudes began to shift during the reign of Elizabeth I, when the Renaissance arrived in England. Men and women gradually focused on themselves, their families and their king rather than their duties to God. Peace at home, relative prosperity and the absence of plague epidemics seemed to justify their emerging self-confidence.

Under the Tudors, country houses became safe, settled and private. Hardwick, for instance, is enhanced, not protected, by the decorative wall that greets you when you leave the parking lot. Six square golden towers rise steeply above a deep green lawn, projecting boldly and symmetrically from the facade. You follow an easy flat path to the door under a Tuscan colonnade.

Built to exhilarate, to astonish and to impress, Hardwick is startlingly different from its medieval predecessors. England's fortunes soared under Good Queen Bess. Indeed, Hardwick Hall is essentially a dramatic expression of Elizabethan exuberance. An old local rhyme, "Hardwick Hall/ More glass than wall," identifies its chief innovation -- the vast windows. Above all is the monogram of its owner and builder: "ES" for Elizabeth of Shrewsbury.

A formidable creature known as Bess of Hardwick, she was married and widowed four times, to ever greater financial advantage. Hardwick's High Great Chamber was planned in anticipation of a visit from the queen -- a visit that never occurred. Elizabeth thereby missed seeing the Brussels tapestries that Bess bought in 1587, to which the dimensions of the walls were precisely tailored -- opulent 16th-century wallpaper. They hang below a plasterwork frieze painted in soft beiges that compliment the tapestries.

Be sure to notice the "sea-dog" table in the adjoining Withdrawing Room. It was described in a Hardwick inventory of 1601 and was one of the first treasures seen on the National Gallery tour.

The suite of "state" chambers (so-called because they were intended for royal guests) is reached by a meandering stairway that is only faintly reminiscent of the defensive spiral staircase at Haddon. The twists and landings at Hardwick are inviting, and its breadth and sweep suggest the ceremonial approach of a cortege, rather than hand-to-hand combat.

The long gallery, pioneered at Hardwick, soon became an essential feature in the country house. Hardwick's long gallery, reached by way of the High Great Chamber, is o anticlimax. Stretching an amazing, light-filled 166 feet, it runs along the entire eastern front of the house. The mullioned panes in the bays -- there are 20 windows -- give p;lay to the sunny motes that mute the mauve of the tapestries, that soften the chairs stationed like sentries along the walls. You'll want to linger here, where family and friends received guests, danced, listened to music, played games, put on amateur theatricals -- even bowled.

But the coterie of retainers who had filled the great halls of medieval houses like Haddon were now exiled from the upper stories. Relegated below stairs, at Hardwick the household personnel gathered and dined in the ground-floor Hall, segregated from the family. To the 20th-century eye this room, your gateway to Hardwick, is imposing, with classical columns screening the entry, armorial painted plaster strapwork emphasizing the height of the chimney piece and a 27-foot refectory table dwarfed by its environment. But the separation of master and servants at Hardwick was the harbinger of the division of spheres in "Upstairs, Downstairs."

Elizabethan butlers, no longer the social equals of their lords, entered the long gallery only to perform menial tasks. Here there remain today dozens of portraits, the Tudor notion of a photo album, hanging above the valuable tapestries that cover the walls. Bess herself, in the severe likeness lent to the National Gallery, dominates the collection of family, friends and public figures. Among the kings and queens, notice particularly Mary, Queen of Scots. For some 20 years, while Mary was the prisoner of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, she was the reluctant guest of Bess and her fourth husband, the earl of Shrewsbury. But, despite legend, Mary never stayed at Hardwick; her love affair with the earl of Shrewsbury took place elsewhere -- after all, the Shrewsburys owned more than half a dozen other houses, one of which was Chatsworth.

If Hardwick Hall is one of the grande dames of Derbyshire, Chatsworth is its reigning queen. Were I able to visit one country house in Britain, it would be Chatsworth -- and that visit alone would be worth the journey from London. When the present duke of Devonshire came into his inheritance, in order to pay the death duties he owed the government he gave Hardwick to the National Trust so that he could keep Chatsworth.

Readers of "Pride and Prejudice" will recognize Chatsworth immediately, for it may well be Mr. Darcy's "Pemberley House." Its classical west front, the bulky main block, greets the visitor, looking very much like the "large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground" that Jane Austen described in 1813. "Woody hills" in the background, a "stream of some natural importance" and the fact that Pemberley was the showpiece of the neighborhood impressed Elizabeth Bennet then and impress us today.

Chatsworth has a long history. An early structure on this site was begun by Bess of Hardwick, who persuaded her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, to move to her native Derbyshire in 1552. After his death, Bess lived at Chatsworth with her third and fourth husbands, and it was in the original Elizabethan mansion that Mary, Queen of Scots, was confined.

The great-great grandson of Bess and Cavendish was elevated to the peerage as the first duke of Devonshire in 1694 for his part in making a Dutch Protestant prince King William III of England. Restructuring the royal succession of England was not enough for him, however, and within a few years he had pulled down most of Elizabethan Chatsworth and rebuilt the south, east, west and north fronts one after another, mostly to his own specifications, imposing a kind of unity on the old house.

He also engaged English and French designers to plan the formal gardens: The unlikely cascade of water spilling down a flight of broad stairs, for which no picture can prepare you, dates from this period. In 1707, the moment his whole plan was realized, the weary duke surveyed his property and breathed his last.

He had prepared the perfect setting for his 18th-century descendants, all aristocrats of the ruling classes of Georgian England. Chatsworth was home, but in addition it supported the family, gave it prestige and was the source of its authority. Life here was pleasant, secure and orderly -- and the dukes of Devonshire meant to keep it that way, despite the industrial revolution that was urbanizing the nation.

Time, inclination and the education of a gentleman (including the Grand Tour) inspired improvements in the estate, and the changes wrought in the interior, exterior and gardens at Chatsworth illustrate the difficulties of trying to squeeze the history of the country house into a neat chronology. For instance, the State Drawing Room is virtually unchanged since the days of the first duke but later furniture has been added. The shape of the Library suggests its former function; it assumed its present appearance in about 1830, after serving for 150 years as a long gallery. The orangerie, which was built in the mid-19th century to preserve delicate plant specimens during the winter, now earns its keep as the best country-house shop in Britain.

Despite the advice in the brochures that you should allow "least an hour" to tour the house a whole day is hardly enough to do it justice. This is especially true if you pause to look for any of the 29 works of art that traveled to Washington from Chatsworth, the largest lender to the Treasure Houses exhibit. And you will pause, not only to see how it looks on what has been its home ground since 1761.

Chatsworth is immense, and every surface is covered. the Painted Hall, for instance, one of the first rooms on the tour, is overwhelming, with its gigantic murals, ornate gallery and regal staircase carpeted in red.

Two of the paintings sent to Washington hang in the final section of Chatsworth's extensive Sculpture Gallery: The portrait Frans Hals painted of a melancholy man with folded arms and Sir Edwin Landseer's canine satire "Laying Down the Law."

Even outside there is too much to see and do, all of it a pleasure. Centuries of reconstruction are evident in the extensive gardens, which you enter from the shop. Intent on providing a "natural" landscape, in 1760 Lancelot (Capability) Brown planted about 10,000 trees in the park beyond the River Derwent. You get a good view of this effort and its effect on the house from the Temple, a small structure added above the Cascade in 1703.

Joseph Paxton, head gardener to the sixth duke in the mid-19th century, made the garden into what you see today, diverting the river, building the "Conservative Wall" glasshouse and designing the 200-foot-tall jet of the Emperor Fountain on the Canal Pond. You can't see it all, but you can glimpse the highlights -- especially if you buy a plan, instead of just wandering around.

After the complexity and size of Chatsworth, it is almost a relief to turn to Kedleston Hall, a few miles north of Derby. Its cool classicism, created almost entirely by Robert Adam in the late 18th century, imparts a mood of repose. Although the Curzon family has been in residence here for more than 850 years, in 1759 Nathaniel Curzon, first Baron Scarsdale, swept away all traces of former houses. He even relocated the ancient village to provide an uncluttered setting for his new house.

The massive piles of Kedelston appear rather suddenly as you drive through the park, resting on a gentle slope of lawn beyond Adam's triple-arched bridge over Cutter Brook. Ironically, on arrival the visitor first sees the work of James Paine, Robert Adam's predecessor. Although his overall plan was later amended by Adam, Paine designed the north front as a formal, dignified and "correct" reinterpretation of ancient Rome, based on the writings of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrew Palladio. The central block is symmetrically flanked by a pair of derivative wings attached to it by curving corridors. You climb the stairs over the rusticated basement to enter the main house -- through a portico that could have been shaved off the Lincoln Memorial. Incidentally, take your pictures of the north front when you arrive; by the time you leave, its details will be in deep shadow.

Adam's south front, on the other hand, which is now Kedleston's exit, is lively and full of movement. The interplay of the graceful twin semicircular flights of stairs with the arch of the roof dome excites the eye. Despite the columns, the statues atop them and the size of the house, Adam's facade is inviting, whereas Paine's is rather daunting.

The Marble Hall, the ceremonial entrance behind Paine's portico, sets the tone of the interior -- a Georgian improvement over Imperial Rome. It is clear that Adam had just returned from Italy when he created this room. Columns, pilasters, apses, statues and ceiling would be overwhelming were it not for Adam's sense of delicacy -- his ability to translate a Roman imperial atrium into a grand Derbyshire hall.

In the State Drawing Room, just beyond the Marble Hall, sit the blue damask sofas, one of which was at the National Gallery. Despite the prodigality of decor and furnishings, this room seems ultimately livable, as does the entire house, because of Robert Adam's genius. His ideas are so pleasing, so intricate, so witty. Molded ceilings painted in pastels, niches shaped to display artwork, and chairs and tables of intricate design but patent utility add to the feeling that Kedelston was and is a home. Adam's chairs beckon you to sit, his tables to dine and his beds to sleep, despite brocade seats, gilden dolphin feet and palm tree posts on the four-poster.

Look for the black-and-gold ormolu platewarmer that will soon be back in front of the fireplace in the State Dining Room. In Washington its classical caryatids formed an elaborate decoration; at home they remind us that in the 18th century dishes, carried from the distant kitchens, needed to be heated before dinner was served.

The garden at Kedleston is small and comprehensible, its flower beds underplanted and its few buildings simple. In addition to his Palladian bridge, Adam designed an enchanting stone "boathouse," asn orangerie -- now in decay -- and a tiny summerhouse.

Of course the residents of Kedleston were and are aristocrats. You need only look in the Portrait Corridor at the Marquess of Curzon, and his wife, the American heiress Mary Leiter, to appreciate the arrogance of at least one owner. He became the autocratic viceroy of India in 1898. Relics of his Indian Museum in the cellar, including a photograph of the haughty Curzon in his viceregal robes that you might recall from the National Gallery.

Over a year ago the present Viscount and Viscoutess Scarsdale announced that the future of Kedelston was uncertain. While they may make arrangements to donate it to the National Trust, it is equally possible that the house will be sold. If you arrive as a prospective buyer, you could ask for a private tour. But visiting Kedleston even with the public is a rare treat.

Haddon, Hardwick, Chatsworth and Kedleston nearly span the centuries encompassed in the National Gallery's exhibit, bringing alive the artistic and social development of England between the medieval period and the late 18th century. By examining the treasures at home in the Treasure Houses of Derbyshire, the thoughtful visitor can learn lessons in history as well as share for a moment the dreams and achievements of the people who created that history. Lecturer and writer Virginia W. Newmyer has taught English history at American University.