Kindness and hospitality live! Recently, we published a letter from a New Yorker who had been overwhelmed by the unexpected generosity of an Eastern Shore innkeeper. Here is another letter, this one from a Chevy Chase reader who experienced a similar revelation in England.
The man at the gatehouse was as distressed as we were. My husband and I had just arrived at Hardwick Hall, in England's Derbyshire, for what we hoped would be a leisurely afternoon's visit. I had discovered this National Trust treasure, world famous for its tapestries and needlework, during an earlier visit, and now I wanted my husband to see it. But when we arrived by taxi from the nearby town of Chesterfield, we found scaffolding over the outside of the house and the family crest over the front entrance removed: The house was closed for restoration. As this fact sunk in, our taxi drove off, leaving us stranded.
While I was looking longingly at the facade and the six towers topped by those bold 10-foot-high initials, ES, and their coronets, the gatehouse guard was telephoning to the house to report our predicament.
Elizabeth of Shrewsbury, a k a Bess of Hardwick, the formidable woman who commissioned the house in 1590, was born on that very hill, the daughter of a squire. She returned there as the widow of the powerful Earl of Shrewsbury and one of the truly highly ranked persons of the Elizabethan age. She had married four times and founded the dynasty of the future Dukedom of Devonshire with her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, and become the appointed guardian, with Lord Shrewsbury, of the captive Mary, Queen of Scots, during her long imprisonment by Elizabeth the Queen.
This house was the monument Bess built for herself, in her sixties. The conceit of those S's on the towers, and the crest above the door--the only decorative additions to the house--were the reasons I was there.
There we were, high on Bess's hill, miles from our return train, without the means to get to it. But the man at the gate had reached the official in charge of the restoration inside the house. He, a Mr. Hughes, came out and offered to take us through the house himself.
Which, miraculously, he did. The furniture was protected by muslin covers and the tall windows were blocked, in preparation for the winter's restoration work. We saw four centuries' worth of family accumulation. Hardwick Hall had remained relatively unchanged, with many of the contents as Bess had left them in the early 17th century, until it was turned over to the National Trust in 1959.
So, while the house is very grand indeed to 20th-century American eyes, it had an essence of real living to us, which would not be apparent in the grandeur of a Chatsworth or other monumental palaces, such as Blenheim Palace or Castle Howard. This was especially clear to us as we saw it that day, without the usual tourist crush.
Mr. Hughes answered my husband's questions about construction and pointed out features we would never have noticed ourselves, such as the history of a door in the room later named for Mary, Queen of Scots, and even showed us a recently discovered baking oven behind a brick wall and cupboard in an anteroom off the kitchen (always our favorite room in any house).
It was a memorable day, all due to the consideration and thoughtfulness of the man at the gate and Mr. Hughes at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.
-- Martha C. De Sipio
Hardwick Hall (Doe Lea, Chesterfield, Derbyshire, telephone 011-44-1246-850430) is now restored and is open April through October. For more information on Hardwick Hall, and on other National Trust properties, contact the National Trust, 36 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AS, telephone 011-44-171-222-9251, www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
CAPTION: Hardwick Hall, a National Trust treasure in England's Derbyshire, was closed for renovation, but that didn't stop the author from getting a tour.