Chatsworth - Palace of the Peak

David Mearsin Public Places

Chatsworth, said by many to be the Palace of the Peak, is set on the banks of the River Derwent in the heart of the Derbyshire Peak District. Since 1549, it has been home to the Cavendish family and currently is to the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. David Mears was given rare opportunity to visit, tour and talk to a number of the gardeners' team recently.

Arrangements to visit Chatsworth had been handled by Mick Brown, Horticultural Technician, and it was he who acted as my guide for most of the time. It had been requested that no single person be interviewed, as is the norm, but that I'd talk to a selection of people with differing skills and experience so as to reflect the contributions of everyone in the team and not just one individual. Learning the vastness of the estate (there's five miles of walks within the garden alone!) and the number of people working there, this seemed a sensible suggestion. There are two very distinct teams, one that focuses on productive horticulture and one that carries out all grounds maintenance but are also responsible for delivering a large garden development project and managing the decorative areas in Chatsworth's garden. We'd agreed to concentrate on the latter and, having met early at the stables, we entered the garden. The heavy rain (not forecast!) that I'd experienced driving through cloud on the A621 to Baslow, had eased and we now had a slight drizzle; not good for photography but the skies seemed to be clearing!

Mick told me a little about himself: He's been at Chatsworth for thirteen years, grew up working with family in an east London floristry business, retrained as a gardener and was lucky enough to have been taken on at Chatsworth. He has two colleagues who manage the areas of the garden we are to see and he and they report to Steve Porter, Head of Gardens and Landscapes. Mick's role is to manage the volunteer programme, trainees and the plant collection and to help develop the team's skills and knowledge. This team alone comprises around twenty-five gardeners, seventy-five volunteers and a range of trainees.

The Vinery

Our first stop was to photograph the large Vinery, then we turned and photographed The Case. Both are Victorian and designed by Joseph Paxton, Chatsworth's most renowned Head Gardener. The Case is a splendid construction with a heated back wall where peaches, apricots, greengages, nectarines and more are grown. We then went to the newer display greenhouse, erected in 1970. The unusual construction with exterior stanchions is designed to provide maximum interior space and light. The building is split into three separate zones: Temperate, Mediterranean and Tropical. It was here that we met Ian Bell, Greenhouse Gardener, whose responsibilities are maintenance of public areas in the greenhouses and new vinery where exhibition grapes are grown. Ian, who has been at Chatsworth for 19 years, has taken advantage of the Covid-19 restrictions (the greenhouses are not open to the public as social distancing cannot be maintained) and has carried out major work on some of the plants. He's taken five large camellias out as overcrowding was an issue and planted new shrubs which reflect the The Duke and Duchess's tastes. As Ian commented, "The Duke and Duchess are very much involved, have a passion for flowers and know what they like". Ian's portable radio burst into life just then with a request that he selects and cuts a suitable bunch of grapes to add to other fruits for the house. "Would you like to come?" he asked. So off we walk to the vinery and Ian skilfully selects a bunch and cuts it, presenting it to his colleague to add to the basket. I couldn't help wondering why most of the bunches of grapes were contained in delicate muslin type bags. Ian explained that a blackbird had been in and that wasps too had been more of a nuisance this year. The bags protected the bunches whilst still allowing light and air through.

Mick Brown, Horticultural Technician / Ian Bell with freshly cut grapes

Job done, we returned to the three-zone greenhouse. Ian, as with everyone else I met, is passionate and proud of his work. He showed me a lovely species of Dicksonia Antarctica (soft tree fern) which he's nurtured. We moved on, admiring other plants, and another call came through for a couple of large lemons. Ian disappeared into the plants and found what he needed. He asked me to come and see. These Imperial Lemons (actually a cross between lemon and grapefruit) are a sight to behold, as the photo shows; nearly the size of a football but used in the house to make marmalade!

On we went into the tropical zone (not normally open to the public so as to maintain heat and humidity) and we looked down on a pond of hybrid giant water lilies (Victoria Amazonica). Ian is particularly proud of these; they are grown fresh from seed each year, so are an annual. As Ian said: "Quite difficult, but well worth the effort!" Who'd argue with that? We then walked round to view a lovely growing bunch of Musa Dwarf Cavendish bananas, now the world's main commercial crop! First grown by Joseph Paxton in 1835 after he obtained one from Mauritius, and then subsequently grown in large volumes.

It was "time for coffee", said Mick as we left and walked down to an attractive kiosk. Mick suggested that I tried one of their sausage rolls, fresh from the oven. What a good suggestion; not a regular sausage roll eater, this was rather special and most tasty! On our way back to continue our tour, we passed Ian who showed us a bunch of bananas he'd just cut.

The Emperor Fountain and House from the Canal Pond

We pressed on, passing the Emperor Fountain (Excellent view but poor light; so, I made a note to come back later!). This very high fountain, situated in the Canal Pond, was the 6th Duke's idea and Paxton put his engineering skills to the test by creating a record-breaking, gravity fed water plume, on record as having achieved a height of 90 metres! It was installed in 1844 to impress the Emperor of Russia, Czar Nicholas. When the Duke heard that the Czar might visit Chatsworth, the idea of welcoming him with an even higher fountain than the one at the Czar's palace in N.E. Russia (Peterhof), appealed to the Duke. Unfortunately, the Czar didn't visit Chatsworth, but nevertheless the fountain was named after him.

We passed Matthew Bullen and Jeff Madin (we'd catch up later) strimming on our way to the Rock Garden and Strid where we met Dave Spencer, Senior Supervisor Domain Department. Dave started at Chatsworth as a casual, then offered full time position in 1976, and has been here since. He is responsible for outdoor maintenance on all grounds, including hedges, trees, grassland, fences, dry stone walls, roads and land drains. This Victorian project was undertaken by Paxton with the 6th Duke who wished to be reminded of his visit to the Alps whilst on the Grand Tour of Europe. The heavy grit stones, originally brought from Dobb Edge north of Stand Wood in 1842 when work started, were held together, where necessary, by iron rods that Paxton installed and secured with lead. Deterioration has taken place over many years and, especially with a number of large overhangs, has presented problems. Dave was up high with a powerful drill and a rather long SDS bit, drilling through to be able to insert replacement stainless steel rods which will be secured with a modern epoxy resin. The Strid, incidentally, is the deep narrow stream running through the Rock Garden and gets its name from The Strid on the Duke's Bolton Abbey Estate where the River Wharfe flows through a chasm. At the top of the Rock Garden is the fourteen-metre-high Wellington Rock waterfall.

Rock Garden 2018 Phase one planting / Dave Spencer working in the Rock Garden

The Rock Garden has been an ongoing project over the years with the latest major project, commenced in 2017, being remodelling to provide improved access, including wheelchairs. This has included the work of the celebrated garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith who redesigned the planting. He wanted everything pulled together with a more cohesive planting palette. As Mick put it: "The original concept of the 6th Duke of wanting 'a garden of rocks' has not been forgotten, so the rocks remain dominant with the plants being subservient." The photo here is of Phase One replanted area in 2018 which shows the new paths. "We have been respectful to the original Paxton and 6th Duke's concept," says Mick.

Our tour continued to the Great Conservatory or, as Joseph Paxton called it, the "Great Stove!" The concept of Paxton and designed by the 6th Duke's architect Decimus Burton, this huge glasshouse (84m long, 37m wide and 19m high) took Paxton four years to construct and was completed in 1840; All that remains are the base walls. The Crystal Palace sprang to my mind and Mick told me that Paxton did, in fact, go on to use the techniques and skills he had developed at Chatsworth for his masterpiece: The Crystal Palace in 1851. Tasteful use has been made of the area however and split into three sections; first a Tom Stuart-Smith garden, then a maze (established in 1962 by the 11th Duke and Duchess) and finally a tropical planting.

We then came upon one end (glade four) of an immense project called Arcadia; The transformation of a 15-acre area, within the 105-acre garden, of mostly sloping land that had never previously been planted. The project is part of the biggest transformation of the garden for almost 200 years. The concept of Arcadia is to split the lengthy area into four different glades. Each glade will have a different look and all will be interconnected by three woodland walks.

The Chatsworth team

The 25-strong Chatsworth Garden team, directed by Head of Gardens and Landscape, Steve Porter, working with the help of four trainees and 70 volunteer gardeners are handling this huge project in-house. It is hoped to have the project completed very soon (there's been a slight delay due to Covid-19!). They are working to a plan by Tom Stuart-Smith which is supported by the Gucci fashion house. The whole area was cleared, hundreds of new trees planted and over 1000 tonnes of mulch laid before the team could start work on phase one with over 80,000 plants going in!

The particular glade we were at was being made ready and badger proof. It is designed to have a more natural feel. Whilst Tom Stuart-Smith is the overall Arcadia designer, he has enlisted the help of Sheffield University's Professor James Hitchmough to seed this final glade. A special seed mix has been created for this area and is site and climate specific. The planting you see now in the photo shows plants being established in a specially prepared base prior to seeding to create a perennial meadow.

With Mick keeping an eye on time, gardener's movements and best time to catch folk, we travelled down, catching a good glimpse at the Maze as we passed, to The Hub where I caught up with Jeff and Matthew, we'd seen earlier strimming. Jeff Madin, Machine Specialist (Gardens Team), has been at Chatsworth for thirty years and really enjoys the job. He has responsibility for all machinery used in the garden. He told me that members of the team have their own main machine and take ownership by maintaining it. All are H&S trained and six have chainsaw certification. Matthew Bullen, General Gardener and Arborist has also been at Chatsworth for thirty years. He's very happy working here and loves tree climbing!

Matthew Bullen (left) and Jeff Madin at The Hub / Sophie Bromley (left) and Sarah Thompson

We moved on to the Kitchen and Cutting Garden where I had the opportunity to chat to four people. First, in the 3-acre site, I spoke to Sophie Bromley, Cut Flower Grower, who has been at Chatsworth for just over a year and says "I just love it here!" Sarah Thompson, Cut Flower Grower, started as a volunteer four years ago, applied for a vacant position and has been employed now for a year. Jack Hubbard, Apprentice Gardener, working in the Cutting Garden presently, was a volunteer for a year and then secured a place as a Level 2 Apprentice Gardener. As with all apprentices, he's worked in all areas of the gardens to ensure he obtains a rounded training experience. He came to Chatsworth from Essex where he had been greenkeeping to continue his horticultural training, which he loves.

"So how is the job?" I asked. His response and smile says it all: "Enjoying it tremendously!" His End Point Assessment is due soon!

Next, I spoke to Veronica Wheeldon, Garden Volunteer. She took early retirement from teaching, went on a horticulture course and gained a diploma. She'd heard that Chatsworth was taking on volunteers, so she applied and was accepted. She's on site every Tuesday and has been for thirteen years, working in different areas. Her comments were: "It's a wonderful place to work!" We then went down to Glenn Facer's domain and found him outside his greenhouse. Glenn, Kitchen Gardener Veg and Fruit, must be one of the longest serving employees here as he chalks up thirty-one years in November 2020. Twelve years of this time has seen him in the Kitchen Garden. He went to a garden centre after leaving school, applied for a job at Chatsworth and was taken on to look after borders and hedges in the garden. Doing what he does now he says: "This is the job I wanted and I love it!"

Volunteer Veronica Wheeldon / Glenn Facer outside his Greenhouse

On we moved to look at the work started in 2015 but coming to fruition soon; The Trout Stream and Jack Pond. Redevelopment of the Trout Stream is intimately connected to Dan Pearson's creation of Chatsworth's and Laurent Perrier's 'Best in Show' garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015, which provided the conceptual inspiration for new planting and seating along the Trout Stream, which ends at the Jack Pond. A simple stream running, more or less straight, alongside a path has been reworked to have a more interesting and meandering course. We saw the near culmination of Dan Pearson's work coming together which includes a Pavilion, reflective pool and new planting scheme around an historic water feature called The Jack. I particularly admired the beautifully crafted small sluice gate, so in keeping!

We drove next up the path along the Trout Stream and came to Arcadia's Wet Glade which includes 35,000 new plants. We also stopped to admire the new sculpture by local artist Laura Ellen Bacon, inspired by the vast network of dry-stone walls across Derbyshire. We carried on and passed four of the team planting in Glade Two; it was hard spotting them all! A lovely view next presented itself; the Grotto pond with the greenery reflected in the clear water.

Moving on now away from Arcadia, we came to the entrance to the Pinetum, created during 1830-31, This area, Joseph Paxton's first major project as Head Gardener, was transformed by assiduous planting of the 6th Duke's collection of conifers from the Americas, Africa and Asia. It is stated that they were both men of vision as neither of them would see their beloved collection grow to maturity! Additions were made from 1950 by the 11th Duke and Duchess and now the 12th Duke and Duchess are keen for further development of this collection.

Entry to the Pinetum / John Marsh, Gardener and Mentor Co-ordinator

Looking out from the edge of the Pinetum across the valley to Capability Brown's parkland, we saw in the foreground an SSSI site, part of the early park, rich in ecology and containing an important collection of veteran oaks. We ventured on heading towards the Hub by another route and stopped for a word with John Marsh, Gardener and Mentor Co-ordinator. He is one of a team of two (the other is Nicky). John has worked at Chatsworth for seven years and is responsible for the mentoring side in the garden. His work includes mentoring students, apprentices and volunteers. He finds the mentoring rewarding, especially when he sees careers progress. Along came Britta Horsthemke, working nearby. She's probably the one who has been at Chatsworth the shortest time; this was her seventh day! Originally from South Africa, Britta has spent quite some time in the UK - care work and housekeeping initially - but had a keen interest in gardening, so decided to make a career change. She applied to go on a PGG (Professional Gardeners' Guild) course. This three-year programme saw her allocated to three properties (one included Buckingham Palace gardens). I asked if she had any comments regarding her brief time at Chatsworth. She said: "I have waited for this, it's just what I wanted!"

We arrived at the Hub and I spent a while chatting to Steve Porter who has been at Chatsworth for thirteen years. As Head of Gardens and Landscapes, all team heads report to him. I was able to put to him some of the questions we usually ask and not answered already.

Steve Porter, Head of Gardens and Landscapes

I asked about the soil. "We are on a gritstone edge and the soil is very varied as is the pH" said Steve. "This is a glacial valley." Consultants are called upon to advise and specialists and famously knowledgeable people have been involved, particularly with major projects. Over may years names such as Capability Brown, Joseph Paxton, and more recently, Tom Stuart-Smith have had major input.

Soil testing is frequent and composting is carried out on a large scale. Ecologists help to improve facilities. Contractors are not often called in as most work can be carried out in-house with a substantial range of machinery and equipment. There are two local contractors with specialist kit that are available and, in fact, one was there whilst I was on site, using a large stump grinder.

Chatsworth do not hire out land as such but do run public events such as horse trials in the spring. They also operate a 9-hole golf course, a swimming pool, a gym and bowls club. All are open to membership and are affiliated to the estate.

The total Estate, outside the garden and parkland, exceeds 25,000 acres, with the public areas, parkland covering 2,000 acres and the garden 105 acres.

Being affected by natural occurrences is usually manageable but, because they are in a valley, flooding of the River Derwent can be troublesome. There is a River Keeper employed responsible for the habitat and ensuring good flow.

Everyone has allocated tasks and, whilst some have special skill sets, most gardeners can chop and change if need be and handle most jobs. When a big job is underway, others can be called upon to assist. "The numbers are there if needed!" said Steve.

Four gardeners planting in Glade two / The hedge trimmers, Phoebe Chambers (left) and Mel Pudelko

I asked about presentation. "Obviously, it's of the utmost importance!" Steve says "We maintain the highest horticultural practices and this is driven by the family" he adds. The family are very much engaged and passionate. People visit to see the wonderful garden and have expectations; they do not expect the place to be stuck in the past. Steve tells me that we need to remember that everything we see has been changed or manipulated by the family. In the 1750s for example, and with Capability Brown's involvement, major changes included changing the course of the River Derwent, damming to create lakes and relocating the village of Edensor completely so that it was out of sight of the house! Brown also remodelled the landscape to the west of the house to create the lovely rolling vista you see now. Tens of thousands of trees were also planted at that time too; a huge planting programme.

The projects described are carried out by the in-house teams but, on occasions, students from nearby colleges or university can be supplied to help planting and gain experience. Apprentices are taken on, as described earlier, and this works well. Often volunteers or trainees have gained full-time employment.

Chatsworth ensure everyone working on site is suitably trained/qualified and there are 4-5 first aiders on each team but also extra for hazardous work. A Health and Safety officer is employed.

Local fauna and flora are important too and goes with the job, as does care for the environment. Most wild animals are tolerated but badgers are an issue at present (hence the badger proof fencing around the Arcadia Glade 4 planting!) Pheasants can be a nuisance also. There is a sustainability officer in place but all are aware of practices. Contact is maintained with the Environment Agency, particularly with regard to flooding and reservoir issues.

Laura Ellen Bacon sculpture / A view to the Derwent Bridge / Reflections on the Grotto Pond

Machinery is sourced as and when required, usually fairly locally, but there is no brand allegiance. As Steve says; "We buy the best piece of equipment for the job and at the best price." He also mentions that they are going down the electrically powered route for some kit. "An electric strimmer will not be as intrusive to visitors as a petrol one for example!"

One piece of kit that has paid dividends is their Amazone flail collector. "It saves so much manpower and is providing a better finish, enhancing the wildflower meadows; a great piece of kit!" says Steve.

Most day to day servicing is carried out in-house but large kit (tractors, etc.) are serviced by local dealerships to maintain warranty and proof of servicing.

Steve tells me that his operating budget has been curtailed due to Coronavirus. Big projects are funded separately, but, like the operating budget, the bulk of costs are covered by the revenue generated from ticket sales for visitors to the house and garden. Grants and sponsorship can also play an important role in conservation and development projects; an example being the Arcadia project, partly funded by Gucci.

Display Greenhouse / Arcadia's Wet Glade

As the weather had now improved greatly and the sun was shining, I bid my farewells and thanked Mick for his time and for the extensive information he'd imparted and returned to the garden; I needed better photos of the house, fountain and valley view!

I met Phoebe Chambers and Mel Pudelko on the way (we'd missed them earlier) so we took a photo and had a brief chat. Assistant Gardener, Phoebe has been at Chatsworth since September 2018. She said: "I had a placement here on a PGG course, then I saw a job opportunity here and applied." She succeeded in obtaining the full-time job. "I love the variety of work and we can use our own initiative" she added. Assistant Gardener, Mel has worked her way up so to speak, with a year and a half as a volunteer, six months as a temp and now full time. "There's always something different especially seed planting and then there's the views". She said that they regularly receive good comments from visitors.

A splendid place

Chatsworth is steeped in history and is a splendid place to visit and work. High standards are maintained and development is ongoing. It is clear, particularly from the comments freely given by those I spoke to, that there is an excellent working environment and all enjoy their jobs, be they employed, apprentices / trainees or volunteers. The fact that many trainees or volunteers have gone on to gain permanent positions at Chatsworth must mean something!

Apprentice Jack Hubbard / Britta Horsthemke

The Duke and Duchess are very much involved, interacting with staff and volunteers; their vision, enthusiasm and taste permeates the place. Their website statement exemplifies this:

"We have always been very aware of what the estate means to people, the impact it has on communities, and the responsibility we have, as custodians, to care for it.

We feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work with the many wonderful people who are committed to helping preserve Chatsworth for the long-term benefit of the public."

Hybrid Giant Water Lillies / Work nearing completion at the end of the Trout Stream