Secret Rooms. October 2013.

Dear Rowley,

Have you read Catherine Bailey’s Secret Rooms? I’m rathe a latecomer to Miss Bailey’s work but tore through her archive trembler of a book about the 10th Duke of Rutland’s race against time to redact his family’s papers and bury secrets worthy of Wilkie Collins’s pen. The book has been criticised for its sensational tone and the first person narrative about Bailey’s search for rather uncomfortable familial truths. I would imagine the re-heating of this aristocratic cold case might not have pleased the present Duke and Duchess but the visitor receipts for Belvoir Castle and Haddon Hall probably did.

I only mention Secret Rooms because the Manners family took me back to my own in Derbyshire last weekend. I’d been reading the letters of Lady Diana Cooper (nee Manners) to her son John Julius – the delightful Dear Monster - and Lady Diana happened to mention that she spent the happiest days of her childhood at Haddon Hall: the medieval castle deserted for over two centuries and brought back to life by her father the 10th Duke. She also mentioned the church at Rowlsey, the closest village to Sherwood Towers in Beeley.

The official visit was ostensibly to celebrate my 42nd birthday though why the advance of the Botox needle inching ever closer to ward off the W. H. Audens could be construed as a cause for merriment is anybody’s guess. Birthdays do give pause for thought however. They are a natural full stop that makes one estimate whether one is inching up or sliding down the greasy pole that is London life. Burning style issues of the day: is 42 too old to roll-up the skinny jeans and show off new bright orange knee socks from Mes Chausettes Rouges? Is a fringe still boyish or does it make an older man look like Barbie’s granny? So much to think about…

Where were we? Oh yes, Derbyshire. I spent the morning of my birthday in a graveyard; more specifically looking at the tombs of the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire that look down on the Gilbert Scott-designed church at Edensor. Edensor is such a pretty model village, built by Sir Joseph Paxton (also buried there) for the 6th Bachelor Duke of Dev. Needless to say it teemed down as soon as I yomped up to the monuments where every Duke and Duchess from the 6th to the 11th were laid to rest. God only knows who the locals thought the flanneled fool smoking a St Moritz and snapping pictures of gravestones in the rain might be.

As you know, I am prone to melancholy on birthdays unless jollied out of it so it was something of a fillip to sally forth with my brother and infant niece to pick up my fabulous Auntie Lynda who was joining us for lunch. Lynda had gone arse over tiara when on a visit to Austria and fractured her yodelei-hi-ho so was walking on a crutch but was on sparkling form. It is rather a joke in our family that after one of my mother’s Sunday lunches Grandmother Hilda would always say ‘can’t get that out, can you’. With age and many reservations at Wiltons and Sheekey’s I am inclined to agree.

So who gave the best gift? You might well ask. Winner hands down was my brother with a Fox-frame late Victorian umbrella with brass fittings that I’ll take to James Smith & Sons to have monogrammed. I will have to attach it to my chatelaine belt every time I take it out for a walk for fear of loss or theft or impromptu renditions of Gene Kelly numbers in Soho after midnight.

Though I was hoping for a visit to Hardwick Hall on Monday, the National Trust in their infinite wisdom closed it. Wouldn’t happen if the Devonshires still had the keys to the door but there we are. Instead, we minded our Manners and went instead on a jaunt to Haddon Hall. Lord Edward Manners now occupies Haddon in the winter months, lucky dog, but it is open to the great unwashed until November. Am I alone in feeling slightly indignant in having to share houses like Haddon with the other touristas?

Haddon Hall has to be the most romantic, perfectly proportioned Medieval manor house in England. Built around two courtyards with paving gently sliding down towards the River Derwent below, Haddon is almost entirely untouched since Tudor times. It is sparsely furnished with fine pieces of 15th-17th century pieces making it terribly easy to imagine how one would choose to inhabit it today. The Long Gallery is magic and has sinuously rippled leaded diamond windows that look out over formal terraced gardens.

The most haunting piece of Manners history is the copy of 9th Duchess Violet’s sculpture of her son Haddon in the chapel at Haddon Hall. Haddon, who died aged nine, is one of the keys to Miss Bailey’s Secret Rooms as is 10th Duchess Kathleen (nicknamed Kakoo) whose Dame Laura Knight portrait usually hangs at Haddon but is currently on loan to the National Portrait Gallery. The Halloween decorations at Haddon were rather feeble but I rather liked the wise woman (a polite phrase for an old crone) seated on a wooden stool in the Great Hall by the fire telling spooky stories. I was going to pull up a chair and tell her about the year I’ve had so far. It’d make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand on end. Until next time…