A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part One
A few years ago I had such a marvellous time at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire seeing their Christmas decorations and nativity that I vowed to go again someday. Not only is the house one of the most beautiful in Britain, the huge Christmas trees in every room, the vintage swags on the staircases and fireplaces, and the nativity with real animals in the stableyard, meant that it had been an unforgettable treat, plus flaming torches lighting our way as we drove away in the dark. The house is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and dates back to the sixteenth century, but it has also posed as Darcy’s Pemberley for ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in both the Keira Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen film version and now the TV adaptation of P D James’ ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, so catnip for Jane Austen fans. And when they announced that this year the Christmas decorations would be themed around C S Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, it was obvious that this was the year to go to Chatsworth again. I have spoken on Lewis and Narnia at various venues and have seen several excellent and creative attempts to decorate places to give a Narnia ‘experience’, so what would such an immense house with so many resources be able to offer?
So this week we made the hour’s drive from Nottingham to Bakewell in the Derbyshire Peak District. There was the obligatory ‘Brideshead’ moment as we approached the enormous building from the edge of the estate and saw the building’s magnificence at a distance. As you enter the Chatsworth itself you are greeted by an Air Raid Warden and scenes and music from the Second World War. This is because ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ of course is set at the beginning of the War and, as I’m sure you know, concerns the four Pevensie children who were evacuated to the countryside to avoid the bombing – very appropriate for Chatsworth as apparently a girls’ school called Penrhos College was evacuated here at that time too in reality, although sometimes it was so cold that their hot water bottles froze at night!
The first two Christmas trees that greet you in the entrance way are decorated with little London buses and there is a desk with 1940s items such as an old phone and newspaper which reminded me of Lewis’ desk at the Kilns. But then one walks through a doorway and into a short passage lined with fur coats and then… into Narnia!
A long corridor with spectacular white and silver and frosty trees and baubles, all leading up to –
what else – the lamp post. Small white furry woodland creatures are hiding in the undergrowth and one is lulled into a false sense of security when suddenly…
several enormous menacing wolves appear, one being Maugrim himself with the notice of the arrest of Mr Tumnus on the orders of the ‘Queen’.
There was an area for children to dress up in long dresses and furs and cloaks as characters from the story. This overlooked an inner courtyard with a fountain and animals that had been ‘turned’ into stone to show the witch’s power in Narnia at that point.
We then walked into the chapel, in itself a stunning place for worship filled with magnificent murals and statues and two of the biggest Christmas trees I’ve ever seen indoors. Christmas carols were playing in the background and people were standing around in awe at the sight.
The tapestry chairs on either side reminded me of the thrones for the kings and queens of Charn, waiting to be awoken by Digory striking the bell – not perhaps a happy recollection but by this point even the ‘ordinary’ furnishings and carvings in Chatsworth were taking on a Narnian significance.
We then turned left into the Oak Room, renamed Tumnus Towers, and found ourselves in Mr Tumnus’ living room all set out for tea. His kettle was whistling on the fire and a book entitled ‘Is Man a Myth?’ lay on the table, the cover photo looking suspiciously like the Duke of Devonshire! The man playing Mr Tumnus was probably rather old for the part, if he’ll forgive me saying, but did have magnificent furry trousers. But having tea with Mr Tumnus here was very appropriate as it was the Duchess of Devonshire in the 18th century who invented the habit of taking afternoon tea as a stop gap to tide one over as dinners were so late in the evening. There were two trees in his room, both decorated with gingerbread men. I had read a newspaper account beforehand of what would be in this Narnian experience so I had been expecting Mr Tumnus, but not what we could see from the next room –
– right into the living room of Mr and Mrs Beaver! She is at her sewing machine and he is scrubbing his back in a bath in front of the fire (not sure where they got this from, but it was funny)! The walls made of logs was a nice touch and there were packets on a table such as wood chips for them to chew on and ‘incisor paste’ for cleaning their teeth, the old-fashioned packaging adding to a 1940s feel.
One then walked out into the Chapel Corridor and was confronted by Father Christmas’ sleigh. Unfortunately he was not there in person (I probably would have fainted by this point) –
– but the two reindeer were animatronic and moving as if they were about to eat the carrot and mince pie left out for them by children. Apparently each year, for over a hundred years, Chatsworth has a held Christmas party for the children of their estate workers during which Father Christmas really does come down the chimney! If we hadn’t realised it already, it was now obvious that here they can do things on a much bigger scale than the rest of us. And we were only at the beginning of our Narnian Christmas journey…
Part Two concerns Aslan, the White Witch and Turkish Delight.
Part Three concerns the victory of Aslan and the enthronement of the children at Cair Paravel.