This is Hardwick Hall on the border of Derbyshire and Yorkshire, a house described as "more window than wall." I'd never been to Hardwick Hall before last weekend, a shocking omission when I consider myself to be a fan of the Tudor period and of Bess of Hardwick in particular, that tough, shrewd woman who worked her way up society from her beginnings as the daughter of a poor gentry family and ended up founding a dynasty. One of the first historical novels I read was a fictional biography of Bess of Hardwick entitled only "Bess." It enthralled me and fostered my fascination with history and I dearly wish I had kept my copy or could at least remember the author's name.
So last weekend, on the way to my research trip/canal boat holiday in Yorkshire, I finally made my pilgrimage to Hardwick Hall. When I came out of my tour of the house I was so stunned and over-awed I couldn't speak for about an hour. This happens to me sometimes when I've seen a play or a film that I particularly enjoy. I'm so wrapped up in the experience and so busy thinking about it that I don't say a word. Hardwick did that to me. But it wasn't really a comfortable silence. It was more a bafflement at the character of Bess, inveterate builder on such an ostentatious and overwhelming scale. It was said that a soothsayer had told her that she would not die for as long as she continued building; a hard winter finally came in 1608 when Bess was eighty one years old. The workmen put down their tools - and Bess of Hardwick died.
My first port of call was Hardwick Old Hall, built by Bess between 1587 and 1596. This is a ruin now, hugely atmospheric with some of the original plasterwork still visible to give an idea of the radically modern Italianate style of the house. One of the truly exciting aspects of the ruin is that you can still climb the staircase right up to the fifth floor and what would in Bess's time have been the lead roof over the Hill Great Chamber. Bess's household and her visitors would have enjoyed a walk around the perimeter, safe behind the stone balustrade, and with views out across the parkland and landscape beyond.
Even before the building of the Old Hall was complete, Bess had started work on Hardwick New Hall, just metres away. Both houses continued to be built at the same time so Hardwick Old Hall was not replaced by the newer house, it complemented it. Nevertheless it is Hardwick New Hall that still stands today intact as Bess would have seen it whilst the Old Hall was demolished from 1745 onwards. The reason for the demolition is not know. It could have been to save money - the sale of the lead, iron, plaster, wainscot and doors raised over £300. or it could have been to create a picturesque garden ruin for the inhabitants of the New Hall to enjoy. The Old Hall's open interior was planted with trees in 1793 to appreciate as a garden feature!
After I had appreciated the Old Hall at length I walked over to the New Hall which, as the National Trust guidebook puts it "celebrates in stone Bess's rise from an obscure gentry family to the rank and riches of a countess." For me, what makes Hardwick overwhelming is it's height and size and symmetry; six towers, huge expanses of window glass and inside the original decorations of huge Flemish tapestries, table carpets, painted wall hanging, plaster friezes, inlaid furniture and 16th and 17th century needlework, all rattling around in a place that covered the area of a sports stadium. Magnificent it most certainly was; cosy it was not. Opinions of visitors to Hardwick have varied from the start. In the 18th century Horace Walpole said "vast rooms, no taste." The first is certainly true, the second rather harsh in my opinion! John Torrington said: "Like a great old castle of romance" and that is exactly right.