If you were to regally recline in a chair in one of the grand rooms on the ground floor of Chatsworth House and gaze out over the south lawn, you might feel like you were looking back through time.
At the end of the 17th century, an ornate garden full of swirling green flourishes and meandering pathways was installed at the monumental English country home.
But after only a few decades of the cream of the English crop sauntering around its walks, this intricate creation was leveled and replaced with a simple, natural lawn studded with trees, as was the new trend (yes, even gardens can go out of vogue.)
For nearly 300 years, the Chatsworth crew knew of this once-fabulous grounds’ design only through two surviving depictions — a painting and an illustration — and in the stories that were handed down through the generations of Cavendish family owners. Every once in awhile, a hint of what once stood there would peep through. But, for the most part, the lawn remained a natural swath of green.
But that all changed this summer. An extreme heat wave has been wreaking havoc on Europe.
Wildfires have been breaking out across the continent amid droughts and extreme temperatures; warmth-loving algae is polluting the Swedish waterways; people and livestock are struggling to cool off in areas largely devoid of air-conditioning; and the old English country houses are having trouble keeping their lawns their typically vibrant shade of green.
It’s been a scorching struggle — one that has had a very unexpected upside in one rather prominent corner of Derbyshire. As the grass on the South Lawn of the Chatsworth House has boiled to a crisp and turned a lovely shade of “dead brown,” the ghost of the 17th century gardens have emerged from below the once-lush surface.
“In [previous] dry summers, we used to see bits of [the old garden], so we knew what was underneath the surface,” Steve Porter, head gardener at Chatsworth House tells The Daily Beast. “But this dry summer particularly has brought out most of the details. So you can see most of the paths, the swirls of the beds, and you can almost see all of it once you’re up above it. This is the first time that we’ve seen it all revealed on the lawn as it would have been in 1700.”
Chatsworth House sits firmly in the grand tradition of English country estates, with all the pomp, circumstance, and old family drama that the honor entails.
Originally built in the 1560s, Chatsworth House was the vision of Bess of Hardwick, the wife of Sir William Cavendish, and a woman the BBC describes as “second only to Queen Elizabeth I in wealth and influence during her 16th century lifetime.”
The house was almost completely rebuilt by the end of the next century, but, in its earliest incarnation, Bess was already laying the groundwork for the commitment to horticulture that would come. Under Bess’s keen eye, some ponds and fountains were installed, gardens were arranged on a hill, and an area known for its visiting deer was formalized with walls.
It was a beautiful backdrop for the family drama that was in store.
Downton Abbey may have had a dead Turkish diplomat, secret engagements, and an illegitimate love child, but Chatsworth House was the sometime jailhouse for Mary Queen of Scots, a battleground during the English Civil War, and the home of both the fifth Duke of Devonshire’s wife and his lover (oh the horrors!).
But well before the fifth Duke scandalize the English nobility in the early part of the 19th century, the man who would be named the first Duke of Devonshire, otherwise known as William Cavendish, the fourth Earl of Devonshire, took up residence and changed the history of the estate.
A portrait of the man shows something of a vintage dandy. He is pictured in a full suit of armor, with a neckerchief fashionably flopping over the top of his metal ensemble while the coiled locks of his flowing wig are impeccably arranged.
It is a fitting picture of the man 18th-century historian Horace Walpole described as, “a patriot among the men, a gallant among the ladies,” and ‘prone to take offence [sic], ready with his sword as with his tongue, plaintiff and defendent in many lawsuits.”
He took over as head of the family in 1684 at the rather advanced age of 43. Before he came into his family inheritance, he had established himself as something of a rabble rouser.
Among his greatest political machinations was his prominent role on Team William of Orange. Cavendish was one of the seven signatories to the invitation to the usurper and an avowed opponent to King James II and his Roman Catholic overlords. (Cavendish would win the title of Duke for his troubles.)
By the end of the 17th century, Cavendish’s political intrigues had played out and he was getting on in years. He decided it was time to retire to his country estate and to begin to attend to his family affairs.
What he found there was quite shocking. Over the previous decades, Chatsworth House had suffered from the neglect of several succeeding owners, including our dear Duke, as well as major damage sustained during the English Civil War.
When Cavendish began to examine his estate more closely, he realized it was in a serious state of disrepair. As he began to make small repairs here and there, he discovered, to his surprise, that he enjoyed this task of estate homemaking.
For the remainder of his life, the first Duke of Devonshire spent his time completely rebuilding and expanding Chatsworth House and adding the element every English country home needed at the turn of the 18th-century: a scrumptious garden.
“Over a number of years he rebuilt the Elizabethan house in the classical style and constructed a garden to complement it,” the Chatsworth House website explains. “The Duke was one of the first Englishmen to embrace the creation of formal gardens already fashionable in France, Italy, and Holland. The result was numerous parterres cut into the slopes above the house, and many fountains, garden buildings and classical sculptures.”
The formal garden design that was all the fashion at the time operated under a guiding principle that the more intricate, the better. They were modeled off of the gardening being done by the French and the Dutch, and the results were wonderlands of greenery.
According to Porter, it was the top landscape design firm of London & Wise who helped Cavendish realize his plan for his South Lawn parterres, the ornate arrangements of shrub swirls and pathways that made up the elaborate garden.
The new garden was finished by the turn of the century, with the final touches being made to the house a few years after that…just in time for the Duke of Devonshire to see before his death in 1707.
The second duke’s stewardship passed by with relatively little note or fuss, and then the third Duke of Devonshire (naturally also named William Cavendish) took over as head of the house in 1729. It was an inheritance that would spell doom for the fancy garden.
According to Porter, the third duke was friendly with William Kent, the landscape designer of the day who denounced the ornate gardens inspired by England’s foreign neighbors and instead championed a more natural English lawn.
“Their association and their friendship convinced the third duke that actually the fussy, the labor intensive, the sort of French or Italian garden that you had wasn’t appropriate, and that he should have something much more simple and English,” Porter says. “And that’s what he did. He took away the parterres and mowed them down right up to the house.”
This is, more or less, the south lawn garden that remains to this day.
While this lawn is serene and beautiful in its own right — not to mention just one of the many garden features that dot the estate — Porter can’t help but admire the shadow of the garden that once was that lurks beneath.
“Back then, they didn’t have lawn mowers and stuff. They would have been cutting these with push mowers and scythes and trimming them manually, and the level of detail is quite amazing,” Porter says. “The effort that must have gone into [the garden] to create it and to keep it maintained and looking so crisp is huge. It would certainly be a challenge today for any garden team, let alone without the mechanization we have today. It’s very impressive to see what they achieved.”
But while Porter may be living in the age of motorized lawn mowers and automobiles, he still may be getting a taste of the heroic achievement of his 18th-century predecessors.
While the extreme temperatures have enabled this ghost garden to emerge, they haven’t been quite so kind to the rest of the grounds, which are a whopping 105 acres large. Without a normal amount of rain this year, Porter says his team has been working to manually drive water out to suffering areas of the estate to water each of the thirsty plants in need.
“I think we’ve had a bit of rain over the past few weeks and probably just enough to keep everything going now,” Porter says. “Hopefully, fingers crossed, we won’t lose too much.”