Champagne, Salmon Sandwiches and Shakespeare at Chatsworth House

by Simon Willis  |  Published March 4, 2015
There’s nothing quite like watching a Shakespearean classic in the grounds of a grand British stately home. Chatsworth House, situated in the rolling Derbyshire Dales, is not only steeped in history and intrigue but also enchants visitors with seasonal markets, live concerts and open-air theatre.
Chatsworth House (M. Day via Flickr)

Chatsworth House (M. Day via Flickr)

My theatre experiences are never normally like this.

I’ve never brought my own chair to a performance, or been offered a homemade smoked salmon sandwich by an audience member. And I’ve certainly never waited outside the entrance as a deer leaped in front of my car.

Indeed, this is my first visit to the English stately home of Chatsworth House, located among the rolling hills of the stunning Derbyshire Dales.

It’s mid-August and we are on the pristine Salisbury Lawn, at the north-west corner of the 105-acre gardens, watching the Lord Chamberlain’s Men perform Romeo and Juliet.

The evening is crisp, clear and more importantly dry. Heaven forbid what would happen if a downpour, not uncommon in this part of England, were to occur.

The stage, behind which the sun has already dipped and blasts a deep red afterglow, is about 5m2, just big enough for seven thespians to bound around on.

Dressed in flowing purple, green and red jackets, tight trousers and white knee-length socks, the good-postured men leap, dance, shout and stamp their feet very hard on the wooden floor. Their booming voices even echo off the front of the main Chatsworth house building.

Encircling the stage is the audience, about 400 of us.

Having never attended open-air theatre I was forced to consult the website yesterday as to what I needed to bring. A chair, rug and picnic were the suggestions – though it now occurs to me these are provisions onto which people add their own extravagance.

As I munch on my Tesco pork pie and sip coffee from my flask, people all around devour banquets of roast meats, cheeses, baguettes, salads and sushi.

In front, three ladies crack open their second bottle of champagne.

One of them, with long brown hair and wearing a grey ‘I love snow’ jumper, leans forward from her garden chair and eases the cork out of the Dom Perignon bottle. It puffs a cloud of mist. She fills three glasses with the bubbly, being careful not to dribble any on their white picnic rug.

I sip my flask top of coffee.

To my right, a grey-haired man in a red fleece flips the lid of a wicker picnic basket and pulls out a jar of olives, a punnet of green grapes and a bottle of red wine. He snaps off two branches of grapes and forks some olives into a bowl. His wife continues watching the show as he fills two wine glasses, pushes the cork back in the bottle and then wraps a sheepskin blanket over their legs.

Clink – “Cheers,” they say.

My stomach growls.

Behind us, is a golf buggy with a red stretcher and medical equipment strapped to its back. The first aid man sits inside, ready to perform his duty for a pulled hamstring from a lunging Capulet or an eye injury caused by an overzealous champagne cork.

The symbol of the grounds is out of view of the audience. The marvelous Chatsworth House stands down the carpeted lawn, beyond the statues of nude men in provocative poses, and at the other side of the white gravel path.

This English Baroque House, first built in the 1560s and since reconstructed several times, splits the wavy Derbyshire moors landscape behind.

It’s here where Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) became enchanted by the grandeur of Mr Darcy’s estate in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Pemberley from Jane Austin’s famous novel is believed to be based on Chatsworth House, although Austin never actually confirmed this.

Owned by the Duke of Devonshire and home to the Cavendish family since 1549, the grounds are open to visitors all year round. The yew maze, rose garden, sensory garden and iconic Emperor Fountain, which shoots as high as 60m (enough to send water drifting up to half a mile away) are highlights of this quintessential English day out.

November sees the grounds festooned with stalls selling Christmas wares and seasonal delicacies such as mulled wine, chocolates and artisanal fudge. Summer brings with it live concerts and open-air performances such as the one we are watching.

Despite the infamous weather, the Brits have a certain penchant for sitting outside, shivering and braving the conditions.

And the people of Derbyshire are no different. As the last shards of sun glow disappear from behind the stage, a Mexican wave of rustling coats and closing zips reverberates around.

I can see my breath in front.

The man and his wife next to me sink further underneath their blanket. They pull their woolen hats down over their reddening ears.
I pour the last remnants of the flask into the lid and drink the now-cold coffee. As with the lack of alcoholic beverages, fruit and hearty food, I have come thoroughly unprepared on the clothing front.

My hooded jacket, despite being fastened around my face so I can barely see out, lets in the nippy air, and my jeans just aren’t made for such weather.

Why would anyone do this? I think. Surely an auditorium with accessible toilets, a bar and most importantly temperature control would be preferable for a Shakespearean classic.

Then, as Romeo plunges his sword into Tybalt, I feel a tap on my shoulder.

The woman next to me holds out a box of sandwiches.

“Go on, take one dear,” she says smiling.

I take the white square salmon sandwich and thank her through chattering teeth. I take a swig of coffee which feels a lot hotter than before, burrow into my chair and struggle to think of another place I would rather be.