Sunday, June 13, 2010

More glass than wall

Hardwick Old Hall was built by Bess of Hardwick, a feisty and incredibly rich (thanks to four marriages) woman in Elizabethan times. "Building Bess" designed the hall herself to replace the original family medieval manor house that sat on the same site in Derbyshire. Once she had eight children (via marriage number two) and become a countess (marriage number four), Bess wanted an abode that would reflect her new station in life and, naturally, one that would live up to those of her friends. An understandable enterprise made fractionally more ambitious by the fact her closest companion was Queen Elizabeth I.

A prophesy was foretold that Bess would not die while she continued building and it was perhaps this that caused her to start work on Hardwick New Hall before the Old Hall was fully complete. England's aristocracy frequency held different residences around the country but the notable fact about the New Hall is that it was built right next door to the Old Hall. This is quite literally so; they are as close as two spaciously detached houses although rather on the larger side. The picture at the top shows the New Hall photographed from the Old Hall.

Unlike the first building, Bess did not design Hardwick New Hall, employing instead the professional architect, Robert Smythson. The defining feature of the new abode is its owner's initials, in large stone letters, scattered liberally about the rooftop and the wide windows, which produced the phrase "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall" to describe the location for the last 400 years.

Despite this brave attempt to keep the building work continuing, a hard frost in 1608 halted work and Bess died, fulfilling the prophesy. A cynic to such topics might point out that her being over 80 might have also had something to do with it.

Even though the Old Hall and New Hall were built a mere three years apart, they now look vastly different. The New Hall has been completely maintained while the Old Hall has fallen into ruin. The latter came about because descendants of Bess in the 18th Century sold part of the building to raise funds while they lived at their preferred location in Chatsworth. Apparently, declaring that you had not the cash, but your debtors could help themselves to eastern dinning hall wall was completely acceptable ...

The western half of the Old Hall is less ruinous than its eastern side and you can climb up the stairs to gain a stunning view over the Derbyshire countryside. Between the trees, you also catch a view of the M1 motorway, something I am quite sure Bess intended. Everyone, after all, likes to keep an eye on visitors, especially estranged husbands who were cracking until the strain of their indomitable wife.

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