The Old Vicarage: Debo’s Closing Act in Edensor Village by Andrew Budgell

Extracted from The Mitford Society Vol. II

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On the 3rd of May 2004, Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, died following a protracted decline leaving his wife Deborah with a new title, the Dowager Duchess, and in need of a new home – but not just at once. Deborah remained at Chatsworth for a year-and-a-half following her husband’s death, but, as she wrote in her 2010 memoir, Wait for Me!: “The passages began to seem long and the stairs steep. It was time to move, to make way for the next generation.”

The Dowager Duchess wouldn’t be moving far to her dower house. Over the hill from Chatsworth about a mile lies Edensor, an idyllic English village. Deborah was no stranger to the village, having lived there from 1946-1959, before moving to Chatsworth. In December 2005 Deborah would take up residence in the Old Vicarage, an attractive fourteen room, eight bedroom stone building with parts dating back to the 18th century. “The house… has no architectural merit,” Deborah admitted, “but its atmosphere makes it a happy place – the influence, I believe of the devout men who occupied it for two hundred years.” It required extensive renovations before Deborah could move in, and on this endeavour she was assisted by her friend, the illustrious interior designer David Mlinaric, whose clients have included Lord Rothschild and Mick Jagger, and such venerable London institutions as the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert museum. He assisted her in seamlessly transforming the vicarage into a home fit for a 21st century duchess, and in placing “electric points, light switches, baths and so on”.

Much of the interior decoration, however, was left up to Deborah herself, who saw in her “mind’s eye” precisely what she wanted and was no stranger to outfitting homes of any size. Many might find it difficult to downsize from Chatsworth, one of the grandest of England’s stately homes, into what one might call a rabbit hutch, but not Deborah. In fact, she would take the design principles she learned there and apply them to the Old Vicarage. “One thing I learned from Chatsworth was what a good finish a fillet gives round the cornice, the doorcases, and skirting,” the Dowager Duchess told The World of Interiors magazine. This was employed in the soft pink drawing room, where Deborah would receive journalists, friends and family. An inviting floral covered sofa faced the fireplace, and before it was an upholstered ottoman, its surface home to books waiting to be dipped into. Flanking either side of the fireplace were baskets overflowing with firewood, a necessity during the bleak Derbyshire winters. Bric-à-brac covered the chimneypiece; everything from urns to framed personal family photos. The Dowager Duchess’s desk was placed in front of the window, affording her views of the garden. The dining room was informal, with a painting of a flower with a vibrant royal blue background, at home with more formal portraits on the adjacent wall. In her bedroom the bed sheets were stained with ink, a side-effect of her penchant for early morning writing in bed. Irreverent as ever, the wall colour of the guest bathroom, a cerulean blue, was inspired by a plastic bracelet she had worn during a recent hospital stay.

Her son and daughter-in-law graciously allowed her to pilfer pieces of furniture and artwork from Chatsworth in order to make her new home feel familiar, including White Tulips, a still life by William Nicholson. But Deborah had a formidable personal collection of her own. A painting of eggs in a basket by Lucien Freud, an old friend, was given pride of place. (Deborah always brought along a basket of eggs when she visited the painter in London.)

The Dowager Duchess’s family and friends quickly felt at home at the Old Vic, as Deborah referred to her new home. “It was always incredibly exciting, going to Chatsworth,” her granddaughter, the famed model Stella Tennant told Vogue in 2010, but added that the vicarage was less intimidating “because there aren’t so many precious things about”. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including Tennant’s brood, were given the run of the place. “[T]he lift is great fun. She also had one of those chairs that tipped you out; it was quite useful because so many old people come to stay, but the children broke it. She’s very tolerant of all of us rampaging about.”

Edensor, the Dowager Duchess wrote, is decidedly not “sleepy” and “is as animated as the cross-section of people who live in it.” Family was at her doorstep: Deborah’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth, was just steps away “at the top of the village”. Edensor, which is pronounced ‘Enza’, is a pastiche of architectural styles. It was rebuilt from 1840-1842 by the 6th Duke of Devonshire and the gardener and architect, Joseph Paxton. (Paxton, who designed the Great Stove at Chatsworth, a marvel of engineering and design, would go on to design the building that was dubbed the Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London.) The village was originally situated near the River Derwent immediately below Chatsworth, but was moved out of sight. In the heart of the village is St Peter’s Church. It was enlarged by Sir George Gilbert Scott for the 7th Duke of Devonshire in the 1860s, and contains a memorial to Henry and William Cavendish, the sons of Bess of Hardwick. The churchyard is the final resting place of most of the Dukes of Devonshire, Joseph Paxton, John F. Kennedy’s sister, Kathleen (Deborah’s sister-in-law), and Deborah’s three children who were stillborn or died at birth.

Several years after relocating to Edensor, the Dowager Duchess received unwanted attention from an elderly man whom she had met during a walk in the village in November 2010. She was forced to obtain a restraining order when he continued to make communication, even going so far as to propose marriage.

But with that small exception, the Dowager Duchess’s relations with the public in Edensor were just as harmonious as they were during her forty-six years spent at Chatsworth. Until recently when her health began to fail her, each year on Edensor Day, the village’s annual fete, Deborah would throw open the doors of the Old Vicarage and for £5 would allow the public to come take a peek inside (with monies benefiting the village in some way, such as a new roof for the church). Deborah would act as tour guide and show guests around her home – nothing was off limits – and was tickled by what the public found interesting. “What people love is the shoe cupboards and the lavatories and all that. And sometimes they say, ‘You’re very brave to do this,’ and I say, ‘You’re very brave to come,’ because there’s always a queue. So funny.” But some visitors, expecting the grandeur of Chatsworth, were invariably left disappointed. “I came to see the chandeliers and all I found was Habitat [the UK home furnishings retailer],” one visitor said. “What is wrong with Habitat?” Deborah wondered.

Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire died on September 24th 2014. Luella Bartley, the great fashion designer and magazine editor, once said of Deborah that “when she goes so will a part of England”. In the event, her words proved prophetic, and upon her recent death the media and the Dowager Duchess’s countless admirers mourned not only the loss of a woman who embodied a gilded age, but one who made her life count. It was a life that was undoubtedly enhanced by her final decade spent at the Old Vicarage in the village of Edensor.

Andrew Budgell is a Managing Editor and Community Manager for a Toronto company. He has a passion for theatre, film, writing, music, books, travel and design, and spent much of 2013 living in London, fulfilling a lifelong dream. He received an Honours BA in English Rhetoric and Literature from the University of Waterloo in 2010 and established DameElizabethTaylor.com, a tribute to the legendary actress in 2002.

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