I’VE had something of a Brideshead moment this week, at Locko Park, the family seat of the incoming High Sheriff of Derbyshire, Lucy Palmer. During an interview, she had mentioned that the tiny, 17th-century chapel within the house is still used for regular worship. She welcomed me to join them for an early-morning eucharist; so I drove into the estate on a rainswept day, when the lake was so high it was almost running over.
The chapel was built in 1669, and is a gem. It’s down a flagged corridor, past the kitchens; once the door is closed, no handle is visible, and the aperture vanishes into the panelling. There are a coffered ceiling, a magnificent high pulpit, a Schnetzler chamber organ, and beautiful, round-arched “Powells” (Whitefriars) windows. The dusky pink of the walls is scattered with golden stars. It smells of beeswax and age; and it’s wonderful.
History is now
THERE is always an unfamiliarity about worshipping with regulars who are not your regulars. There are ten of us, and I’m the first to be motioned up to the rail, after Lucy, who has knelt on a plump hassock. So I kneel as well, even though there isn’t a hassock. Mortification sets in when I find that the three who followed me are standing, and that I’m so dwarfishly far beneath everyone else that Fr Julian Hollywell has to stoop low to give me the cup.
But they have invited me back, any time. And, as I rumble over the cattle grid and splash down the long drive, I reflect on this little pocket of Church of England worship. What faithfulness it represents. What connections it keeps with history. What images it recalls.
IT MUST be my week for mixing with the great and good, because, the next day, I am in the State Drawing Room at Chatsworth House, the jewel in the crown of Derbyshire’s country estates. Chatsworth has undergone a ten-year restoration and renewal project, and looks simply magnificent. The Duke of Devonshire exults in describing the glorious gold decoration on its exterior as “blingy”; and now, when the sunshine catches it, it flames like fire.
The works have included the cleaning, conservation, and rehanging of the Mortlake Tapestries: English tapestries, dating from the 1630s and based on in a set of cartoons by Raphael, The Acts of the Apostles. This is how I come to be standing at the feet of Christ, resurrected from centuries of grime and addressing the apostles in Christ’s Charge to Peter.
The tapestry rejoins the already conserved Sacrifice at Lystra, and Healing of the Lame Man. The fourth in the set, Death of Ananias, awaits conservation, its colours faded and its detail obscured by time. Susie Stokoe, who is head of the textiles department here and a trained weaver herself, loves Raphael’s strong faces, the flowing curly hair, and the drapery — all now vividly brought back to life. Christ is a muscular, sinewy figure; a stooping Peter holds the keys of the Kingdom; a surrounded, troubled figure — certainly Thomas — turns away.
Place of safety
THE 3rd Earl of Devonshire is thought to have acquired the tapestries in the 17th century, and the 6th Duke had them framed, writing in his diary in 1830: “I am up to my neck in tapestries.” The room is shaded to preserve the fabric. Soft uplighting gives a candlelight effect that animates the figures: the tortured Lame Man stretches out his hand in appeal; the bright-robed watchers take in the drama.
This room was a temporary dormitory for schoolgirls evacuated from Penrhos College, in Wales, during the Second World War. For Ms Stokoe and the conservators, that may explain the mystery of how — since the tapestry had not been out of its frame since 1830 — a perfectly smoothed chocolate wrapper came to be discovered when the tapestry’s lining was removed.
A very small tear was discovered at wardrobe height, perfect for posting tuck-box evidence from a midnight feast. I like to think that there is some very elderly woman, kneeling in a church somewhere, who still has this act of sacrilege on her conscience. It is not too late to own up.
CHATSWORTH is a far cry from Belgrave Road, Leicester, and the shop — Anokhi House of Sarees — where I find myself the following evening. This city of all faiths has absorbed and welcomed a large south Asian population.
As you move around the streets here, it’s evident that, for the present generation of British-born young Asian women, the sari is no longer the garment of choice for everyday wear.
I’m here to see an unusual piece of theatre: Handlooms, by Rani Moorthy. It is not only set in a traditional sari shop, but played out in one. It’s about a mother and son running the family business and facing a decline in the market, but it’s about other things, too: refugees, and family expectations, and the generational divide. Through an audio headset, we’re able to eavesdrop on conversations in changing cubicles and in the unseen back room, besides watching the drama unfold in the crowded shop.
As a critic, I always try to fade into the background. This is immersive theatre, where I know anything can happen, but imagine my horror when I’m seized on unwittingly, and draped in a sari for all to see. So fine is the line between drama and reality that I’m really not sure whether the woman who is pleating and tucking and cajoling is indeed the owner of the shop, or whether I’ve become part of the fiction.
It turns out, of course, to be the latter. But I do wish I hadn’t been wearing a sweater and jeans.