The houses that Bess built

The Midlands is home to the ugly and arterial M1 motorway. It also incorporates Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, two counties that boast a lavish sprinkling of stately homes and proximity to Alton Towers

An unkind person might say that the M1 is one of the ugliest and most unpleasant contributions of the 20th century to the British environment. Hurtling along its congested course I suppose that might be true. But it does have the advantage of keeping people away from some of Britain's relatively unspoilt Midlands. So, with peace in mind, we decided our summer holiday cottage would be in Derbyshire this year.

An unkind person might say that the M1 is one of the ugliest and most unpleasant contributions of the 20th century to the British environment. Hurtling along its congested course I suppose that might be true. But it does have the advantage of keeping people away from some of Britain's relatively unspoilt Midlands. So, with peace in mind, we decided our summer holiday cottage would be in Derbyshire this year.

The other main attraction was the large number of stately homes in and around Derby and Nottingham, softened (as far as the children were concerned) by the prospect of a day at Alton Towers. The first of these was Hardwick Hall, once home to the celebrated Bess of Hardwick. Bess was Countess of Shrewsbury and, apparently, my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother (and probably half the rest of the country).

The story goes that Bess was a raving egomaniac who spent most of her life building houses. She could do that because she married four times, and all her husbands had the good taste to predecease her, leaving the merry widow staggeringly wealthy. Among other establishments Bess built "old Hardwick" Hall in 1586 but abandoned it by 1591 to build another, bigger, establishment a few yards away in her twilight years. Now the two houses sit and glare at each other, the old and ruinous hall cared for by English Heritage, and the bigger and flasher residence by the National Trust.

We started with old Hardwick and the audio tape which is supposed to direct you from room to room and staircase to staircase but does so in such a convoluted manner the children got completely lost. We all ended up looking to the west over the M1. In an amazing departure from the usual motorway school of conspicuous construction, it is all but hidden in the landscape.

Bess would hardly have known the difference. Not that she was any judge of taste. A window on the other side provides an excellent view of the later house and its elaborate monogram E S (for Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury) decorating the balustrade on the roof. It couldn't have been worse if it had been Liberace's home, or Graceland.

Hoping for something more likeable, we pressed swiftly on to Kedleston Hall, a magnificent Robert Adam Palladian house and the former home of George Curzon, Marquess Curzon and Viceroy of India from 1899-1906. The funny thing about some National Trust properties is that you get the distinct feeling of being unwelcome.

Every room at Kedleston Hall had a plain clothes security guard. They hovered suspiciously in case our offspring did anything inappropriate, like look at the furniture, and moving close was immediately followed by a swift padding of feet and a polite request to move away. It's easy to understand why. The houses are immensely valuable and so are the contents, but it's difficult not to feel they'd honestly rather you hadn't come at all.

The story goes that the Curzon, who built Kedleston in its present Palladian form, was so concerned about the conditions in the village that had once stood there that he had it cleared away to make room for his new house. I'm sure the locals were grateful. As the Curzons had lived there since around 1100 they probably had no choice but to doff their hats. Down in the basement the Viceroy's souvenirs and Mary, Lady Curzon's, clothes are all on show, including an extraordinary peacock dress. Even in the dim 40 watt lighting it shone like silver. It must have cost half of India's gross national product.

Chatsworth, a shamelessly-commercial enterprise which started life as another of Bess's modest building projects in 1555, seems quite convivial by comparison. It looks like a family home and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire make an effort to acknowledge the efforts of local industry.

A turbine rotor from a Rolls-Royce jet decorates one room, for instance, though I preferred the Gainsborough portrait of the scandalous Georgiana (1757-1806), one-time duchess herself.

Chatsworth's accessibility was reflected in the much larger number of visitors. But the Trust probably likes it like that. Kedleston was tricky to find and badly signposted. And, unlike Chatsworth, it didn't have an adventure playground which, for our energetic sons, was a distinct disadvantage.

But then they had Alton Towers to visit. The day we went it was pretty well heaving. It's an unremitting imitation of Disney World in Florida, right down to the monorail arrival station. But without Disney or any other cartoon heritage to fall back on, the dressed up animals meandering about were hard to identify. One might have been Mrs Tiggywinkle but Robert, our 10-year-old, grimaced and said, "eugh, let's keep away from the rat".

Not what Beatrix Potter would have envisaged as a reaction but then she wouldn't have expected Mrs T to keep company with a raucous stone age rock band fronted by two dolly birds whose prehistoric tunics were struggling to keep everything in place.

Scattered in between the shops and arcades are the rides. Nemesis (and it looked it) involves being suspended from a track which runs in and out of fake rocks decorated with the fake remains of a fake dinosaur. The sense of other-worldliness was slightly enhanced by dwindling light.

Oblivion (and it was) was the climactic achievement for two of the boys. The rest of us looked on in dumbfounded horror. It involves riding up a slope in a double-row of seats before dropping about 150 feet vertically into a dark, steam-filled hole.

Thankfully there is a way out. The carriage exits from a hole some yards away like a bullet from a rifle barrel and the ride, which has lasted barely 15 seconds, is over.

It all ended on an utterly shabby note: the 3-D film experience. Shovelled into a sagging white bubble (the screen - which needed ironing) we watched with disbelief as a film involving a Mini decorated with a Union Jack cavorted around a Mediterranean and Alpine setting, Italian Job style.

Incredibly it appeared to be vintage Sixties footage, replete with scratches, jumps, faded colours and enhanced by light spillage from exit illuminations. It was supremely crass and somehow typically British. At least when Bess splashed out she did it in style, even if it was in the worst possible taste.

* Hardwick Hall is about seven miles south-east of Chesterfield (01332 292200), Kedleston Hall three miles north of Derby (01332 842191) and Chatsworth eight miles west of Chesterfield (01246 582204). Alton Towers is open from late March until the end of October, it lies midway between Stoke-on-Trent and Ashbourne (0990 204060; www.altontowers.com). For more local information visit the Derby city web-site: .www.derbycity.com

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