TO DESCRIBE myself as a friend of the 11th Duke of Devonshire, who died on Tuesday, would be absurd. To say I was an acquaintance would be an exaggeration. But we did meet quite often over nearly half a century and those meetings were extraordinarily pleasant.
We had a few things in common. We were both Derbyshire men, shared a love of the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales, and when we first met in the late 1950s, we were both inexperienced at our jobs.
I was a 17-year-old cub reporter on the long-gone Derbyshire Advertiser, which covered Chatsworth and the surroundings areas, which in turn meant that we often attended the same functions – although in very different roles.
I often went about by bicycle and on the way to our very first meeting, my chain came off. I did my best to clean off all the swarf but when I finally got to speak to His Grace, I noticed he was staring with fascination at my hands as I gripped my notebook in a nervous trance.
I suddenly realised that my finger nails were packed full of jet-black yuk. Just what do you do with your hands when you are holding a big, old-fashioned notebook and you are asking the first aristocrat you have ever met how he proposed to pay off millions and millions of pounds worth of death duties – worth hundreds of millions at today's rate – when he had just inherited one of the biggest estates and the most illustrious titles in English history?
Many, many years later, when I was running a county magazine group, I went to interview the Duke at Chatsworth for his 70th birthday and wondered if he remembered that incident.
"I was a very nervous young reporter and you scared me to death," I confessed. He laughed and replied: "In that case, Mr Sheard, you should know that you were interviewing a very nervous young duke – and I was scared to death too."
It took the estate decades to pay off those death duties and very painful it was too. He had to sell-off a much-loved art collection – including a Holbein masterpiece now worth tens of millions – and Hartington Hall in Derbyshire, a neighbouring stately home which gives its name to the duke’s son and heir, the Marquis of Hartington, who became the 12th duke on Tuesday.
Here, he regularly entertained then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and some of the world’s most powerful people (one of his family married into the doomed American Kennedy clan – and was killed in an air crash).
The Duke was a keen art collector, a tennis fanatic, and even once mayor of Chesterfield in Derbyshire. But in the Yorkshire Dales, it was his stewardship of the Bolton Abbey estate that made him a pioneer bridging the gap between the age-old aristocracy and today’s classless society.
He realised that to keep ordinary folk out of thousands of acres of some of Britain's finest scenery was unacceptable in the second half of the 20th Century so he threw open to the public – without charge – the magnificent park at Chatsworth and miles of the Wharfe banks at the abbey.
The estates still had to make a profit, however, so with the help of his wife, he carefully developed their agricultural, forestry and leisure resources. With the Duchess taking a leading interest, the Devonshire Hotel at Bolton Abbey has won award after award for its food and accommodation.
They looked after the estate workers, too. When I saw the Duke at his 70th birthday, he had just paid all his tenants' poll tax and was very cross indeed: the Inland Revenue had decided that this was a "benefit in kind" and were going to tax that – a tax on a tax.
"I’ll have to pay that, too, but then that payment will also become a benefit in kind so this thing is going to go on forever."
The last thing he said to me was: "When you write about this family, Mr Sheard, it would be nice if you could say that we are people who have always had dirt under our fingernails. We have always had to work hard to preserve what we have."
This is a hard act to follow for Peregrine, the brand-new 12 Duke, who lives at Bolton Abbey in Beamsley Hall. Perhaps he will now move to Chatsworth but, whatever happens, I wish him all the best. I liked his dad a lot.