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The Duke and the countryside

Friday 26 Febuary 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who interviewed the present Duke of Devonshire when he lived in the Yorkshire Dales, and who met his father several times, does the unfashionable thing and begs him not to give up his title

WHAT a coincidence. In this column last Friday, I bemoaned the disappearance of landowners and yeoman farmers from the House of Westminster, taking with them the hands-on knowledge of how the countryside works.

Then, on Sunday, the Duke of Devonshire announced in the Sunday Times that he would be happy to give up his title and be known simply as Peregrine Cavendish if Labour go ahead in the death throws of this appalling Government and eject all hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

Bolton Abbey
Bolton Abbey: open to the public

That ban would not affect Peregrine, because his Lords seat was taken away in the first cull of the Lords by New Labour, but what worries me – and this, I admit, is a highly unfashionable view – is that to give up the title would be to surrender yet another defensive weapon against the ever more vicious assault on rural life by townie MPs.

I interviewed the “new” Duke, the 12th, when he was the heir to the title and lived at (or rather across the road from) Bolton Abbey here in the Yorkshire Dales. I interviewed his father, the 11th Duke, several times. He was the first aristocrat I ever met when I was a cub reporter and he had just taken over Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, and I interviewed him again many years later when he was celebrating his 80th birthday.

At that first encounter, he had just been landed with a huge death duties bill which forced him so sell off one of the family’s several stately homes, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, and a much prized Holbein masterpiece to help pay off the debt (to, of course, a previous Labour Government).

When we met at Chatsworth on his 80th, he came out with one of the most prized quotes of my 50 year career. I told him about that very first meeting years before and said I had been a “very nervous young reporter.” And he replied: “In that case, you were interviewing a very nervous young Duke.”

However, the object of this column in not to drop names or recall some of the better moments of my career - because both father and son were and are a joy to interview, patient, kind and often very funny – but because of their status as guardians of some of the most important houses and landscapes in the British Isles.

In this role, the Duke is not only one of the prime standard bearers but – and this is my crunch point – he is a countryman who actually understands how the delicate skeins of country life are held together.

To describe the Devonshires as farmers would be nonsense. They own well over 50,000 acres at Chatsworth, Bolton Abbey and Lismore Castle in Ireland and these estates represent to me the absolute epitome of how the countryside should be managed.

the most beautiful stretch of lovingly landscaped countryside in these islands

They have scores of tenant farmers and take a close interest in the way that, in these difficult times, the farms are profitably run by long-term investment: the Devonshires live by that old country role that the job of any heir is to leave the estate in better fettle than when he inherited – a rule they have been following for centuries.

Their houses and other properties are meticulously maintained – they are spending a staggering £14 million refurbishing Chatsworth at present – and in doing so keeping some of the grandeur of history past alive in the present.

But, best of all to me is the love – and the cash – that the family trust has lavished on the various lush landscapes that surround these architectural jewels. Chatsworth park is, arguably, the most beautiful stretch of lovingly landscaped countryside in these islands and the walks along the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey are renowned throughout the North Country.

And, to their outstanding merit, both are open to the public: walkers can pass through free; motorists have to pay a small parking charge. In other words, these are priceless public open spaces maintained at huge expense to the family trust – and not a penny of our taxes.

And this is why I hope that the 12th Duke of Devonshire never gives up this historic title to become simple Peregrine Cavendish. The title carries more than mere social cache. It has impact, an authority that bears the weight of centuries which even the most ardent townie MP would dare to challenge.

Peregrine says his skin crawls when he is addressed as “Your Grace,” the same level of official greeting given only to Dukes and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. It has a unique authority which can be used for the benefit and protection of country life. For that reason alone, please keep it – Your Grace!

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