Chatsworth House: We visit Peak District attraction to find out more about £7.5m restoration project

Chatsworth House has launched a fundraising campaign to help pay for the restoration of its centuries-old cascade. Richard Fidler visited the Peak District estate to find out more about the £7.5m project.

For more than 300 years water has flowed down Chatsworth House’s iconic cascade to the delight of visitors, staff, and indeed, many of the 16 generations of the Devonshire family who have called this world famous estate in the heart of the Peak District, home.

It has provided the backdrop to picnics, family parties, impromptu gatherings and also cooled the feet of many a small child during hot summer days of exploring the gardens and grounds. But as Chatsworth welcomes visitors this year, the cascade will be silent as major investigation work begins to preserve it for the next 100 years.

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Turning off the Grade I-listed attraction was a decision not taken lightly by senior officials at Chatsworth but it was, says head of operations Robert Harrison, the correct call.

Chatsworth House in the Peak DistrictChatsworth House in the Peak District
Chatsworth House in the Peak District

“The challenge that we have with the cascade is that, to be blunt, more water runs under it than over it. Looking back at historic photos, the amount of water running down the cascade is quite significant, and today we don’t see that,” he said.

“The amount of water running underneath is creating voids and getting trapped in different areas so we’re doing further investigations to find out what’s going on.”

Repairing and restoring the cascade will be an expensive business, with the total cost estimated to be around £7.5m. A fundraising campaign to help pay for the work will be unveiled throughout the year but Chatsworth House Trust – the registered charity, responsible for looking after the house, collections, garden, woodlands and park – has already been awarded £422,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) to kick-start its ‘Celebrating the Cascade’ project.

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The funding will help the charity’s initial research and development work to restore the feature. Built more than 325 years ago, the structure is made up of a temple with spouts and fountains, and 24 steps that water flows over, which descend 60 metres.

Chatsworth behind the scenes guided tour of the Cascade regeneration project.  Rob Harrison head of operations.Chatsworth behind the scenes guided tour of the Cascade regeneration project.  Rob Harrison head of operations.
Chatsworth behind the scenes guided tour of the Cascade regeneration project. Rob Harrison head of operations.

Harrison says it is important the correct fixes are identified before any restoration work begins. “With the development funding we’ve got from the NLHF, we’re trying to find out what the problem is,” he says. “With such a big and important structure such as the cascade, we are trying to understand what the fix is so we have water running over it rather than under it. And that’s not easy.

“A lot of work was done in the 1990s and previous to that in the 1970s to try and fix the cascade. Some of that work would have been beneficial at the time but it doesn’t have the longevity. We’re now looking at a longer-term fix – a hundred-year fix.

“The general public may turn up after lots of hard work and say ‘what have you actually done?’ But the goal is to repair the structure so the water runs over it again but no one really knows we have done much intervention there.”

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As philanthropy manager at Chatsworth House, Miles Stevenson is part of the development team charged with working with a variety of organisations – and the general public – to reach the fundraising target.

He said he is under no illusions as to the importance of the project: “The cascade is one of the three features in the garden that are incredibly popular. There’s the maze – because who doesn’t like a maze – the rockery, but we know from all the data we’ve got that the cascade really appeals to lots of visitors.

“The restoration is a major project and it is of national significance because the amount of features like that left in the country are tiny. The fact that it has been there for 300 years since the time of the first Duke is really important.

“The £7.5m cost is a very large sum of money but the ringing endorsement that the National Lottery Heritage Fund gives us is that if we can raise funds it will release £5m. Yes, it is a big amount but it has been endorsed by the Lottery people and now the challenge for us as a team is to raise the £2.5m.

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“It is not just restoration because the other side of the project is to engage with our audiences and bring people in. We know that for some people the Chatsworth estate can be a bit intimidating – the house is designed to impress. But the gardens are really friendly and visitors like to come through the year and see the garden through the seasons.

“And especially for children and families a pleasant walk around the gardens is very important. We know that they always go to the cascade – new visitors always have their photo taken at the cascade because it is something that is emblematic of Chatsworth.

“There are all kinds of different aspects to it. For instance, there is the engineering one – in 1893 they put the first turbine in and that provides all the electricity for the house. People love that because it’s sort of green before its time.”

Stevenson says every penny will help: “The Chatsworth House Trust will be putting money in because we are a charity but we’re having to reach out to other people to help. Top of the list are big trusts and corporates but also our aim is to raise at least £250,000 from the general public.

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“We will be launching that campaign later this year and the aim is to get lots of little donations. We like to think that people who come to Chatsworth find the cascade really important and we’d hope they’d like to play a part in the fundraising. So when it’s successful people are able to say ‘I made a small donation and that helped trigger the National Lottery grant to help develop the whole thing’. This is the first time we have done a big public campaign, so we’re hoping that our supporters, visitors, members can respond in a small way.”

Even before the campaign is launched, money has already started to come in, said Stevenson. “Our guides, who are so enthusiastic about this, tell us that people have been making donations already even before any public launch. One lady has donated £50, which is a very generous sum. We asked her why and she said sadly her husband had just died after 50 years of marriage so she said for 50 years she’d been coming here and she had an emotional attachment to Chatsworth.”

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