Hall this and more beside

A taste of the aristocratic lifestyle. Helen Werin lives the country house dream, if only for a day or two.

It's breakfast time at The Peacock at Rowsley and the topic of conversation is centred around who is going to be riding side-saddle on a horse, across the 350-year-old bridge, to the magnificent medieval manor house of Haddon Hall.

Our breakfast table looks across the gorgeous gardens leading to the banks of the Derwent. Our room has a wonderful four-poster bed and an ancient wooden chest with legs so wonky that, sitting in the armchair opposite, gives the illusion of being in one of those crooked fairground houses which leave you disoriented.

But this is no illusion; we're here to live the dream, if only for a couple of days, of a country house lifestyle. With a young daughter in tow, there's more leisurely exploration of stately homes and the beautiful Derbyshire Dales scenery than hunting, shooting and fishing. Nevertheless, trying to put ourselves, figuratively, in the lord of the manor's shoes is not that difficult. Spectacular Chatsworth House is three miles up the road, refined Bakewell a few miles' walk past fields in which we spot plenty of pheasants and The Peacock itself is owned by the Duke's younger brother, Lord Edward Manners. His family has owned Haddon Hall since 1567.

Even better, Haddon Hall – described as "the finest example of a fortified medieval manor house in existence" – is dressed for a film set; Jane Eyre, starring Dame Judi Dench no less.

Our entry in to Haddon Hall is a little surreal when we spot an obviously fake film-set tree near the bridge. Many of the rooms are also dressed for the film. What is impossible to conceal is the fabric of this building. This is a place that is conserved, rather than restored, so what we are seeing dates from the Middle Ages through to the early 17th century.

In the chapel are fabulous 15th century frescoes, in the 16th century long gallery, the grandest room in the house, the windows appear, at first glance, to have buckled with age. This is where the film set ends and stunning reality takes over. These south-facing windows were designed with diamond-shaped panes set at different angles to reflect the light. Peering a little closer, we find graffiti etched on the centuries-old glass by various workmen and visitors as well as some rather talented poets.

In the earl's apartments, more modern – and more regal – signatures have been scribbled above a fireplace; those of King George V, Prince Charles and the Princess Royal. As we admire 800-year-old oak chests, 400-year-old spinning chairs and 16th century tapestries depicting the five senses, we wonder at why the first Duke of Rutland decamped to his then far more fashionable Belvoir Castle, leaving Haddon suspended in time for 200 years.

It wasn't until the early 1900s that the ninth Duke returned and realised how special Haddon Hall is and made it his life's work to preserve it. It's certainly special enough for the film crew. This is the fourth Jane Eyre filmed here.

It's a short drive to Chatsworth and our spectacular approach to the seat of the Duke of Devonshire, through the deer-filled park, is magnificent. The house, its landmark cascade of water and the 90m jet of the Emperor Fountain emerges from behind the trees, with tantalising glimpses of the Capability Brown gardens.

Once inside the house, even the hordes of visitors from every corner of the globe don't intrude on our reverie. Everyone speaks in awestruck whispers as the rooms and their contents reflecting 16 generations of impeccable taste and incredible wealth become more impressive with each step.

The painted hall draws gasps, covered as it is with lavish frescoes. These murals, along with a suite of fabulously-decorated rooms, were done purely to impress William and Mary, whom the first Duke hoped would visit. They never came.

What would have been the King or Queen's bedroom is a display of ostentation with a capital O, with silk fabrics and rich tapestries and ornate early 18th century mirrors which cost 100 to buy but 80,000 to restore.

In the Great Chamber, the painted ceiling depicts the Virtues kicking the Vices out of the house. Apparently the artist, Antonio Verrio, was a bit of a womaniser and upset the housekeeper. After they clashed he painted her in to the ceiling looking like a witch.

Quirky little touches like this abound all over the estate. We discover these when we get sprayed by the Emperor Fountain and become frustratingly confused in the yew maze. Most amusing of all is what a certain young Royal visitor, Princess Victoria, called the "squirting" tree; a willow tree fountain which rains from its leaves and branches.

While we're absorbing the warmer, more lived-in ambience of Chatsworth, I'm hoping that, over at unheated Haddon Hall, Dame Judi is wearing her thermals. They are lovely to visit, but these vast houses can be draughty. During the Second World War, when the state rooms at Chatsworth were used as dormitories by 250 evacuated pupils of a girls' school, the poor lasses would find their hot water bottles frozen in the morning.

Back at The Peacock a log fire awaits us, along with the warmest of welcomes from the manager, Jenni McKenzie. When Jenni describes the food as "fine dining" it's a bit of an understatement. My exquisite scallop with confit pork and deliciously caramelly onions is fit for a queen, let alone a duchess – and that's just the starter. My main course of sea bass, with a crab lasagne and shellfish foam and my husband's red mullet with Greek-style vegetables, has us spellbound.

Next morning the spell is slightly shattered when the only carriage at the door is a super-shiny black car with tinted windows waiting to take a rather beautiful young actress to the set.

Our Vauxhall Vectra parked round the back may not be so sleek, but it has helped transport us, briefly, in to another world.

Where to stay and what to see

Guests at The Peacock at Rowsley can have free golf at Bakewell Golf Club nearby, half price admission to Haddon Hall and 10 miles of the best dry fly trout fishing in the UK. Under 10s Monday-Thursday only. www.thepeacock atrowsley.co.uk

Haddon Hall (not including discount) adults 8.95, parking 1.50; www.haddonhall.co.uk

Chatsworth house and garden only, adults 11.50 (10.35 online), parking 2, www.chatsworth.org

A night at The Peacock, including buffet breakfast (cooked breakfast is extra) and a la carte dinner, is 210 (275 Friday-Saturday) for two. The Peacock is a member of The Great Inns of Britain. Special offers: www.greatinns.co.uk

YP MAG 12/6/10