Visiting Chatsworth House, home of Britain's classiest Christmas festival

"We begin baubling in August every year," says the guide showing us around one of Britain's most beautiful stately homes. "Attaching the correct wire to the Christmas baubles is an art," she adds. "Some of the baubles are quite heavy."

It's the week before Christmas, and at Chatsworth House, many creatures are stirring, but nary a mouse.

Chatsworth, in the sublime Derbyshire Dales, has an illustrious history that dates back to the 16th century. It has been passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family – who made various additions and alterations over the years – and is now home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. It has become a thriving visitor attraction, houses one of Europe's most significant art collections, and hosts what is arguably Britain's classiest winter festival.

This year's market will run from November 15 to December 3,  with about 100 stalls selling a wide range of gifts and ornaments. But the real winter drawcard is the extent to which the Duchess of Devonshire goes to turn her home into a celebration of the festive season.

There's a different theme each winter. In 2018 it was "Once upon a time", with each room dedicated to a well known children's story: Cinderella, Snow White, James and the Giant Peach, and Mary Poppins among them. Previous themes have included the Chronicles of Narnia and Toad of Toad Hall.

The 2019 theme won't be announced until September, but the Duchess and her staff have been working on it for the past 18 months.

"The Duchess goes to the January sales to pick up the special fabrics she wants at bargain prices," our guide explains. "Many of the signature Christmas exhibits are made here, in-house."

Then there are the exquisitely dressed Christmas trees. We counted 36 when we visited last year. The 19 on the upper floors are artificial, but there are 17 real trees on the ground floor that require gallons of water during the two months of the festival.

Chatsworth is worth visiting whatever the season, especially now its £32 million restoration is complete. The project required the reopening of the original quarry (now part of the Peak District National Park), so the replacement stones perfectly match the golden  hue of those that have been in place for hundreds of years.

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Chatsworth House stands on the River Derwent, six kilometres from Bakewell (famous for its tarts), and is set in extensive parkland designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown, Britain's most celebrated landscape gardener.

Before Brown, Chatsworth had one of the finest French-style parterre gardens in Britain, but under William Cavendish, the 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720-1764), Brown tore them up, replacing formality with his meticulously planned and planted vistas that were meant to seem like the hand of God.

The 4th Duke also made extensive changes to the house. His wife, Lady Charlotte Boyle, was the daughter of Lord Burlington, the aristocratic architect who designed London's famous Burlington arcade. She inherited her father's collection of Old Masters and William Kent furniture that are now at Chatsworth.

The 6th Duke of Devonshire (William Spencer Cavendish, also known as the Bachelor Duke) was also a great collector. His finest addition was the Sculpture Gallery, built to house one of the best private collections in Europe. The Bachelor Duke loved Victorian-era house parties, and converted much of the upstairs into guest bedrooms. Overnight visitors included Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens.

The 20th and 21st centuries were less kind to Chatsworth. Death duties cut in. Renovation estimates proved astronomical. But modern Chatsworth – now inhabited by the 12th Duke and Duchess – is really the work of Deborah "Debo" Cavendish, the youngest of the six Mitford sisters.

Deborah was the 11th Duchess of Devonshire. She died in 2014 at the age of 94, having written several books about Chatsworth. She was reputedly the last English aristocrat to have been entertained by Adolf Hitler. (Her sister, Unity, was a Nazi sympathiser.) If you taste Chatsworth's Christmas pudding, you'll understand why he wanted to invade.

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Chatsworth House, north of Birmingham and east of Manchester, is 257 kilometres north-west of London via the M1. See chatsworth.org

Steve Meacham travelled at his own expense.

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