‘It was a fine Autumn morning; the early sun shone serenely on embrowned groves and still green fields: I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. Battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look.’
'Farther off were hills: not so lofty as those round Lowood, nor so craggy, but yet quiet and lonely hills enough.’
The Monday excursion for Brontë Society members was to Haddon Hall, a building built of gritstone and limestone, on the banks of the River Wye in Derbyshire - one of the seats of the Duke of Rutland. The hall has been the setting for many films - one of the earliest based there was the 1924 film starring Mary Pickford - Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall. This film tells the romantic story of how Dorothy eloped with John Manners in 1563. The Manners family still hold the seat today. Haddon has played cameo roles in Pride and Prejudice and The Other Boleyn Girl but it was the fact that the hall has been used for three Jane Eyre productions that occasioned a coach from Haworth to travel from motorway to motorway, pass the leaning steeple in Chesterfield and to pull into the car park just outside the town of Bakewell - famous for its puddings and tarts.
We were met by one of the guides who welcomed us to the Hall and who then led us through the narrow gate house and, after warning us of the very uneven ground all around, directed us towards the chapel.
‘We entered the quiet and humble temple’. All was still: The strangers had slipped in before us, they viewed the old time-stained marble tomb.’
Our very knowledgeable guide explained that film directors Fukunaga and Zefferelli and the BBC production which starred the suave Toby Stephens and the pulchritudinous Ruth Wilson had all used the inside of the chapel which, with a Norman pillar and font and Norman lancet windows, has some of the earliest masonry of the Hall. A marble copy effigy of the eighth Duke who died at the age of nine lies in the chapel and all around the walls are fresco-seccos from the early fifteenth century. Similarly, we were told, they had all used the fourteenth century kitchen which houses the only Tudor dresser in the world. Scorch marks on the timber partition walls show where candles and rushes were used for lighting.
‘The steps and banisters were of oak; the staircase window was high and latticed; both it and the long gallery looked as if they belonged to a church rather than a house.’
‘Traversing the long and matted gallery I descended the slippery steps of oak.’
We were taken into the Long Gallery which would have been used for exercise when the weather outside was inclement and the guide explained that the diamond shaped panes in the windows are set at different angles to maximise the use of the daylight. It was interesting to hear that when filming was taking place it was very cold in the Long Gallery- it being more or less impossible to heat- and the actors had to suck ice cubes so that their breath would not be seen on film.
‘It was burnt down just about harvest time. A dreadful calamity. The fire broke out at dead of night, and before the engines arrived from Millcote the building was one mass of flame. It was a terrible spectacle.’
Our guide recalled that when the BBC decided to use pyrotechnics, smoke machines, and lighted pokers in the windows to make the fire at Thornfield really realistic the local fire brigade - who had happily been warned in advance- received over one hundred calls.
‘And then they called to him that she was on the roof; where she was standing, waving her arms, above the battlements, and shouting.’
‘We saw him approach her; and then she yelled and gave a spring and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement.’
We were taken outside and the part of the roof from where the stunt person playing Bertha jumped was pointed out to us. Apparently scaffolding had had to be erected and the person jumped the thirty feet on to an airbag. It looked as if it would have been quite an ordeal to jump from those battlements but at ten pounds a foot maybe it was worth it - however not for me!
‘No nook in the grounds more sheltered and more Eden-like; it was full of trees, it bloomed with flowers:’
We wandered in the beautiful gardens and looked down on the footbridge - seen in all the films- where Sir John Manners was waiting to whisk Dorothy away from the Hall all those years ago and we saw the meadow at the side of the river where in the BBC production Mr Rochester and Jane picnic.
It was a most enjoyable day spent at Haddon - I am sure I will not be the only one watching the DVD of the latest film version of Jane Eyre once again and saying “I’ve been there!”