The magic of Chatsworth House delighted thousands over the Christmas season, as the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland came to life, complete with rabbit hole, chess board and Mad Hatter’s tea party.
One of the key figures behind this annual festive transformation is head housekeeper Christine Robinson, who reveals some fascinating facts about life at the area’s grandest stately home in a new book that’s packed with behind-the-scenes secrets.
Like the story of the young joiner who attracted little attention as he carried lengths of wood through the Orangery shop.
If visitors had looked closer, they would have come face to face with Prince William.
The future monarch spent two weeks ‘below stairs’ at the house in 2005, recalls Christine, helping to extend the theatre stage for a charity ballet, working in the gardens and rolling up his sleeves to bake mince pies in the Carriage House restaurant.
Her book is a pen portrait of everyday life at Chatsworth – a delightful insight into the Peak District’s biggest tourist attraction and the family who call it home.
Christine is the latest in a long line of family members to play a part.
“I feel a sense of place and of belonging,” she says.
“For generations my family, and that of my husband Clive, have worked on the estate, walked the land, raised our children, played our part.”
Her earliest memories of Chatsworth are a schoolgirl visit.
After university she applied for a short-term job with the housekeeping team.
But her role developed and she has now been part of the Chatsworth family for more than 40 years.
There’s a lot more to the job than the BBC’s Downton Abbey might suggest.
These days Christine’s role has diversified to include giving talks about her life and duties to groups – from the local WI to audiences of 300 or more in Switzerland and Holland.
There’s a glamorous side to the life too. Chatsworth has hosted numerous grand parties since the current Duke’s parents brought it back to life.
Over the years she has helped to entertain VIPs including Senator Edward Kennedy, Harold Macmillan, Tom Jones and the Queen.
She tells how Princess Anne and her husband once came to compete in the annual horse trials: “But they didn’t stay until the end because the rude Derbyshire crowd laughed at Mark Phillips when he came off his horse and fell into the moat at Mary’s Bower!”
The Dowager Duchess – during her days as doyenne of Chatsworth – once abandoned the visiting Italian ambassador, taking off in her ballgown when her pony went into labour.
The Dowager also had a soft spot for local characters, once buying an old railway carriage to become the home of Baslow’s resident tramp, known as Davy Crocket.
Sparkly gems tasks and Old Masters
Christine has been charged with a whole range of unusual responsibilities.
She had to act as courier, flying a consignment of priceless Old Master drawings to the US.
She also had to deliver a precious amethyst from the Devonshire parure - and ended up carrying it across London on the tube.
Chatsworth: The Housekeeper’s Tale is £14.99.