Hazel McHaffie

Counting my Chickens

Counting my Chickens …

It’s Christian Aid week so lots of extra fundraising activities to shoehorn into the daylight hours … time for a Blue Peter moment methinks. And the-one-I-made-earlier? A post about an easy-to-read book which includes heart-warming tales of good animal- and land-husbandry. Appropriate in this week when we’re all working to relieve the hunger of 870 million people around the world. (Sorry – I’ve just noticed the superfluity of hyphens!)

As you know, I visited Chatsworth recently and was bowled over by it. So I was keen to read Deborah Devonshire‘s book: Counting My Chickens, which went straight on to my tbr pile.


She has, of course, got plenty of tales to relate, having lived a colourful and exciting life: first as the youngest of the six famous and scandal-ridden Mitford sisters, and then as Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (since 2004, Dowager Duchess). I’ve heard her speak in the flesh at the Edinburgh International Book Festival too, and she’s most engaging, with highly irregular and forthright views, so I had high hopes for her written word too. She’s known great tragedy as well as huge celebrity, but what I didn’t know before I looked her up for this blog, was that she lost four of her seven children (as babies). What heartache.

She gets you on her side from the outset, admitting to struggling long and hard with her opening sentence. She consults others, listens to advice from writing tutors, but is still so exercised by it that she concludes: ‘As 50,000 books are published every year the first sentences must add hugely to the level of anxiety in an already anxious race.’ What author could resist?

Though enormously privileged herself, she clearly applauds humility and down-to-earth-ness within her class. I loved the story of her mother-in-law (the previous Duchess) and her friend, the Duchess of Rutland, who arrived at a Dior collection in Paris in ‘their tweed overcoats, which had done years of war service, and ditto shoes‘. They were refused entry. Although they were disappointed, they were not surprised, and calmly ‘sat on a bench eating their sandwiches to pass the time till they could decently return to the embassy where they were staying.’

Counting my ChickensAnd Deborah (Debo to her friends) Devonshire has no truck with humbug or pretentiousness herself. ‘I buy most of my clothes at agricultural shows, and good stout things they are. Much better than the strange looking garments in desperate colours at £1,000 each in the Knightsbridge shops.

After a mild lament about the uselessness of knocking old ladies to the ground and snatching their handbags, she writes: ‘I pity the thief when it’s my turn. My bag is positively septic inside,so if he’s got any sense he will wear one of those things that dustmen and dentists cover their noses with when delving into unpleasantness. He will find handfuls of tiresome credit cads sliding about in their meaningless way, heaps of copper coins which don’t even buy a newspaper, unanswered letters of top priority, combs in variety, scissors, rubber bands, an Old Age Pensioner’s railway card and Biros without tops which all help to make it filthy.’

She never went to school or sat an exam; nevertheless she takes a keen interest in everything from dry stone walling, wild edible fungi, floral art, fine wine, architectural fashions, gardening, chickens, courtesy, through to bread making, and writes engagingly about them all. Indeed, she’d be high on my list of people-I’d-most-like-to be-sat-next-to-at-a-banquet.

Though she was born ‘The Honourable Deborah’, to a minor aristocratic English family, in a large property with many servants, she was taught from an early age the value of work. ‘My sisters and I were brought up close to the land. We knew it from the sharp end – trying to augment our meagre pocket money by keeping hens and goats and selling their produce to our long-suffering mother. She had a real chicken farm whose slender profit paid our governess.‘ And it’s clear from her writing (and from Chatsworth) that she has a keen understanding of animal husbandry. Indeed she was so appalled that children today know so little of where their food comes from, that it inspired her to create the famous farmyard at Chatsworth, the forestry demonstrations, and the gamekeepers’ plot. But having been raised herself on milk, cream and butter from Guernsey cows that failed the tuberculin test, she has continued to lament the rigorous rules that prohibit sharing the natural products of the farm without certificates and testing and outside scrutiny and sterilisation and pasteurisation and all the other ‘isations’. And as Duchess, she has taken great delight in defying regulations, using what her mother called ‘unmurdered foods‘ for her own household.

Not only impatient with the petty rules and regulations imposed for ‘health and safety reasons’, she also has a great sense of the ridiculous. The written criticism levelled at floral art exhibitors leaves her cringing: ‘I would give up after spending hours trying to shove a lily and a fern into yards of velvet, bits of glass or a straw teddy bear, only to find the judge’s note saying: “A good attempt but you should try to be flatter in front”, or “a pity there is a crease in your base”. Difficult for some lady competitors to obey the first directive and impossible for anyone to comply with the second.

And speaking of the beautiful old churches she knows and has frequented, she slips in a lovely parenthesis: ‘The feel, smell and taste of the oak pews at Swinbrook (I suppose that all children lick pews under cover of praying for their guinea-pigs) are not the same as those at Edensor.

Lamenting the habit weekend guests have of appropriating one’s books, she tells with some relish of her sister whose books carried a message on their plates: ‘This book was stolen from Bryan and Diane Guinness.’

The least enjoyable part of this short but thoroughly entertaining book is her penultimate section on Books and Company. As she says herself: ‘I have read very few books and I have minded finishing them so much that I have often vowed not to start another.‘ And it shows. But even here she redeems herself by happily linking her limited reading to her own experiences as an unusual home-taught child, a duchess running a stately home, a ‘shopkeeper’ attracting customers, a chatelaine overseeing innumerable priceless artefacts.

A must-read for anyone who visits Chatsworth House.



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