first person

I Almost Died on the Way to Mr. Darcy’s Estate

An accidental journey to a surprise destination.

Photo: Ed Rhodes/LOOP IMAGES/Universal Images Group via Getty
Photo: Ed Rhodes/LOOP IMAGES/Universal Images Group via Getty
Photo: Ed Rhodes/LOOP IMAGES/Universal Images Group via Getty

It was a shoe salesperson who suggested I spend the afternoon at Lyme Park. I was in Stockport, a suburb of Manchester, England, buying a new pair of black Chelsea boots to replace the brown ones I had been wearing for seven years. This salesperson had bright-red hair and knew her way around an eye-shadow palette, and she seemed to truly want to know what I was going to do the rest of the day. I told her I’d been traveling for a while, had an unexpected extra day in the area, and wanted to see some stuff but take it easy.

Her eyes lit up in such a way that I absolutely trusted she’d come up with the perfect idea.

“You should go to Disley,” she said. I liked the sound of this, friendly-seeming and whimsical. Disley! “There’s a lovely park, Lyme Park, not far from the train. You really ought to get out into the countryside when you’re here. You can just have a walk round, there’s a lovely pub, you can have a drink there and a wander. It can’t be more than a half an hour to Disley and you’ll go past these lovely big houses, and then you’ll see a gate and you’re just right in the countryside.” Then she asked if I wanted her to throw my old boots out. I said definitely, yes.

The Stockport train station was not, as I had imagined it was, right next to the Stockport bus station, and I walked three times farther than I had planned on. My new shoes were more comfortable than my old ones but they were still new shoes and my bag could have weighed less. But I imagined myself in the park, lying under an oak tree. It wouldn’t be long now.

Disley was old and quaint and looked fancy; it was to Stockport as Hastings-on-Hudson is to White Plains. I spotted the pub she’d mentioned straight off, and then, up a hill that cut through a small downtown, I saw what looked like trees, or a park. A well-dressed woman in her 20s, maybe a marketing executive, or a junior estates agent, exited the pub, and I pointed to the bit of greenery at the top of the main road and asked her, “Is that Lyme Park just up there?”


“That’s Lyme Park up there, right?”

“Lyme Park?” Her tone made me nervous. “Lyme Park’s rather far.”

“But it can’t be, a woman in a shoe store told me it was right near the train station.”

Her smile went away, and with I-don’t-know-about-a-woman-at-a-shoe-store finality, she said, “Lyme Park’s that way.” She pointed behind the pub. “It’s just at the end of that road, and it’s definitely a bit of a walk. You’ll go past all these big houses, and then you’ll see a gate.”

“Ah,” I said, but didn’t quite believe her even though the last woman had said the exact same thing, minus the bit of a walk.

The road behind the pub was steep, and, I told myself, invigorating. The neighborhood was mega fancy, old mansions, and brand-new ones built to look old, with silly names like Brentgate and Oak Crest. I couldn’t see inside, to sun-filled atriums for romantic, new-engagement-ring sex or to hidden nooks and crannies for the illicit extramarital kind, but I’d seen enough episodes of Footballers’ Wives to know they were there.

I’d been walking for an amount of time within the bounds of reasonable (especially true in retrospect) when I saw a metal gate. Here we are, I thought, but on the other side of the gate was a bulldozer, next to a mound of mud it appeared  to have given up on. Minutes later I saw another fence and a gate, also metal, but they belonged to a private home. I kept walking, and just before discouragement set in again, another fence and gate came along, a small wooden gate that had to be what I was after, because a sign on it said: “Cheshire East Council PUBLIC FOOTPATH.” I climbed over the gate. I began to walk. Here I am, I thought, regarding the unspectacular sumacs and uninspiring vegetation with more enthusiasm than they deserved, here I am in Lyme Park.

And, then, a dog was barking. It was not so much barking as announcing its desire to wet its teeth with human blood. I could hear it thundering through the underbrush. Wow, I thought, how weird would it be if I died here.

Photo: Sarah Miller

The dog came into view. He was German shepherd-like but fluffier, though his fluff only served to increase his surface area, not his potential cuddliness. He had one thing going for him, which was being on the other side of the fence, but he had two paws up on it and seemed just one good idea from scaling the thing. He alternated between ferocious barking and, with an utterly human expression of calm concentration, surveying the barrier for potential points of weakness. I was slipping my bag from my shoulder and planning to run as fast as I could in the other direction but also prepared to put my bag over my head to protect my face (headline: “American Tourist Evades Disfigurement with Vintage Mulberry Pocketbook: Style was discontinued but actually quite smart”). Fortunately a man in a sky-blue tracksuit appeared behind the dog, shouting its name, which was something silly like Buster or Buddy. Suitably embarrassed, the dog tucked tail and dashed back from whence it came.

“I’m afraid I’m lost,” I called out to the man, who was extremely good-looking, perhaps too confident, and looked like he must be Someone. Or maybe he was just a hot dentist with Tuesdays off.

“Where you trying to go?” The accent was local.

I told him.

“It’s just down the road, there’s a gate, you can’t miss it.”

I told him as politely as I could that as he lived on this road, one gate might distinguish itself from the rest but the average newcomer saw just gates everywhere and had no way of telling which gates were relevant to their experience and which were not.

He pointed. “You see that sign?” I saw a sign. “You’ll keep going past it. You’ll see a building, and there will be a gate. You really can’t miss it.”

He was right. No gate I had seen thus far was quite as gate-ish as this. Unfortunately I don’t remember exactly what it looked like and I can’t find a photo of it on the internet. But I think it was wrought iron, and I know it had a little sign saying National Trust, Lyme Park.

I felt like an idiot but mostly I felt relieved. That said, I was getting a strong whiff of “fucking ordeal.” There was a kiosk. There was a long, winding drive, suggesting, I was not, even yet, where I wanted to be. There were posted fees, so confusing I just wanted to hand over my wallet and run.

A woman carrying a clipboard came out of the little building with an older man. “You alright?” she said, which is what they say in Manchester instead of Can I help you? Before you get used to it, and I was not yet used to it, it has the effect of making you feel like you look pathetic and confused.

“I don’t know if I am, actually,” I said.

“Did you want to tour the house or the gardens?” the woman asked. I had no idea what she meant and couldn’t imagine a universe where I would ever know. There was a sink inside the little kiosk, a mug next to it. I looked at them both longingly and realized I was extremely thirsty.

She named a price to see the house and a price to see the garden and a price to see both. I don’t remember the exact figures but let’s just say to do both was around 11 billion pounds.

“I just want to walk — in a park — isn’t this — a park?”

The woman was doing this very English thing of smiling politely through impatient rage. “This is Lyme Park,” she said.

“Oh yes,” I said. “I am well aware! And I want to go for a walk here. Is that possible?”

“Yes,” she said slowly. “But what is the reason you’ve come here?”

“I haven’t come here for any reason,” I said. “I met a woman in a shoe store and she said what are you doing today and I said fuck all and she said you ought to go to Disley there’s a nice park there, and like a fool, I said that sounds like a low-stress good idea and ten thousand years later after nearly having my neck torn out by a dog and, worse, having forgotten, after reading many, many British novels and knowing full well that a park is sometimes a place where you watch a duck swim around on a pond for ten minutes and then say, Thanks a lot nature, that was nice, see you later, it is also a giant fucking house that tourists visit, so, no, I have not come here for any reason, except perhaps to remind myself that sometimes I forget everything I know. Also — gates — in a world of gates, how do you know which gate is for you?”

I did not say all of this. I don’t know what I said. I hadn’t thought I was going to a place that charged money. I would at this point have tried to get comfortable with parting with some but I didn’t yet understand what I would get for it and we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to an answer.

The woman stood back. She held the clipboard against her torso. She was of indeterminate age, with hair that was gray, blonde, and brown, strand by strand, with paint-by-numbers precision. I saw from her name tag that she was a volunteer. She braced herself against the clipboard and took a deep breath and as she prepared herself to speak I thought she was going to warn me not to feed deer or that the oaks in the place were overrun with some sort of rare fungus and I had better look at them closely because I might be the last person to ever see them but instead what she said was, “Lyme Park is where they filmed Pride and Prejudice.” She cleared her throat and said, “The one with Colin Firth.”

“Oh my God,” I said. “That’s hilarious.” I was at Fake Pemberley!

She did not think this was hilarious. She gave a grave little nod. She repeated, I guess because I’d failed to have an orgasm on the spot the first time she said it: “The one with Colin Firth.” She continued, looking at me through her lashes because to merely say Colin Firth is to infect oneself with coquetry, “As you can imagine, we get a great deal many visitors. You can see many scenes of the movie that were shot in the house and the grounds. Of course you can walk around much of  the property for free.” She handed me a map. “Bob will take you up the hill in the van and you can start from there.”

Bob looked about 75, lived in Stockport, and was also a volunteer. He asked me if I knew they’d filmed Pride and Prejudice there, and I said, yes, I had been informed. This was, of course, months before Colin Firth announced his divorce. If I met Bob now, I’d ask if he knew Colin from the filming days and whether he thought he was doing all right — did he think the actor would be ready to, as they say, “get back out there” anytime soon? Instead, I said Stockport “seemed nice,” and Bob was mildly affirmative.

The house was like a series of expensive city row houses all attached to each other, except with some Porta Potty units to the left side of the main entrance. The inside of the house, at least the part for non-paying visitors, was low-ceilinged and dark. I wandered into a chapel, outfitted with both a pulpit and a flat screen television. I don’t believe in God but I don’t think they should put televisions in churches. It was the type of thing you see and feel sad about for days.

Photo: Sarah Miller

In the distance was a hunting lodge, ominous, four-spired, and, to an American, ancient. I would walk to the tower, and then, I would, somewhat satisfied, I hoped, I would leave.

To my left were the modern towers of Manchester city center, to the right, more rolling hills, some towns, small factories, England. Two or three joggers, older, sweetly chunky, like Corgis in tracksuits, huffed past me. A serious couple in tweeds with matching billion-dollar cameras took photos. I realized I was finally having the experience I had wanted to have: a stroll alone, in public, on a broad, majestic hillside, surrounded by dramatic views, under a gray but unthreatening sky, the breeze cooling but not freezing.  

The fact that I had overcome so many obstacles to get here only made it more like Pride and Prejudice itself. It did not escape my notice that Elizabeth Bennet’s (played by Jennifer Ehle — she has a name too, Lyme Park!) first visit had also been accidental: She’d been on vacation with her aunt and uncle and they were supposed to go to the Lake District, but went instead to Derbyshire, and thus Pemberley, allowing for Elizabeth’s iconic encounter with the property, the man himself, and her assessment that “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something.”

It was as if Fake Pemberley were Darcy, and I were Elizabeth Bennet, and I too had to suffer before we could be united.

Since I was enjoying myself so much I thought why not continue from the lodge all the way down to the kiosk, without backtracking to the house, without enlisting the help from Bob and the shuttle? At first there was somewhat of a path. Then there were nettles, then a few piles of deer poop. Then the piles were everywhere, and I was just in a field of nettles and deer poop. But I was an American thinking about Pemberley at Fake Pemberley. It was such a relief to finally be doing it right.

I Almost Died on the Way to Mr. Darcy’s Estate