Making Belvoir bloom
It is one of Britain’s most magnificent homes, but the electricity bill is £70,000 alone. The Lady speaks to the inspiring Duchess who is ensuring Belvoir Castle keeps its good looks…
The spectacular view from Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire has been more or less the same since medieval times. The Manners family, the castle’s inhabitants, are descended from the Royal House of Plantagenet and were later ennobled as the Dukes of Rutland. They have been looking down across the Vale of Belvoir (which means ‘beautiful view’ in French) for over 600 years.
The present castle, rebuilt by James Wyatt in the early 1800s, is the fourth to have stood on the site. But while the exterior still resembles a castle, the 5th Duchess of Rutland wanted to inhabit a grand and sumptuous interior. Six State Rooms and five dining rooms were created with rococo gold plasterwork, French gilt furniture and fine tapestries and carpets. A long gallery was built to display work by Holbein, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Poussin, and a pleasure garden was created for the gentle perambulation of ladies.
Belvoir (pronounced ‘Beaver’) is where afternoon tea was invented. While visiting the castle in the 1840s, the Duchess of Bedford encouraged her hostess to serve some sandwiches and a cup of tea midafternoon between a light luncheon and supper. The idea caught on among the leisured classes and became a successful way of breaking up the day.
Emma, the present Duchess of Rutland, doesn’t have time for afternoon tea. Her parents-in-law left death duties of some £10 million to pay off; there was not enough income from the estate for the annual running cost of the house – £500,000, including £70,000 for the electricity alone. The estimate for essential maintenance work was £6 million.
Luckily, the Duchess is a dynamo. Her husband and five children live in an apartment in the house where a snack on the go is more the order of the day rather than a leisurely tea. She has, however, installed a thoroughly modern kitchen – for her, ‘the hub of any house’.
Emma and David, the Duke, married 20 years ago but moved into the castle in 2001. She may be 11th Duchess of Rutland, but she is also chief executive of the Belvoir Estates, which cover 15,000 acres.
Most mornings in the summer she is up at 5.30, taking the dogs around the woodland gardens she wants to restore or riding her horse round the fields to see what needs doing. And in the evening, there’s often a charity dinner in the castle.
This Duchess was not born into the English aristocracy – she was, as she puts it, ‘just Emma Watkins, a farmer’s daughter from Wales’. Before meeting her husband at a dinner party in London – he was, apparently, immediately smitten – she had a variety of jobs. She trained as an opera singer and an actress but dropped out – ‘one of my greatest regrets’. She was sacked from a firm of estate agents for putting the wrong number of zeros in a transaction, and was an interior designer when she met her husband.
Nowadays, she certainly doesn’t muddle the figures and has risen to the challenge of running a castle with enthusiasm and efficiency. The house is paying its way, thanks to some new ideas – and the sale of a Poussin. ‘Every pound is a prisoner and must be guarded,’ she tells her 14 staff (100 years ago the staff numbered 80).
Films such as The Young Victoria and The Da Vinci Code, which used the inside of Belvoir as a backdrop, have helped to bring in some extra income. And those in search of the authentic country castle weekend can also stay in some of the 30 stately bedrooms at Belvoir.
‘We want to give people the real experience of grand castle life. We want them to come here to see the house, not a safari park or countless unrelated exhibitions. All our visitors are greeted by our butler,’ says the Duchess, who is addressed as ‘Her Grace’ by all who work at Belvoir, even in these informal times.
So what does she enjoy about being a Duchess and what does she find less fun?
‘I enjoy the challenge of getting the estate running smoothly so it can be handed down to the next generation in good order,’ she says. ‘But this is a very demanding job and I find the juggling of work and children can make me feel torn. My priority is my family, so I do have to try to fit my job around going to see them in a sports match, for example. Sometimes this is not always possible.’ Still, under the latest Duke and Duchess, Belvoir does seem to be blooming.
Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire: 01476-871002, www.belvoircastle.com
The house is open for guided tours only.
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