Even aristocrats are slaves to lockdown. And Emma Manners, Duchess of Rutland, has been reduced to polishing muskets. Right now, her ancestral pile, Belvoir Castle, is undergoing a gruelling spring-clean in the hope that it may soon reopen to the public. With 356 rooms, that is not a task for the faint-hearted.
But then, over the past ten centuries, since being founded by William the Conqueror’s warlords after the Battle of Hastings, Belvoir is accustomed to the odd crisis. The castle was destroyed by Parliamentary troops in the Civil War, retribution for its Royalist sympathies.
You need more than musket balls to overcome the adversaries facing Belvoir and many other stately homes across the nation, not least the collapse in visitor numbers and revenue during the pandemic. Even so, the battle plan drawn up by the current duchess would have some of her predecessors turning in their graves.
From ‘yoga and juice detox retreats’ to psychic readings, Belvoir (pronounced Beaver) is embracing the spiritual for its salvation.
And mother-of-five Emma, 57, has turned to another weapon in the 21st Century armoury – the podcast – even though, as she admits, until recently she ‘didn’t really know what a podcast was’.
Over the past ten centuries, since being founded by William the Conqueror’s warlords after the Battle of Hastings, Belvoir (pictured) is accustomed to the odd crisis. The castle was destroyed by Parliamentary troops in the Civil War, retribution for its Royalist sympathies
And its theme? The women who have kept the British aristocracy going for the past millennium, whatever their ennobled lords and masters might care to think. As the audio series makes clear, behind every great house is a great woman willing to muck in and preserve it for the nation.
Emma delivers the podcast alongside her daughter Violet, who along with her two sisters is a familiar presence in the pages of society magazine Tatler.
‘It’s very difficult for people to understand that programmes like Downton Abbey and The Crown paint a very glamorous picture of what it’s like to live in a stately home. The reality is that it’s a lot of hard work,’ says Emma.
‘The first month we moved in, we found water cascading down through the library into the drawing room. I went on to the roof, put my hand in the gutter and pulled out a dead pigeon. Problem solved.’
Emma also recalls an occasion when, while gardening in Belvoir’s grounds ‘with my bum in the air’, she was mistaken for estate staff and told by one visitor that the gardens were ‘rather weedy’. Another failing she rectified – although this one took more time. Today, the estate’s Capability Brown-designed landscape is a key attractions and the formal gardens immaculate.
With the women firmly in the driving seat at Belvoir, perhaps its no surprise the castle is embracing its feminine side.
Emma Manners, Duchess of Rutland (middle), has been reduced to polishing muskets. Right now, her ancestral pile, Belvoir Castle, is undergoing a gruelling spring-clean in the hope that it may soon reopen to the public
The five-star ‘yoga and juice healing retreats’ are planned for May, although that is all ‘up in the air’ until restrictions are lifted. If it goes ahead, the five-day event, set up by a company called Platinum Healing, will include meditation, talks on neuroplasticity and emotional healing, Indian head massage and Reiki.
Included in the price is the luxury accommodation on offer at Belvoir, plus intestinal-cleansing husks, herbal supplements and tips to ‘create a life vision’.
Before lockdown, the castle already had a ‘Wellness Wagon’ in its grounds – a colourful gipsy caravan offering spiritual readings by ‘Psychic Jeanie’ – and other special events involving fortune-tellers and clairvoyants.
In 2019, Emma installed a Japanese ‘peace pole’, surrounded by crystals, which was sprinkled with ‘love, positivity, light and energy’ as part of a pagan ritual to atone for the Battle of Hastings. The battle led to William the Conqueror gifting the land upon which Belvoir is built to the Duke’s ancestors.
If none of that appeals, there’s always Belvoir’s own-brand gin. ‘In a sense we’ve been quite lucky as our income stream is spread over different centres,’ Emma says. ‘Our visitor numbers are not a huge part of the income generated by the estate.’
The podcast, appropriately called Duchess, visits ten chatelaines of great estates around the country, shining a light on the often-unacknowledged work that goes into sustaining the nation’s historical houses and the families who live in them. ‘The battles Belvoir faced may once have been bloody,’ Emma says, dryly, ‘but today we battle with wet and dry rot and the taxman.’
The bills for Belvoir run to an eye-watering £500,000 a year. One of England’s finest homes, the Regency gothic castle’s turrets and towers overlook 16,000 acres of Leicestershire.
It appeared in three seasons of Netflix royal saga The Crown as a stand-in for Windsor Castle, as well as in scenes from films The Da Vinci Code and The Young Victoria. The bedrooms have four-poster beds, fur rugs and open fireplaces while other rooms boast silk wallpaper, luxurious furnishings and artwork by Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Stubbs.
But equally colourful are the Manners family who inhabit it.
Emma and her not-quite-ex husband, the 11th Duke, David Manners, live apart but amicably in separate towers, and each have found new lovers.
David is happily ensconced with Tiggy Maconochie, former agent to the late fashion photographer Helmut Newton, known for his sado-masochistic portraits of nude women. Emma, meanwhile, is in a relationship with her estate manager, Phil Burtt.
Under the same two-and-a- half-acre roof – which, Emma acknowledges, is in dire need of repair work – are the couple’s five children: Lady Violet, 27, Lady Alice, 25, and Lady Eliza, 23, along with the heir to the estate Charles, the Marquess of Granby, 21, and Lord Hugo, 17.Besides gracing the pages of Tatler and Vogue their elegant daughters have equally glamorous Instagram feeds full of exotic locations and fabulous outfits. Vanity Fair described them as the ‘real-life Crawley sisters’ after the aristocratic trio in Downton Abbey.
They have attracted negative headlines too (they insist unfairly), and have been dubbed the ‘bad Manners sisters’ after neighbours in Fulham, West London, complained of loud, all-night parties.
These days there are few parties, and all have serious jobs – Violet has set up her own marketing company – Akana Collective – during lockdown, Alice is a fashion stylist and Eliza styles interiors. It’s a creative streak clearly inherited from their indomitable mother. It pays to be creative: while looking after an estate such as Belvoir is, Emma says, ‘an enormous privilege’, it is also a never ending task.
Before lockdown, the castle already had a ‘Wellness Wagon’ (pictured) in its grounds – a colourful gipsy caravan offering spiritual readings by ‘Psychic Jeanie’ – and other special events involving fortune-tellers and clairvoyants
Emma and Violet speak today over Zoom sat on a comfortable sofa with mis-matched cushions from a cosy private room inside Belvoir. Behind them, a console table boasts a healthy assortment of bottles of alcohol and glasses, and a pink lamp with its shade knocked carelessly at a jaunty angle. ‘Doing this podcast has given me a wonderful sense of pride in everything these women are doing,’ Emma says, glasses perched on the top of her head. ‘There’s a real sense of camaraderie. We’re all behind our men, supporting their heritage. The women I spoke to all knew what they were marrying when they fell in love with their partners but we’re very much supporting the job, it’s a role.’
Violet, who grew up listening to her mother discussing the trials of stately homes with other women, said it was ‘about time we gave them the mic’.
The first episode, released this week, features Emma visiting Hedingham Castle in Essex, which boasts a 900-year-old keep. The Queen Anne manor house that stands alongside the castle is home to Demetra Lindsay, an architect, her husband Jason and their three teenage children. There are trailblazing women in the keep’s long history. It was passed into the Lindsay family by a lesbian cousin, Musette Majendi, who had no children of her own and moved her lover into the castle towards the end of her life. Emma and Demetra agree heritage work is not glamorous. Far from lounging on a chaise longue in a tiara, it’s more ‘leaky buckets and roof repairs’, they joke. Referring to the ancestral portraits hanging in the grand rooms, Demetra laments: ‘I just wish I was wearing the pretty dresses but I’m always in my jeans.’
Forthcoming episodes, which will be released weekly, include visits to Lady Spencer-Churchill at Blenheim Palace, the one-time home of Winston Churchill; the Duchess of Argyll at Inveraray Castle, in Argyll, Scotland and Lady Ingilby at Yorkshire’s Ripley Castle.
‘Some of them I knew, some I’d only heard of and was quite scared of talking to,’ says Emma. ‘You see pictures of people and think they look so grand but they all touched my soul and I came away from each conversation uplifted. Even if we only spoke on the phone, I felt I’d met a friend.’
That sense of kinship is clear. Emma, who grew up on a farm outside Cardiff, opens up to Demetra about a painful encounter from the early days of her marriage at Belvoir, as she struggled to fit into aristocratic life. She describes overhearing the butlers say: ‘Have we broken her yet?’
‘I remember sobbing down the corridor,’ she says.
On another occasion she was told off by guests for arranging for a butler to sing after dinner, ‘which was, apparently, a big no-no’.
‘The best thing in life,’ she continues, ‘is to have a short memory and a thick skin.’ And a keen sense of the spiritual, she might add. Belvoir, after all, is haunted by the fifth Duchess, Elizabeth, whose spirit, she says, looms over her. Elizabeth oversaw the building of the present castle in the early 19th Century – another woman in history overlooked for her dedication to the nation’s architecture, which perhaps explains Emma’s fascination.
‘She commissioned neo-Gothic architect James Wyatt to build this house. She was in here day in, day out, working on Capability Brown’s plans for the landscaping outside. She had 11 children of whom seven survived. But she died at the tender age of 45 and it hadn’t been totally completed in her mind.’
This may be why she lingers.
‘I have consulted with her, talked to her,’ Emma says. ‘These portraits have eyes that follow me wherever I go – just keeping an eye on me.
Emma has undoubtedly left her own particular mark on Belvoir, just like Elizabeth did two centuries previously. It was under Emma’s watchful eye that Capability Brown’s plans for the landscaping, which were never enacted but rediscovered after being assumed lost in a fire, were finally realised in 2016. ‘If you’re intuitive, and tune into the building, the portraits have their own voices,’ continues Emma. ‘I have a great sense of togetherness with Elizabeth and the journey we’ve both had at Belvoir.’
If Elizabeth is a benign presence, other spirits have proved more troublesome. ‘I’ve never seen anything here but some of the family have,’ says Emma.
‘I even got the bishop of Leicester in at one stage to try to cleanse it. The building really struggled with us as a young family moving in, but it’s settled down now.’
The Duchess podcast is available every Thursday on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. Video extracts are available on Instagram @duchessthepodcast.