I never buy the Daily Mail but was on a train last week and someone had left the Mail on Sunday on the table. Leafing through it I came across a bemusing article by the Duchess of Rutland about her and her husband’s separation. Perhaps reading the article gives some background to the equally bemusing visit we had to their home in June this year.
Reason to visit: see a Wyatt summer-house known as a “root house”, unlike any other I had seen.
This was only the second time I’ve walked out of a tour before it was finished. The first time was a Waddesdon Manor (the Rothschild Victorian chateau with amazing aviary). There I couldn’t handle any more Victorian rooms.
At Belvoir I couldn’t handle the guide telling me any more inane detail about how she flies her birds, got her dog from the family etc without hearing anything about the Reynolds on the wall or the porcelain. I nearly fell asleep on a sofa at one point (really) as the guide droned on about lineage and every family member’s name. As much as it was interesting to know that the 5th Duke married Catherine Howard from Castle Howard and that she didn’t like the manor house which stood at the time and thus while giving birth to 11 live children and having had a few miscarriages also, she redesigned the house, I started to tune out.
Lesson to guides: pick your information carefully, selectively and talk about a mixture of family history, the art, the history of the house’s structure and the furniture. Do not share your life story to too great an extent (i.e. in this case I know the names of the guide’s grandchildren and dogs).
Only once did she mention a piece of furniture and not once the name of an artist. After over an hour on the tour I still have these questions:
- What is the name of the family? This is the home of the Duke & Duchess of Rutland who have 3 daughters and 2 sons but of the family name I know not.
- How did the family come to live here? Are they direct descendents of the Frenchman who came here and said ‘que bel voir (beautiful view)’ and gave the name to the house? The English couldn’t handle the French accent and so are said to have pronounced the house in the same way as the nearby Beaver village.
- How do they come to have pictures by Reynolds and (apparently) Holbein?
- With history back to the 1100s, what did each of the houses that stood here look like? Are there prints on the walls? I liked the model of the house showing what stood there when Catherine arrived.
There was a serious sense of Wolterton ‘over-information’ (about which more another time).
Wyatt’s house – of which more below.
Entrance is by guided tour every two hours. The only refreshments are at the entrance, at the bottom of a steep hill and so, frankly, unless you are 21 or stupid no one is really going to venture back to the entrance (10 minutes’ walk or so) for a cup of tea even if, like us, you arrive 90 minutes before the next tour and therefore face either a long, slow wander around the hilly gardens (which we did) or a long wait in the car park.
We therefore had plenty of time to look at the gardens, which are being attended to and in many parts look like a work in progress. We spent a long time looking at the log summer-house, which I was quite taken with.
The muddy and recently-dug ponds at the bottom of the hill didn’t much interest me – they need 10 years to settle and mellow.
The floor, which needs some attention.
After 90 minutes we really really needed some refreshments in the gardens, especially after walking through the formal garden with a lily pond.
But there wasn’t even so much as a teenager at a barrow selling soft drinks and crisps.
We didn’t have time to go back down to the entrance (nor could we face it), so we walked in via the covered entrance, along the long corridor into the entrance hall, a double height space with a lit fire, joined 40+ other people (20 too many for a guided tour in my opinion and an hourly but shorter tour is therefore justified) and admired a lot of armoury on display, above which staircases weave up in two directions.
We got a little confused as after 10 minutes or so waiting no one had introduced us and people started disappearing through a door in the corner. This was no Alice in Wonderland experience: people we going off to look at the kitchens and the bar (presumably for weddings), which involved a self-guided element. Eventually everyone came back to the hall? Surely the kitchens should have been at the end and someone should have introduced everyone at 2pm sharp?
The tour started off with promise – stories about the intelligent Georgian wife who remodelled the castle and that of a son who lies claim to the saying “paint the town red” because he went out one night, got so drunk he and his friends painted things red, and was promptly sent out again by his parents to clean up.
However, by the time we got up to the long gallery with two bedrooms off we needed to sit down. There is a fine rococo withdrawing room (the best room on the tour in my opinion but we were merely invited to poke our noses in and given no information about the furniture, the designer, the age, parties held etc) and a large dining room where the weddings are fed.
At some point I nearly nodded off. We’d been listening to the tour for so long I wanted fresh air.
The tour moved into the impressive picture gallery, like a mini-Dulwich Picture Gallery and I needed to leave.
I couldn’t take it any more. Apologies therefore I revert to the text from the website:
“The present Castle is the fourth to have stood on the site since Norman times. The existing Castle was completed in the early 19th century after previous buildings suffered complete or partial destruction during the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War and a major fire in 1816.
From the elegance of the Elizabeth Saloon and the majesty of the State Dining Room to the delights of the Regents Gallery and the military splendour of the Guard Room, Belvoir possesses one of the most stunning interiors of the period.
In contrast to the grandeur of the State Rooms, the Old Kitchen and Bakery fuel the imagination of ‘below the stairs’ life in 1825. While the School Room and Nursery allow children to experience lessons and games from Regency times.
The Castle contains many notable pieces of art and includes paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Holbein and Poussin. It houses outstanding collections of furniture, porcelain, silks, tapestries, French furniture and Italian sculpture. Sculpture extends outside into the Rose and Statue Gardens which are elegantly laid out round a central fountain. The Statue Collection terraced into the hillside includes work by Caius, Cibber – Sculptor to Charles II.
When Elizabeth (the 5th Duchess) commissioned James Wyatt to build the Castle in 1799 she undertook the design and landscaping of the gardens, park and grounds herself. She saw the entire Vale of Belvoir as her garden and was merely framing the views with her valley gardens. Elizabeth’s design and the feel of the individual gardens have many overtures brought back from the Grand Tour of an Italian terraced garden. The gardens facing Belvoir are a natural amphitheatre left by the moraines of two glaciers, she used this to her advantage. She designed and built a series of ‘root houses’ (summer houses), one of which can be seen today in the Duchess’s Garden.
The second time when Belvoir’s gardens influenced garden history was around 1900. The head gardener Mr. Divers developed the concept of mass spring flower bedding which was appropriate for Belvoir as traditionally the family stayed at the Castle in the spring before going to Cheveley in Newmarket for the season. In fact, the 8th Duke commissioned the book ‘Spring Flowers at Belvoir’, which we are trying to get reprinted.
In Edwardian times there were 40 gardeners, now there are only three, so restoring the gardens is a slow process however the present Duchess is passionate about the gardens and their ongoing development. Her vision is to continue where her mother-in-law left off 25 years ago when she pushed her mower into the overgrown Duchess’s garden and started replanting this secret valley garden. Surrounding the rustic summer house, dating from 1800, the gardens have been lovingly restored to their original beauty. As part of the ongoing restoration, there is a new woodland path that leads down to the Duchess’s Gardens. These magical woodland gardens, set in a natural amphitheatre with fresh water springs, are carefully planned to ensure plants bloom all year round. The Duchess is also working on bringing together collections of specialist plants and roses in different areas of the garden so keen gardeners can come and smell the Best Beale rose and the most exquisite peony and such like.“
Recently I went to Haddon Hall, nr Bakewell in Derbyshire. Lord Edward, the Duke’s brother, lives there and the house is altogether far more delightful (particularly as the guides’ welcome was so friendly and experience much more homely). Perhaps to there I shall next turn my attention.
House * out of 5: ***
Garden * out of 5: **
When visited: June 2012
Theme tune: Fast Train by Solomon Burke