January at Belvoir

Dear Friends

I hope you are all in good spirits and that 2021 has started as well as can be hoped.

Our Belvoir year began with deep cold and the heaviest of frosts which transformed the Castle and the entire park into a sugar-coated fantasy, and last weekend’s heavy snowfall brought a jolly respite from the Covid gloom   Nonetheless, as January turns to February we find ourselves in the same boat as so many UK businesses – wondering when we can open again, when our children can return to school and when oh when, we will get that much wanted shot in the arm?

Whatever may be happening with life’s ups and downs, the children and our animals never fail to lift my spirits.  Here at Belvoir, you may know that I have five of the first – all of whom, I am pleased to report, are behaving immaculately right now – and an uncountable menagerie of the second:  dogs, cats, ponies, horses, not to mention the livestock still out in the park and the castle hawk.

However we recently said goodbye to Casper, our much loved pony, who has been with us for over twenty years – now his was a long life, well lived.  Whoever heard of a pony living to be 37?  A stout Welsh chestnut with a white flash down his nose, Casper taught all the children to ride and there was a time, when their social lives revolved around Pony Club this and Pony Club that, that Casper’s name was on all our lips, morning, noon and night.  He was a kind and reliable fellow. He weathered all the tantrums, could instantly tune in to what a child needed and quietly got on with it.

We bought him from a horse refuge on a Welsh mountain for our second daughter Alice, she was three at the time and had been mad about ponies, horses and riding almost since before she could stand up. And while it was hard to remove Alice from Casper’s saddle, it was equally challenging to get my eldest son, Charles, onto it.  I well remember one Pony Club camp, when Charles and Casper had been entered for the show-jumping Mini Grand Prix.  There they were, awaiting their big moment, when suddenly Charles decided this was not for him, threw himself to the ground and took refuge under the horse box.  There followed five minutes of intense negotiation as I, on all fours, desperately tried to coax the nightmare child to ‘get back in the saddle’, while dear Casper patiently stood by my side, awaiting his young master’s return.   And once they were in the arena, all Charles had to do was hang on. Like a rocket, little Casper took off, elegantly weaving his way around the course, effortlessly clearing every fence, finishing in record time to huge applause, red rosettes all round and young Charles beaming from ear to ear.

In recent years, while Casper enjoyed a leisurely retirement on the estate, he remained very much a part of our lives.  Then, one morning last week, there was a call from the stables ‘Casper won’t get up’ – the vet soon arrived but we already knew this was Casper’s way of telling us it was time to say goodbye.  The children were distraught, there was a desperate dash to get home – it meant so much to be with him at the end, to tell him know how much he was loved, to have that final stroke of his soft muzzle and a few quiet whispers of farewell.  God bless you Casper – you gave us your all.

But it is not all farewells and sadness. Occasionally, there is a knock at the door and standing outside we find the descendant of an old family of the Vale, returned in search of their roots.

A ducal estate such as Belvoir, is really an extended family – many of our tenants have been a part of the estate not for years, but for generations and for centuries.  Inevitably, each generation brought with it a new crop, if you like, of young men and women, some of whom would want to spread their wings and find work and adventure elsewhere. So in the mid-19th century, the 5th Duke and his son, the 6th, recognising that there might be better prospects on the far horizon, sponsored the passage of these young people to find new lives in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Cape of Good Hope.  One can hardly imagine how it must have been for them as they embarked at Liverpool, leaving behind their families and knowing nothing of what was to come, save that they would almost certainly never return. Over a period of twenty years or so from the early 1840s, several hundred embarked on this great quest and every one is recorded in the estate ledgers held in our archive.  Some of the names are still familiar in the Vale of Belvoir today, for example, James Hornbuckle who went to New York in 1844 is a relative of a current farm tenant.

Recently, we were delighted to meet Brenton Simons. He came from Boston in search of his ancestor, William Simons, who, he believed, had been one of those intrepid young men. Indeed, our archivist soon found his name marked in the ledger for 1857: ‘June 9th – William Simons – 10 shillings’. 150 years may have passed but there was much to discover – we found his family’s cottage, looking rather grander than I’m sure it did then, and records showing his great great grandfather, Admatha Simons, had been employed and lived at the Vale of Belvoir Hunt Kennels.

So many names – so many new beginnings in the New World. I wonder what they made of their lives? – I’m bound to think they were all tremendous successes, but what fun it is to connect up with descendants like Brenton, and find out what memories of the old country their great great grand-parents, their own Admathas, passed down through the family.

Duchess of Rutland

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