When I first thought of sending you a ‘digital postcard’, I thought the timing would make a nonsense of the idea – with the Coronavirus newly rampant and your election so in the news. Then on second thoughts, it struck me that this is the perfect time to take your mind off these events that will occupy so much of the news over the coming weeks, and instead, bring you in your imagination across the ocean to the terrace at Belvoir, outside our family drawing room, where we have breakfast in the summer and from where, as I look down over the parkland and the lake and raise my eyes to the wood on the opposite side, I can stretch my gaze to the wolds of Lincolnshire reaching far far beyond.
It is easy for me to forget how beautiful Belvoir is when I am faced with the mundane difficulties of keeping the place, but I take courage from that view. Belvoir has seen so many troubles over so many centuries, it has been besieged and burnt down, has endured war, disease and death and yet this view has a timelessness and a life to it that reduces all these difficulties into minor irritants.
So here goes with my first postcard, I hope you enjoy it and for now, take care, stay well and my warmest wishes go with you for a very happy Thanks Giving.
Duchess of Rutland
Belvoir is a place that I could never and will never leave but I have to admit that on some mornings I feel as though the whole gigantic weight of the house and its responsibilities were pressing down on my shoulders and then I find myself wondering what life without Belvoir would be like.
It’s the past that is so hard to escape from, but during the lock-downs of 2020, I think I have at last come to terms with it. I was in our Muniments Room, browsing through some of the hundreds of volumes of family archives, compiled and sorted by the 9th Duke 100 years ago, on the look out for some inspiration from my heroine, the 5th Duchess.
She was Elizabeth, daughter of the Earl of Carlisle of Castle Howard in Yorkshire, she came to Belvoir as an 18 year old bride, took it by the scruff of the neck and, with the help of her husband, in thirty short years she reshaped the place.
Elizabeth had a vision and she must have had boundless ambition and enthusiasm for Belvoir, and she embraced the past history of our family (we had already been based at Belvoir for 800 years). So she rebuilt the house as a castle to reflect its ancient position: it commands and defends the wide stretch of farmland that is the Vale of Belvoir with views over a 30 mile radius (which explains all the castle’s towers and turrets, and the neo-Gothic interiors that I live with today), and she completed Capability Brown’s design for the landscape – a design that had been commissioned by the 4th Duke but that was, luckily, mediaeval in character.
What really captivated me however – it’s something I knew about but had taken no notice of, if you know what I mean – was to discover that during the Napoleonic wars she had turned the park into a farm which she managed herself. We found a newspaper clipping in her sketchbook, which describes how hands on she was: ‘The Duchess of Rutland, like a Noble Shepherdess, an honour to England, delights in feeding with her own hands, the lamb that peacefully thrives under her auspices and frisks in the meadows of Belvoir.’
That explains the shocking pink Gothic dairy built for her by the architect James Wyatt at the foot of the Castle mound. Well, my parents farmed, I was brought up on the farm, and I know about farming. To read her accounts of 200 years ago gave me an electric thrill of connection. She too knew how to farm; she kept herds of oxen, brought down from Scotland to be fattened for the London market, she bred Norfolk sheep and Welsh ewes – she even tried a herd of buffalo. She thought it patriotic to grow crops in a time of war, and she was enough of a businesswoman to take advantage of the increase in farm prices: in one year, chosen at random, she sold flour for £270.00, home produced milk, cream, butter and cheese for £170.00, and over £3,000.00 for beef and mutton (it’s difficult to turn these figures into modern money, but this equates to a turn-over of more than a million dollars).
‘That’s my girl’ I thought when I read this. If she can do it then so can I – and so I must. Like her I care for the past of course, but I hope I do not get trapped by it, for each generation must reinvent itself, no matter how much it may respect what came before: we conserve and we change, we protect and we progress. Elizabeth is an example for us all!