Confessions of a chatelaine: the stories behind Britain's poshest podcast

The Duchess and Lady Violet in Belvoir's library -  Andrew Crowley
The Duchess and Lady Violet in Belvoir's library - Andrew Crowley

Earning your keep is that much harder when the “keep” is solid stone reality. Such is the challenge of the chatelaine, a woman in charge of a stately home. If you marry the heir to such a home, you will probably end up inheriting the task of maintaining the place, from its leaking roof to its creaking foundations, and you will have to devise ever-more ingenious fundraising strategies merely to keep the estate as it is.

The Duchess of Rutland, who runs Belvoir Castle, is one of those women. Born Emma Watkins, the Duchess is the daughter of a Welsh farmer of Quaker stock. She met David Manners, then the Marquess of Granby, in 1990.

They married in 1992 and, seven years later, on the death of the 10th Duke of Rutland, Manners became the 11th. His wife became the 11th Duchess of Rutland. “Suddenly,” she says in her new podcast series, “one of Britain’s most historic buildings was not only my home, but under my care.”

In each episode of the series, the Duchess visits or speaks to a fellow chatelaine and they discuss their unusual occupation and the difficulties that come with it. Three ­episodes into its 10-episode run, the podcast has already caused a stir: in the first instalment, the Duchess ­discloses that she was often sobbing during her first weeks at Belvoir, on one occasion overhearing a butler asking a colleague, “Have we broken her yet?”

They hadn’t. Twenty years later, the Duchess remains in situ. I’ve come to meet her at Belvoir, albeit at a safe distance (imagine the shame of giving a duchess coronavirus!), a couple of days after heavy snowfall. Belvoir, which resembles a slightly smaller (but still very large, your grace!) Windsor Castle sat atop a hill in north-east Leicestershire, is garlanded with snow. There are worse places to sit out a pandemic.

The house is empty of visitors but full of family. The Duchess, 57, and the Duke, 61, though legally separated, live in different wings of the castle with their respective partners; their five children, who would normally be at school, university, or living in the family town house in west London, have been brought home by lockdown. There are the three daughters, Ladies Violet (27), Alice (25) and Eliza (23), and the two sons, 21-year-old Charles, Marquess of Granby, and 17-year-old Lord Hugo.

“It’s like overload, lockdown,” says their mother when we meet in the family drawing room. She is warm, self-assured, and immaculately groomed. “I don’t know, some days, where to start,” she admits. “Right now we’re trying to do the house spring cleaning – we always do the spring cleaning at this time of year. We’re a really small team. And, of course, everyone’s at home.” The Duchess, with fondness, then imitates the plaintive tones of her children: “Mum, what’s for lunch? Mum, there’s no food in the fridge!”

In line with pandemic regulations, the Duchess is currently maintaining the estate with only a skeleton staff. The children have assisted her: Lady Eliza has been mowing the lawn, Charles driving the tractor, and all five have helped chop wood. In the evenings they take turns to cook.

“I’ve found this lockdown so uniting for us,” says the Duchess, who, in the podcast, describes herself and the Duke as “the best of friends”. In the spring lockdown, she says today, “the unit measurably struggled a bit, but this lockdown we’ve all recognised each other’s boundaries and are always working. Hugo is busy with his A-levels, Charles is doing his university degree.” (Their sisters, adds the Duchess, have started their own businesses in marketing, styling and decorating.)

“There’s a great respect,” she continues, “and there’s loads of space. We’re very, very lucky. But yes, it’s simple, life in lockdown. Somehow it keeps life very simple because they haven’t got the churn and noise of normal life.”

Belvoir on a snowy day -  Terry Harris/Shutterstock
Belvoir on a snowy day - Terry Harris/Shutterstock

She no longer watches the news, she says: “I can’t bear to watch it any more. I just get my updates from the children.” In these anxious times, the question is “how we can just keep ourselves focused on whatever we are doing, whether it’s spring cleaning, mucking out the horses, cooking lunch, whatever it is. It’s about going out for the walk every day. Mindfulness meditation has been a key thing for me in lockdown – I’ve meditated every day.”

Does she have a favourite spot? “Yes. I often do it in the Elizabeth saloon.” This is the lavishly rococo stateroom that has appeared in The Crown, and the one dedicated to the wife of the fifth Duke. “Elizabeth,” explains the current duchess, “is one of my mentors here. That’s her there.”

She points to a painting. Elizabeth is sitting side-saddle on a white horse, Belvoir in the background. It was she who oversaw the construction of the current iteration of the castle. “I often feel she most probably found me to ­finish the job off,” says the current Duchess. Sometimes, she says, “I have the feeling she’s here. Just saying:” – and she puts on a small, encouraging voice – “‘Go on, you can do it. Go on’.”

Her guests on the podcast report similar presences: ghosts that play benign tricks, ancestral portraits whose eyes seem to follow the chatelaines as they go about their business. Each woman describes seeing herself as a custodian, there to secure their home’s safe passage from one generation to the next.

Sometimes the Duchess and her guests discuss the awkwardness of assuming that custodianship. Especially for those born outside the aristocracy, this transition can be a difficult one. The ­Duchess’s painful memory of overhearing those butlers is a case in point. I ask what became of those staff.

The Duchess - Andrew Crowley
The Duchess - Andrew Crowley

“Well, they just… I don’t think it worked for them, you know,” she says. In the end, they “gradually just disappeared. They found the change too ­difficult. And they weren’t really used to little children.” She wonders whether “being so hands-on, as I am, was difficult for the people here”, and reflects on how “it was most probably harsh of me to feel they were having a terrible go at me, because they were most probably feeling challenged as well”. But was there ever a point at which the Duchess thought of packing it in? “Oh, no,” she says. “No, no, no, no. Never, never, never once. I’ve just got that immense internal strength. I don’t know where it comes from.”

For a moment she seems truly imperturbable. She tells a story from early on in her time at Belvoir: woken by the children at 5am with the news that water was pouring into the very room we’re currently sitting in, she pulled on her wellies, got out on to the two-acre roof and found three dead pigeons blocking a drain. “That’s my kind of mentality: get to the root of the problem and sort it. And then there’s no problem,” she explains.

The podcast, she says, has been her highlight of the lockdown period. It was Lady Violet’s idea, conceived while she was doing a business degree at University of California, Los Angeles. “Vi came home, having obviously listened to lots of podcasts,” she says. “They’re always a bit further ahead than us, Americans. She said, ‘Oh, Mummy, we’ve got to do this – it would be unbelievable’.”

Lady Violet and the Duchess - Andrew Crowley
Lady Violet and the Duchess - Andrew Crowley

At this point, the Duchess didn’t know a podcast from a worm cast, but with the help of a production ­company the series came together, yielding all kinds of unexpected benefits along the way. Reaching into her handbag, the Duchess produces a notebook labelled “Kick on, Emma” – a gift from Lady Alice’s boyfriend Otis Ferry, son of Bryan. It is filled with advice, from the Duchess’s interviewees who, between them, can easily volunteer “the greatest person for cleaning art, or doing portraits, or restoring china, or a linen supplier”. Lady Ingilby, of Ripley Castle, shared a scone recipe suitable for batches of 200.

The interviews forged friendships too. “The great thing,” says the Duchess, “is you’re chatting to someone who knows your journey. You’re completely and utterly on the same page.” And when the pandemic is over: “I would like to go on tour with the podcast ladies, and have the 10 of us go off on a hoolie.”

Over the course of our interview the Duchess, clearly getting the hang of the business, asks me several questions in return. I explain that I am spending lockdown in London, living with several friends in a house by a park. We’ve always got some unwashed dishes in the sink, but we’ve got everything we need. “Well, it’s not very different to here, then,” says the Duchess mischievously.

The next episode of Duchess will be released on Spotify and Apple Podcasts on Thursday

The Duchess' podcast guests

Demetra Lindsay, pictured below with husband Jason – Hedingham Castle

The Lindsays - Andrew Crowley
The Lindsays - Andrew Crowley

Duchess of Argyll – Inveraray Castle

Lady Emma Ingilby – Ripley Castle

Duchess of Fife (Caroline) – Kinnaird Castle

Lady Mansfield, pictured below with Lord Mansfield – Scone Palace

The Earl and Countess of Mansfield -  Chris Watt Photography
The Earl and Countess of Mansfield - Chris Watt Photography

Lady Derby – Knowsley Hall

Catherine Maxwell Stuart – Traquair House

Countess of Devon (AJ) – Powderham Castle

Martha Lytton Cobbold – Knebworth House

Lady Spencer-Churchill – Blenheim Palace