Our Christmas in a 356-room castle!

Our Christmas in a 356-room castle! The Duchess of Rutland has one wing, her ex the Duke another, while her partner of 12 years is estate manager. So how do they manage Christmas Day with their two sons and three society beauty daughters?

Ten eight-foot-tall, laser-cut drummers stand proud in the ballroom, a kinetic sculpture of five gold-leaf gilded rings — the largest a colossal 3.5m in diameter — is suspended from the picture gallery. White resin swans ‘swim’ down the centre of the 25ft table in the dining room, while model geese nest in ruby, gold and emerald hued Fabergé eggs.

The trio of chinoiserie wallpapered Kings’ Rooms are adorned with glass French hens (clucking — each room is sound-scaped) and china turtle doves, while the Regent’s Gallery hosts the grand finale: a tree illuminated with golden pears and the distinctive shape of a partridge projected over the ceiling.

Welcome to Belvoir Castle’s most opulent decorations yet. The Twelve Days of Christmas theme includes over one hundred Christmas trees and 20,000 lights.

The overall effect is breathtakingly co-ordinated, technically astonishing… and will bear no resemblance to the Duchess of Rutland’s own decorations in her private wing of the castle. ‘Our tinsel has lost most of its bits now — it’s quite bare, like a branch without leaves,’ smiles the Duchess, a mother of five, who only hangs her decorations a few days before the Big Day.

‘Banners saying Merry Christmas have been going up for the last 20 years and the lights are all flashing. It’s really gaudy and the children are horrified. They say, ‘Mum, you’ve got to sort this out,’ but I love it. The other side of the castle is so glamorous, and if you come into our private side, you say, ‘Oh my goodness,’ But Christmas is about memories, really, and not spending lots of money.’

Recently, Duchess of Rutland’s profile has soared, thanks to her hit podcast, Duchess, about the behind-the-scenes hard work that goes into running stately homes (Pictured: The Duchess at home in Belvoir Castle)

Despite — or because of — the extravagance of the 356-room, 11th-century Leicestershire castle, where the 11th Duke of Rutland’s ancestors have resided for almost 1,000 years, every penny has to be accounted for.

After inheriting the estate, the Duchess and her husband were lumbered with ‘jaw-dropping levels of debt’. To anyone labouring under the misapprehension she wafts around those crenellated turrets in a tiara, she says 90 per cent of her time is spent in jeans and a Barbour: ‘It’s not glamorous. Anyone who’s interviewing for the role should think twice, because it’s not for the faint-hearted.’

Maintaining the property costs around £500,000 a year. Dry rot has led to the entire roof having to be redone, and one night the Duchess found herself dragging four dead pigeons out of the gutter in the dark to stop the library from flooding — in her nightie and wellies.

Speaking exclusively to the Mail from her picture-lined study, the Duchess, who was born Emma Watkins and raised on a farm in Wales, believes her no-nonsense agricultural upbringing readied her for the role as chatelaine. ‘Being a Duchess in the 21st century is very hands on,’ she explains. ‘There’s no time for egos.’

She could have extricated herself following her split from the Duke in 2012 after a 20-year marriage. Instead, they remain separated — and ‘best of friends’ — but such is the Duchess’s devotion to her home that she decided to stay put.

So the Duke and Duchess continue to live in the same property — but in different wings.

For 12 years, the Duchess has been dating the castle’s estate manager Phil Burtt. It sounds an unconventional set up, but by all accounts, it works.

Their friendship, says the Duchess, is borne of a deep respect for each other that has strengthened with the passing years.

Maintaining Belvoir Castle, where the 11th Duke of Rutland’s ancestors have resided for almost 1,000 years, costs around £500,000 a year

The extravagant 356-room, 11th-century Leicestershire castle has been decorated for Christmas by Charlotte Lloyd Webber for the past three years

The Duchess, who was born Emma Watkins and raised on a farm in Wales, believes her no-nonsense agricultural upbringing readied her for the role as chatelaine

Designer Charlotte Lloyd-Webber, pictured last year, puts the finishing touches to Christmas at Belvoir Castle

The Duchess is an endearing mass of contradictions. Pragmatic yet party-loving — last month, she was pictured crowd-surfing at the castle at her 60th birthday — she is at once imposing and friendly, fiercely private about her family life but realistic about the publicity the castle needs to prosper.

Recently, her profile has soared, thanks to her hit podcast, Duchess, about the behind-the-scenes hard work that goes into running stately homes, and last year’s memoir, The Accidental Duchess, charting her journey from farmer’s daughter to landed aristocrat.

Certainly, our national interest in stately homes — and their scandals — has never been greater. In no small part due to the success of small-screen aristocratic-focussed dramas including The Crown, which has used Belvoir as a replica for Windsor Castle during filming, and, as the Duchess said, ‘definitely attracted more people to visit the castle’.

For the past three years, the Duchess has deployed Charlotte Lloyd Webber, who runs a theatrical installations company (and is the ex-wife of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s late son, Nick), to decorate Belvoir Castle for the public over the festive period — a job she was already doing at Castle Howard in Yorkshire.

Tickets cost from £21, and although the Duchess doesn’t describe opening the house over Christmas as a ‘business decision’, she says it was a natural progression since opening a retail village in the grounds in 2018.

‘We created a day out and Christmas had to be a part of that journey,’ says the Duchess. ‘I realise we’re late to the game of Christmas. A lot of people have been doing it a long time.’

The Duchess is pragmatic yet party-loving (Pictured: Lady Alice Manners, Emma Manners, Duchess of Rutland, Lady Eliza Manners and Lady Violet Manners)

She adds: ‘I think people go to places like Belvoir at Christmas now as they would have gone to church in the past — it’s about touching base with heritage and telling the story of Christmas through these buildings. I want to share it with everyone.’ But, she continues, wryly: ‘It doesn’t come without its problems.’

During the cold spell earlier this month, for example, she and Phil were ‘pushing cars into the car park and throwing down sand’ after two inches of snow blocked the visitors’ entrance.

Little wonder, then, that she has had no time to decorate the nursery wing, comprising her seven private rooms. ‘My Christmas starts like everyone else,’ she insists. ‘I don’t even think about it until ten days before Christmas.’

At that point, she drags down boxes from storage in the Staunton Tower, one of Belvoir’s six crenellated turrets and the oldest part of the castle, ‘hoping there hasn’t been a leak in the summer’.

As she fills the rooms with holly and mistletoe, festive songs help her get in the mood, including favourites by Slade and Michael Bublé — ‘all the classics’, she smiles, the music streamed courtesy of virtual assistant Alexa: ‘She sorts me out.’

Trinkets made by the Duke and Duchess’ offspring in childhood take pride of place on the tree (Pictured: The Duchess’ children, Violet Manners, Alice Manners, and Eliza Manners)

Trinkets made by the Duke and Duchess’ offspring in childhood — Violet is now 30, Alice, 28, Eliza, 26, Charles, 24, and Hugo, 20 — take pride of place on the tree cut from the castle’s 2,000-acre estate. ‘Hugo painted a snowman with a white base like a Christmas cake and that’s one of my favourites.’

Similarly cherished is the 50-year-old nativity scene that belonged to the Duke, 64, as a child, accessorised with straw from the farm on their estate. ‘There’s something very comforting about using decorations again and again. For a mum, they’re a memory of childhood and a reflection of the fact they’re now grown up.’

When her children were young she remembers putting out pillowcases in the family sitting room, along with a mince pie and glass of sherry for Father Christmas. ‘We’ve probably got 250 fireplaces in the castle and luckily he found his way to ours, and then the messy so-and-so would leave big prints across the sitting room floor.’ She insists the Duke never dressed up as Santa, but recalls witnessing Father Christmas out of the kitchen window one year with the children, adding with a smile: ‘We chased him — he escaped.’

This will be the first year her children won’t receive presents from Santa, now her youngest son, Lord Hugo Manners, has turned 20. ‘I told all my children Father Christmas isn’t coming. They said: ‘I didn’t know why he came for so long anyway.’ ‘

Always a hands-on mum, she has grown even closer to her children in their adult years. ‘You become mates with your kids when they’re older,’ says the Duchess, whose podcast was her producer daughter Lady Violet’s idea. Lady Alice, meanwhile, is a stylist and helped prepare her mother for this photoshoot. Lady Eliza has an interior decoration business, Charles works in the City and Hugo is at Newcastle University.

The Duchess and the Duke will spend ‘all’ Christmas Day together, but despite living on the estate, Phil will not be present (Pictured: Duchess of Rutland)

The Duchess’ devotion to the ancestral home — and her family — is one reason why she continued to live in the castle after separating from the Duke, determined to carry on helping with its upkeep as commercial manager instead of demanding a hefty divorce payout and scarpering.

‘We see each other all the time,’ says the Duchess — their last encounter was a cup of tea shortly before we speak today. ‘I’m off to the U.S. tomorrow to launch a foundation called American Friends of Belvoir Castle, so he wants to know how that’s going. We’re a team. There’s absolutely nothing but love in this house.’

So much so, that she and the Duke will spend ‘all’ Christmas Day together. Despite living on the estate, Phil will not be present: ‘We have Christmas with our own families.’ All the children will be there along with the Duchess’s mother and a handful of friends.

After breakfasting on ham, boiled eggs and Cumberland sauce, the family will go to a Christmas Day service in Bottesford Church — ‘where all the Dukes of Rutland have been buried’ — before returning to the Elizabeth Saloon.

Closed to the public only on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, the ornate ormolu panelled room, with painted ceiling, pays homage to the maids-a-milking this year, with one giant Christmas-tree-shaped sculpture of milk stools and churns with taffeta pouring out, next to a 15ft tall milkmaid. (‘The idea is the milkmaid has ransacked their ladies’ chamber and is hurling around stools,’ according to Charlotte Lloyd Webber.)

It is an unusual backdrop for pre-lunch drinks, but it is the Duchess’ favourite themed room: ‘I love the way Charlotte curates the story in this very theatrical way. You’re learning a bit of history.’

Lunch will be a three-bird roast with chestnut stuffing and all the trimmings, which the Duchess insists on cooking herself: ‘I’m very fussy about Christmas lunch. I can’t bear it not going right. If I ask someone to help I’m a nightmare because I’m always running in saying: ‘Have you done this?’ ‘

They’ll eat in the state dining room, surrounded by seven-swans-a-swimming: ‘We’ll be about 20. The table could seat 40 so we’ll have to spread out a bit.’

There will be ‘far too many crackers,’ she admits, having been introduced to the concept by her mother-in-law many years ago. Hers are, she stresses, ‘always cheap. It’s all about the bang and getting your party hat on.’

She has a penchant for Aldi crackers but describes herself as ‘an Asda girl’, and the supermarket is her ‘favourite shop in the world’. She’s never recognised there, she says, and nor would she want to be: ‘I just want to be me.’

After a dog walk and the King’s Speech —’we’re very excited about that’ — everyone collapses in front of a film: ‘I love watching a movie, but I don’t watch general TV. I think it’s all gentle propaganda.’

On Boxing Day, the children take part in country pursuits, she says: ‘We’re as passionate about keeping our countryside alive as this castle.’

Despite the dearth of decorations in her private rooms, she has already finished her Christmas shopping: ‘It’s always in the back of your mind. I collect things throughout the year.’

At the top of her own Christmas wish list is a distinctly unstarry pair of Sloggi slippers.

As she cuts into the Christmas cake that she’s busy lacing with brandy and gin, she will enjoy relinquishing her Duchess responsibilities — leaks, tapestry repairs and looming spring clean forgotten, if only briefly. ‘Christmas is just magic, isn’t it?’ she concludes. ‘It’s about family, really.’

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