THE ACCIDENTAL DUCHESS – FROM FARMER’S DAUGHTER TO BELVOIR CASTLE
Lynda Clark talks to The Duchess of Rutland about her fascinating new autobiography from growing up on a Welsh farm to meeting and falling in love with David Manners, having no idea that he was heir to one of the most senior hereditary titles in the UK
Emma Watkins grew up on the Welsh/Shropshire border in Radnorshire, which no longer exists as it was incorporated into the county of Powys in 1973. Emma had a very happy childhood and adored animals and she always helped with the lambing and looked after the 200 chickens they had on the farm. She describes it as, “a very hands on family.’ She had a great voice and eventually went to study opera at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama but she only stayed a year and then decided to train as a land agent in Southampton but quickly moved in to working for an estate agent marketing properties in London. She had sold a house to Jeremy Hope in Ross-on-Wye who ran an interior design company in London and he approached her to see if she might consider opening another branch in Herefordshire. After six weeks training with them she started working with fellow designer, Janet Baker. Eventually though they decided to go it alone and set up their own interior design business.
It was during this time that she was invited to dinner by Christopher Cole, the son of the founder of Cole & Son. That evening she met David Manners, who unbeknown to Emma was The Marquis of Granby and heir to the Duke of Rutland. They fell in love and married in 1992 at his ancestral home, Belvoir Castle. They lived in a small Georgian house on the estate but sadly David’s father, the 10th Duke of Rutland suddenly died and so Emma became the Duchess of Rutland and had to look after the vast estate which was in need of modernisation. With five children, it was tough but she met each challenge with great optimism and gusto. Nothing seems to daunt her including scaling the castle roof in a storm to unclog the gutter. She said” It is more than a full-time job to keep Belvoir Castle running – it has 1800 windows, 16,000 acres of land and 2500 lightbulbs!”
At times the problems she faced seemed insoluble but she has won through, inspired by her vision and passion. Belvoir has certainly moved with the times and is now a wedding and corporate event venue, it has a retail village, a big adventure playground for visitor’s children to enjoy, hold shooting parties with visitors from all over the world and also rents out holiday homes and camping and glamping facilities.
The Duchess has presented various television programmes including ITVs Castle, Keeps and Country Homes and has written several books on Belvoir Castle. In 2021, the Duchess created a podcast titled, Duchess, where she has interviewed chatelaines of castles and stately homes throughout the UK. In the first season, she spoke to Lady Henrietta Churchill of Blenheim Palace and Lady Mansfield of Scone Palace.
Belvoir Castle was also used whilst filming the TV series, The Crown. The Duchess explains, “I was fascinated by how it all worked behind the scenes so I wore a fleece and a hat and looked like a member of staff so nobody recognised me! It was great fun.”
This latest book is a joy to read and is full of anecdotes and stories and will appeal to everyone who has visited a stately home and wondered what it would be like to live there.
The Duchess of Rutland, Published by Pan Macmillan, £12.99 Hardback.
Available from all good bookshops and online.