Taking on the running of a historic stately home is not for the faint-hearted, but these modern-day chatelaines would not have it any other way, says Eleanor Doughty
Eleanor Doughty meets the modern-day chatelaines to find out what life is like running some of Britain’s most historic stately homes, and how they make it work.
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MEET THE MODERN-DAY CHATELAINES
When Diana, the Dowager Countess of Devon was a little girl, she loved Pony Club camp. One summer in the 1960s, Hugh Courtenay, the heir to the Earl of Devon, came to help out. He met young Diana Watherston, and the pair hit it off. Some time later, Hugh took Diana home to Powderham Castle, the Courtenays’ home since 1391. “We turned on to the drive, and there was this huge castle – my mouth fell open,” she remembers. Out of the front door “came this smartly dressed man in a tweed suit. I thought he was the butler, and I said that my suitcases were in the back, before I realised that it was Hugh’s father”.
Hugh and Diana married in 1967, and after a few years took over the running of Powderham. Overnight, she had become a chatelaine and began with quite the wrong mindset, she says. “When we got married my one passion was to persuade Hugh to get rid of Powderham. Wasn’t that stupid? Now, I would fight like a tigress to keep Powderham going.” Lady Devon agrees that she was an old-style chatelaine. “My job was to bring up the family. We had three girls and there was a rather daunting picture in the castle of one of Hugh’s ancestors who had had 13 daughters, and a son.” Luckily, their fourth was a boy, Charlie, now 19th Earl of Devon. “Looking back at my life,” says Lady Devon, “that was my role. Hugh was in charge of the place, and my job was to make Powderham into a family home, rather than a spectacular museum. Hugh was prepared to be the frontman in our life.”
Today, these roles are increasingly reversing. At Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the Countess of Carnarvon performs the chief executive role, as does the Duchess of Rutland at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. Former publishing boss Vicky Howard is in the hot seat at Castle Howard, while at Burghley, where the horse trials return this month, Miranda Rock, granddaughter of the 6th Marquess of Exeter, runs the house. The Duchess of Rutland is so passionate about women in country houses that last year she launched a podcast, Duchess, interviewing fellow chatelaines.
At Kinnaird Castle in Angus, David and Caroline Carnegie, 4th Duke and Duchess of Fife, divide their jobs according to their strengths. The Duchess, who worked in marketing before she moved to Kinnaird in the 1990s, is the “day-to-day facilitator, whereas David [an accountant] is the master-planner. You just do what you do best, but you have to be open to anything.” At Kinnaird, it really could be anything. The castle is split into flats, some of which are let for holiday-makers, there’s shooting, fishing and stalking on the estate, and the Fifes are building an 8,000-house town called Chapelton near Aberdeen. “It ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous,” says the Duchess cheerfully. “It’s very physical – you won’t find many chatelaines with much extra on them.” Her early days at Kinnaird were less calm and collected: “I was quite overwhelmed by the fact that every night it took me 20 minutes just to close the shutters.” Though the Fifes are keen country people, “these houses are businesses, and you end up being married to them – there just isn’t the time to do all the hunting, shooting, fishing,” says the Duchess. Her husband enjoys shooting, as do the Fifes’ three sons: “If that wasn’t the case, we might not do it here, but the estate wouldn’t look the same.” Hunting “left Angus about 150 years ago”, and the nearest pack is the Fife, but the Duchess is a passionate horsewoman. It shows, she laughs. “When we first came here I thought, ‘oh my God, aged 30 I’m going to have to get into tweeds and pearls’. As it is, apparently I’ve looked more like the girl groom. My horses are my happy outlet, my stop valve.”
Some 450 miles south at Cirencester Park lives Sara Bathurst, Countess Bathurst. When she met Allen Bathurst, then Lord Apsley, in 1993, she was running one of her family’s bookshops. They married in 1996, and have lived at the Bathursts’ 18th-century mansion ever since. As the estate is in trust, Lady Bathurst’s role is “to support my husband, come up with mad ideas and hope they take root”. It keeps her busy. She runs a coffee shop in an Airstream caravan, has two holiday cottages to manage and in May this year launched the National Foundation for Retired Service Animals. And then there’s the house, tucked behind the world’s tallest yew hedge in Cirencester town centre. This is Lady Bathurst’s domain, and is “an easy house to run – we’re big enough to be stately, but we’re still a cosy home”. It isn’t open to the public on a walk-in basis, but Lady Bathurst has recently launched private tours. As such, it’s not quite like living above the shop, though “we work incredibly hard in and around it,” she says. “There are rooms that I haven’t had time to sort out [yet] and I think ‘sometime in the next 10 years…’”
After 26 years, Lady Bathurst is still learning every day, and often bounces ideas off her friend Lady Carnarvon. But she stresses that there isn’t really a “girls’ club” within the stately homes community. “We don’t rub shoulders as much as people think we do – we don’t have time.” Cirencester Park itself is open every day from 8am until 5pm, and this, says Lady Bathurst, is one of the best things about her role. “It’s a privilege to drive up into the park and go and get lost for a couple of hours.” She is passionate about dogs and loves shooting, but doesn’t hunt: “I had a bad fall when I was younger, so I like kissing soft, velvety noses, but I’d rather not get on top of one.” There is no shooting on the estate, but she enjoys “half a dozen days a season. It’s a real treat, and my little dog loves it.” Life at Cirencester, she says, is pretty special, but she is realistic about the Bathursts’ role. “We are merely custodians passing through. These estates have been here for hundreds of years before us, and God willing they’ll be here for hundreds of years to come.”
Thanks to male primogeniture, most little girls growing up in country houses are denied the top job. Many would say thank goodness, but not Catherine FitzGerald. Her family have lived at Glin Castle in Co Limerick since the 14th century, and Catherine, the eldest daughter of Desmond FitzGerald, 29th Knight of Glin, grew up imbibing all things Glin. When the Knight died in 2011 with no male heir, the family had to make a decision about Glin. They put it up for sale in 2015, but it was clear to Catherine that her time had come. “In Ireland places like Glin are quite rare, so I felt a real sense of duty,” she says. Despite having a life in London – a landscape designer, she has four children with her husband Dominic West – she was determined to make it work, encouraged by her friend Lindy, the late Marchioness of Dufferin, who said, “why didn’t I try it for five years, as I wouldn’t regret it. Glin is so deep in my bones.” Catherine observes that sometimes “people are handed these [houses] and they think, ‘oh dear’. But it’s a wonderful gift, and there are a lot of things you can do to make them work.”
For Caroline Ryder, the Countess of Harrowby, a positive, no-nonsense attitude is key, which is just as well, since she is chatelaine of two country houses – Burnt Norton in Gloucestershire and Sandon Hall in Staffordshire. The houses came to Lady Harrowby, a former dressage rider turned author – as Caroline Montague, whose new book is out in January – in stages: first, Burnt Norton, upon her marriage to Conroy Ryder, then Viscount Sandon, in 1998, and then Sandon, in 2007, when Conroy’s father the 7th Earl of Harrowby died. “Suddenly Conroy found that he was in charge of both estates, and life changed a bit,” she says. Still, she wasn’t fazed. “I didn’t foresee that there could be any pitfalls – it’s the best way to be.” The Harrowbys also divide the workload: Lady Harrowby, a former interior decorator, is in charge of decoration across the two houses and their estate properties, and also manages the wedding business at Sandon, where in September they are hosting a literary festival. Is she a typical chatelaine, whatever that might be? “My husband says I’m a bit of a scruff bag,” she laughs. “I’m probably not people’s idea of what the Countess of Harrowby should look like.” She feels “so privileged” to live at Burnt Norton, “where TS Eliot was inspired to write the first of the Four Quartets”, and she never says no to people asking to look round. With two houses to run, there’s no longer any time for riding: “We’re going between Sandon and Norton all the time, and I’ve been writing a novel a year – I can’t do it all.”
Given the workload, it is a wonder that anyone would choose to be a chatelaine these days. Yvonne Corbett did. Eight years ago she was living in South Africa with her husband, Alan, when they were posted back to Scotland, and she decided to look for “something that I could turn into a business”. When Turin Castle in Angus came up for sale, she flew from Cape Town to look at it. “My husband didn’t see it before we got the keys. It was a gamble, but it paid off.” Now, the pair of them run Turin, Yvonne on the creative side, and Alan the financial. They live upstairs, and let the house for unique experiences, ranging from midnight bagpipe shows to stalking and fishing. Living above the shop is not for the faint-hearted. “Running a property like this is a job in itself, without the events,” says Yvonne, who tells a story to illustrate that in the big house, the to-do list is never-ending. Viewing another property one day, “the lady of the house welcomed me, and as she did so she leant down and picked a weed from the stonework. I remember thinking, ‘how rude!’ At the time I didn’t know any better, but now I’m the woman who picks up a weed when I’m talking to someone – if you don’t, something else will catch your eye.”