The Duchess of Rutland herself chose the decor and furniture in a newly-refurbished holiday home on the estate just a few miles from Belvoir Castle, on the border of Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. Toby Keel paid a visit.
As the rain hammered onto the leaded windows of Croxton Park House, I sunk back into a plush, velvet sofa and couldn’t help thinking of The Decameron, Bocaccio’s classic medieval work in which a group of friends hole up in a country house outside Florence and tell stories to pass the time.
What a wonderful place this would be, I thought, for an English equivalent: a plush, grand yet comfortable country house, set in a quiet spot out in the country, with everything you need on hand.
Little did I know at the time — this was mid-February — that a few weeks later the Decameron reference would be all the more apposite: Bocaccio’s protagonists have fled the city in order to escape an outbreak of plague in the city. These are scary times.
Life goes on, however, and with more and more people now looking to holiday within Britain, we’d imagine that places such as Croxton Park House will become all the more popular, for it’s a place which started life as a retreat.
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The original house was built here in the 16th century when the ancient Croxton Priory — reputed to be the burial spot for King John’s heart — was razed to the ground during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was used as a hunting lodge, and rebuilt in 1726 by the 3rd Duke of Rutland — a place in which to keep his mistress, the story goes, and given the endlessly colourful history of the family that seems entirely plausible.
It remained well-used for a long time, with the Marquis and Marchioness of Granby (the title of the heirs to the dukedom) spending Christmases in the house in the 1750s.
The house as it stands now was ruined in the early 20th century when a former tenant, in dispute with the then-Duke about turning the place into workers cottages, removed the roof and let weather do its worst. The restoration was more or less a total rebuild, using as much of what was left, plus masonry from the old priory, to erect what is a three-storey house with two dining rooms, a huge sitting room, five bedrooms and a couple of beautifully-appointed bathrooms.
It’s full of character: old doorways, stone floors, higgledy-piggledy floorboards and doorways and the aforementioned windows, all sitting on a hillside overlooking a lake, with open land perfect for a walk — and, if you don’t visit in mid-winter, an outdoor area for al fresco dining.
The Duchess of Rutland herself — aka Emma Manners — has chosen all the decor and furniture, which is a marvellous and slightly eccentric mix of old and new which somehow works beautifully. Thus the sitting room includes an ancient sideboard used as a cavernous drinks cabinet; huge, comfy sofas; metal-and-glass coffee tables which wouldn’t look out of place in Hercules Poirot’s flat; and an enormous TV that connects to iPlayer and Netflix via WiFi which streams throughout the house.
The bedrooms are similarly eclectic: one, with walls clad in red paper, has a magnificent four-poster bed; another room, light and elegant, has a gracefully shaped super-king; upstairs are a double, a twin and a family room with an en-suite. It could comfortably sleep 12 for a family gathering, all of whom will be able to sit around the huge round table in the dining room.
There’s also a sort of breakfast room that’s smaller and cosier than the grand dining room, and several steps closer to the kitchen, equipped with a range, washing machine and all manner of crockery and glassware (albeit no dishwasher).
And that’s more or less the whole story. Croxton Park House is a place to simply be, and enjoy each other’s company, rather than a place to do things. With a few logs on the fire and a fresh G&T in hand, there we can’t imagine many better places to spend a long weekend catching up with friends or family.
Croxton Park House, sleeping 12, is rented out at £650 a night — see more details at www.belvoircastle.com/castle-croxton-park-house, while you can also book via AirBnB. The estate also rents out various other cottages and rooms, including several in Belvoir Castle itself.
Things to do, places to eat
Croxton Park House is part of the Belvoir Estate, whose centrepiece is the castle so famously beautiful that it’s been used in the filming of The Crown — and, of course, featured in Country Life. It’s every inch the archetypal castle precisely because it was built to look like one: the story goes that the formidable Elizabeth Manners, the 5th Duchess of Rutland, was so disappointed by the existing castle’s dour appearance that on marrying into the family in 1799 she decided to rebuild in a style befitting this grand, hilltop location.
It took decades — not least because a terrible fire in 1816 undid almost all her team’s hard work — but the results are spectacular, the place has been brilliantly kept ever since, and a guided tour of the castle is warmly recommended for the wealth of eye-opening stories you’ll hear about one of Britain’s most fascinating dynasties.
Guided tours of the castle, including entry and admission to the grounds, cost £18 (£9 children) — www.belvoircastle.com
A trip into nearby Grantham proved somewhat disappointing, the most interesting we found being a blue plaque on the wall outside Pizza Express declaring that Isaac Newton lodged here while a schoolboy (we’ve a feeling that he would have been a calzone man, but that’s pure speculation). Just outside the town, however, is one of the great highlights of this part of the world: Belton House.
This glorious house, gardens and park were created for Sir John Brownlow in the late 17th century, and the National Trust suggest on their website that it might be ‘the perfect country house’. We don’t know about that, but the children confirm that it boasts the single best outdoor play area of any country house we’ve ever visited.
Adults £17.30, children £11, National Trust members free — www.nationaltrust.org.uk/belton-house
The Engine Yard
Adjacent to the Belvoir Castle visitors’ car park is this collection of cute independent shops, some genuinely superb delicatessens and a couple of spots to eat and drink. It’s all very smart and upscale, and was packed with happy-looking faces even on a grim, wet day.
The Fuel Tank restaurant serves up sandwiches and simple dishes, though we’d be tempted to jump straight to the excellent cakes, while if it’s 5 o’clock somewhere the themed Balloon Bar lets you sit in a hot air ballon booth while sipping a cocktail — you can even order one made with the Duchess of Rutland’s recently-launched gin.