Belvoir Castle – Root and Moss House – 1920s
Tom Webster, Belvoir Castle’s head gardener, drives me with his Land Rover close to the Root and Moss House, a fairytale-like hideout in the middle of the Duchess’s Garden. When Tom asks how long it will take for the remake, I tell him I have no idea because it can be five minutes but also a few hours. We agreed that I would walk back to the castle.
The Root and Moss House was built around 1818 as a feature in the Duchess’ Garden before known as the Ladies’ Garden, one of the finest Picturesque examples in the Regency period with grottoes, walkways, rock gardens and water features.
Over thirty grottoes and pavilions were initially built along the walk: essential requirements in any Picturesque garden. Two were uncovered under a rampart overgrown during the restoration. The Tufa Grotto, made of English tufa rock – a rare and stunning centuries-old organic material – was built in 1822 to the design of a typical Regency hermitage. It was common then for a hermit to live in a garden such as this, and although no evidence has surfaced to suggest one ever lived here, the mystery has inspired the new name for this garden.
Another grotto, ‘Lord Granby’s Cave’, is 30 yards further along the Duke’s Walk. It was a fabulous two-storey playhouse, built for the 5th Duke and Duchess’s son, Lord Charles, who later became the 6th Duke. It still needs much work to restore it to its former glory. The garden now thrives with many rare and endangered plants, including many unusual Enkianthus, Cornus, Stachyurus and Styrax from the Himalayan region.
Like the other early 19th-century gardens on the Belvoir Castle estate, The Duchess’ Garden was designed by Elizabeth Howard, 5th Duchess of Rutland, who was married to John Manners, the 5th Duke of Rutland, in the early 1800s. The individual gardens were much influenced by Italian terraced gardens, which the Duchess observed on her Grand Tour.
In the centre of the picture stands an evergreen monkey puzzle tree. The Root and Moss House sits above a series of stone steps commanding an unrivalled vista through many unusual trees and shrubs. Smaller trees obscure the two ornaments at the top of the steps and some parts of the remarkable hideout. These younger trees were probably planted when Emma, the current Duchess of Rutland, transformed the gardens during a massive garden restoration project between 2013-2015. Also, the Root and Moss House was restored in that period.
Also, the lower end of Duchess Elizabeth’s original garden had become completely overgrown. The current Duchess seized the opportunity to create a new seven-acre planning scheme and called it the Hermit’s Garden. The new pond and the statue is Emma’s personal memorial to Elizabeth.
By the Victorian period, tastes had changed and the 7th and 8th Duke’s head gardener, W.H. Divers, was famous in horticultural circles for his concept of massed spring-flowering bedding. Around 1900 he cut formal beds into the hillside that foamed with cultivated bulbs from mid-winter to early summer. The garden became known as the Spring Garden, not so much for the spring planting but for the natural springs under the ground.
Root and Moss House – 1900s
This picture is taken from the top of the stone steps next to the monkey puzzle tree. Seven ladies and a boy are posing in front of the Root and Moss House entrance.
Identifying these people will take additional research. If you could point me in the right direction, please let me know.
The Root and Moss House, in the past also known as The Duchess’ Seat, has a splendid hexagonal shape with a thatched roof, moss-filled walls, and rustic furniture.
A sign next to the small building reads: “Probably the ‘Pavilion on the Duke’s Walk’ which was being thatched by the Belvoir woodsmen in the summer of 1818 but had to be stripped and re-thatched professionally with 24,000 reeds the following July at a total cost of £38 and 13 shillings. It took the thatcher and his assistant 22 days to do the job properly.”
On the castle
Belvoir Castle lies on a hill-top. The hill is neither specially high nor specially steep, but seen from the surrounding country the Castle yet looks very spectacular, with its varied outlines and its towers, turrets and crenellations, much the beau idéal of the romantic castle.
It was indeed called in White’s Directory in 1846 ‘by far the most superb architectural ornament of which Leicestershire can boast’.
The first Belvoir Castle has been built by Robert de Todeni late in the 11th century. The name Belvoir appears for the first time as Belvedere in a document of 1130.
In 1247 the castle fell to the de Ros family. They strengthened the fortifications, and it is just possible that in the southeast (Staunton) tower something of the medieval castle remains.
It came to Lord Hastings after the last Ros has been changed by Edward IV, and he used materials from it for Ashby.
Belvoir was ruinous when the Manners family of Etal in Northumberland inherited it. The first Earl Manners of Rutland began rebuilding in 1528. This castle was slighted in 1649, and the eighth Earl, with the help of John Webb, built a new castle or rather mansion in circa 1654-68, a solid four-square block of large size with hardly any decoration, reminiscent in its solidity and sobriety of Nottingham Castle.
In 1800 the fifth Duke of Rutland and his duchess, a daughter of the Earl of Carlisle, decided to remodel this house into the shape of a medieval castle. They obtained the services of James Wyatt, who worked at Belvoir till he died in 1813.
The work was completed in 1816 under the supervision of the Duke’s friend and chaplain, the Vicar of Bottesford, Sir John Thoroton. In 1816 a fire destroyed a large part of what Wyatt had done and the rebuilding lay in the hands of Thoroton, who for the interior work however employed Wyatt’s sons Benjamin Dean Wyatt and Matthew Cotes Wyatt. By circa 1830 all was completed.
Excerpts from The Buildings of England. Leicestershire and Rutland by Nikolaus Pevsner (1960, Penguin Books), page 62-65.
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Source for most of the postcards: Leicestershire and Rutland Gardens Trust.
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Belvoir is not mentioned in the Domesday Book.
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