A new season for Rockingham Castle

Rockingham Castle
Rockingham Castle

Freezing temperatures and downpours may often characterise the good old British weather, but many managers of tourist destinations in Northamptonshire will have had their fingers crossed for school holiday crowds.

When I met Rockingham Castle’s operations manager Nicola Moss last week, she was happy with the turnout achieved on what is believed to have been the coldest Easter weekend on record.

It was during Easter weekend that the 900-year-old castle opened its doors again for the season, and it will now be open every Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday until the end of September, and on Tuesdays from June.

It will also open for a string of events ranging from the Rockingham Castle Food and Craft Fair in September to the annual Victorian Christmas celebration in November.

On top of all of this, many schools and other parties book private tours of the castle and grounds throughout the year.

Nicola said: “We attract 25,000 visitors a year, we do 50 days of opening and in November we are open for three weeks, we get a fifth of our annual visitors in those three weeks.”

I paid a visit to the castle to find out more about the site’s history, as well as the complexities of running such a huge estate.

It was Edward Watson who took on the care of the dilapidated Rockingham Castle from Henry VIII, back in 1544.

When the Civil War broke out, Edward’s grandson Sir Lewis Watson was thrown out of the castle, to make room for the Parliamentarians. During this turbulent time in British history, the castle’s defences were destroyed but, after the war, Sir Lewis was allowed to return and make the castle a home once more.

Today direct descendants the Saunders Watson family still own and care for this historic site, as well as many properties in the nearby village.

Edward’s original motto, now written on one of the beams in the Great Hall, seems to have been obeyed. “The house shal be preserved and never will decaye wheare the almightie God is honoured and served.”

The castle boasts 18 acres of formal gardens and 4,000 acres of wild gardens. There is a team of 20 permanent staff and 30 more for opening times. The staff includes two full-time and one part-time gardener, a caretaker and two maintenance workers.

Caring for the castle is a constant task and there is always at least one restoration project on the go.

The Long Gallery curtains are currently being restored by experts and one recent major, two-year project has included restoring the 19th century Ice House, which fell into disuse when refrigeration became commonplace.

Spokesman Andrew Norman said: “Much more goes into the upkeep and maintenance than people realise. No-one wants to spend a significant amount of money on restoring curtains but it goes with the duties of a place like this. Most of us would throw our old curtains away but in a place like this you cannot do that.”

Walking around the castle site with head guide David Shipton, I quickly see the value of Rockingham’s keen attention to conserving its history.

Instead of replica items, the old kitchen displays original, Victorian cooking items such as pots, pans and a giant pestle and mortar... perhaps used to cook for one of the home’s frequent 19th century visitors, the writer Charles Dickens.

Upstairs in the Long Gallery, artefacts include a play bill from a performance Dickens staged during one of his visits to the Watson family.

David said: “Richard and Lavinia Watson were on holiday and met Charles Dickens, they were both interested in art and Richard and Dickens got on well. They met a lot in London and Dickens dedicated David Copperfield to the Watsons. He even put on some little plays at Rockingham.

“In Bleak House, there is Chesney Wold and many details in that were taken from visits here.”

The portraits, ornaments and rooms themselves tell a story of a castle inhabited by one family for 450 years, and of a strongly royal past.

On display there are huge Murano glass chandeliers bought on holiday by Richard and Lavinia. We can also see Lavinia’s drawings of her children in the setting of Rockingham.

Many historical items go back even further, such as a chimney in the Great Hall which dates from Edward I’s time and helmets left on the castle grounds by Parliamentarian soldiers during the Civil War. But Rockingham has a long history.

David said: “It was about 1070 when William the Conqueror built the first castle here and it has grown and developed since then. It was a simple motte and bailey and it rapidly grew into a big stone castle which kings of England visited regularly. King John stayed here several times, as well as Henry V and Richard I.

“It was strategically important and at the centre of the administration of Rockingham Forest, which was a huge royal hunting forest; King John came here and hunted a lot.

“Edward I did a lot of rebuilding to the castle and put the chimney in the Great Hall and a bedroom for Queen Eleanor, off the end of the Great Hall. She probably stayed here on her last journey north.

“By Henry VIII’s time the castle had been neglected a lot.”

When Edward Watson took over the site, he began turning it into a family home.

Nowadays, visitors flock to hear stories ranging from Rockingham’s Civil War history to tales of its existence as an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ household, with servants’ quarters clearly distinct from that of the family.

David said: “Different groups will be interested in different things, people will either want to talk about the kings who were here, the Civil War period, Dickens... it varies hugely. But this place covers a huge period of history.”

Rockingham Castle is open every Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday from now until the end of May.

Between June and the end of September, it is open on Tuesdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays.

For other events and opening times, visit www.rockinghamcastle.com.