At Home with James Saunders Watson of Rockingham Castle

Life in historic houses
Rockingham Castle James Saunders Watson Historic House magazine photoshoot

‘3 June 2020: The last three months have been an extraordinary experience for all of us. It has felt as though we have been in a place where time has stopped.’

The year began with its familiar rhythm. Plans for the forthcoming season and the Rockingham International Horse Trials, due to take place over the first weekend in May, were in full swing. I had just been announced as the next Lord-Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, taking up the reins at the end of March, adding to the buzz of anticipation that accompanies every new year.

Having survived the wettest winter on record, life at last seemed to be on the up: we had been able to get back on the land to drill the spring crops; the gardens looked fantastic; and the Great Hall was in the middle of a much-needed redecoration (having last been painted when we arrived at Rockingham in 1999). Lockdown interrupted all our plans.

Rockingham Castle overhead view

The formal handover of the Lieutenancy was put on ice along with events to mark my predecessor’s retirement. At the Castle we had to react rapidly to changing circumstances and new rules. It was back to the drawing board; all went quiet and there was a complete absence of the usual hustle and bustle. Our children came home, bringing a university friend of our daughter who couldn’t get a flight home to Zimbabwe. Little did we know we were in for the long haul.

Rockingham Castle Dining Room

Even during my childhood, from Easter to the end of September life at Rockingham had been dominated by the house-opening business. Now we retained only a skeleton staff and hoped that the moths wouldn’t notice that the house was almost totally closed down. Chores were handed out to the family and we found our gardening improved no end – shaky mowing lines on the lawn became straight and true; edging and weeding became a daily occupation. Although the extremely dry May was a headache for the farm, it was a godsend in helping us keep on top of the garden – that became all too evident in June when the heatwave ended.

Rockingham Castle Garden south midlands

Isolation did bring some unexpected benefits. The silence – particularly the absence of road noise – allowed us to hear the chatter of the songbirds during the day and the hooting of the owls at night. The lack of pollution gave us a succession of fantastic sunsets that became an obsession of our Zimbabwean house guest. As days drifted into one another we amused ourselves with cookery competitions, sporting challenges, quizzes, walks, and games. A stroll to the local post office across the valley was a great excuse for a change of scene. At the same time, we reflected how fortunate we were, compared to so many others, to have space to breathe, indoors and outdoors.

Rockingham Castle wedding

On VE Day I enlisted the youngsters’ help to film a short message, as Lord-Lieutenant, for the virtual celebrations being organised by the Mayor of Northampton. It prompted us to reflect on our predicament – the young amongst us in agreement the future might well look back on COVID-19 as ‘their war.’ Although significantly shorter, and without the physical element, there seemed to be a number of parallels. Rockingham had not been requisitioned for war use and became a haven for the wider family eighty years ago. All the cousins and a number of close family friends moved in. I remember childhood tales of the derring-do that my father and his siblings got up to, presided over by my rather terrifying great-grandmother.

Saunders Watson family Rockingham

The absence of the visitors allowed us to remove a number of trees in the formal garden, which would have proved difficult, from a safety perspective, if we’d been open. However, what was originally planned as a limited exercise turned into a real challenge. Unfortunately, an entire avenue of forty rather motley sycamores, marking the southern boundary of the Norman castle, was found to have sooty bark disease. As a result, we had to fell the lot.  Sad though it was to lose so many mature trees, especially given the natural shade they provided, it has exposed the full glory of the late seventeenth-century upturned canal.  The challenge is now how to enhance this feature.

‘Now, at the start of July, the bubble of COVID-19 is beginning to burst. The gardens have now been open for a fortnight on a restricted basis and we are developing all sorts of ideas to do more if the restrictions ease over the rest of the summer. As normal life returns to the Castle and we begin to face the serious long-term consequences of the crisis for heritage and the tourist industry, we will treasure the memories of being a family all together this spring in a rather unreal, timeless, world.’

Rockingham Castle is free for members of Historic Houses to visit