August 17, 2020


Highclere’s radio crackled.  “Chef to Lady Carnarvon. What is the code to the shed with the picnic afternoon tea boxes please?” I felt temporarily quite blank – not unusual as, at the moment, I sometimes I get the days of the week back to front. The rhythm of life has become topsy turvy and my excuse was we had changed some of the key pad codes.

Sally in the gift shop had created the pretty, carefully divided afternoon tea boxes which Paul the chef needed in order to fill with that days orders for the  scones, cakes, sandwiches, glasses and half bottle of champagne that they contain. Later in the day guests would collect them and bear them off to scattered tables, rugs on the lawns or further garden corners. Meanwhile, we were losing valuable time standing outside the shed scratching our heads.

Each code is an anniversary, a treaty or a battle. I suggested the obvious ones and Paul was twirling the numbers, trying WW1 and WW2, the Spanish Armada, the accession of various Kings, Victorian diplomatic treaties, battles of the English Civil War, of which there are no shortage, and so on. Then, thank goodness, I had a eureka moment and remembered that it was, of course, the birth of Alfred the Great. Another favourite king. Marvellously Paul opens the lock and there are the boxes.

Keys, doors and locks are a frequent challenge here at Highclere.  Most visitors happily wander through the State Rooms, looking and dreaming, and perhaps may not be aware of nor count how many doors they walk through. Sometimes there are also double doors between rooms to ensure greater privacy. There are therefore key cupboards on most floors and every key allegedly has its place.

Geordie does find the choice of dates somewhat baffling but he read geography which is perhaps more about the sense of place, societies and geology. I enjoy making sure I know dates and encourage others to consider key anniversaries. Having explained the anniversaries and the importance of the date, the team then have to google it to find the code. It’s all very educational!

Dates and anniversaries are important – a time to stop and remember both the good and the not so good. This year the world has remembered, if not been able to justly commemorate, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two, both in Europe in May and just now in the Pacific in August. In many ways, the arc of the 1939-1945 war began at the outbreak of World War I. Imagine being born in 1898 as was one of my grandfathers.  He was just a teenager in 1914 when he joined the war. By the time he was twenty, he had lived through the Spanish Flu and by thirty he was experiencing the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the great depression before moving on to the catastrophe of 1939.

Yet, to quote Aristotle, “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light” and my grandfather and yours made the best of those difficult times. Thus the following 50 years, despite often severe economic privation, saw the creation of the National Health Service in the UK, the United Nations and NATO. More anniversaries to choose from perhaps.

Red Arrows above Highclere 2018

On two earlier centenaries – anniversaries – Geordie and I invited people to come and join us here for our “Heroes at Highclere” events. There were many entertainments but the heart of each day, of the castle, and of many of those who took part, was simply to say thank you and  not to forget the huge sacrifice that made these dates such anniversaries. This October Highclere’s thoughts and actions return again to a belated commemoration  of VE day, its aftermath and the landscape of change that followed, the hopes for a different world.  We will gather guests here both in reality and, given the times in which we live, virtually,  as well as providing an educational outreach programme.  From Colin Bell who flew mosquitos in WW2, to Katie Adie, Robert Harris and a posse of Concorde pilots, engineers from Rolls Royce, to those from the armed forces, amongst others. We aim to remember and to inspire. Students, whose education has been so interrupted this year, can discover what it is like to fly, to investigate, to report, to write and to film.

I think we might well offer some picnic afternoon tea boxes as well as an online quiz with prizes. You will all have time to google the dates and I must make a note not to change the key codes.