The first Saturday of August each year, we hold an open air picnic concert here at Highclere. It is called the “Battle Proms” and is very well organised by Adam Slough and his team. Nearly 10,000 people arrived during the afternoon, setting up their tables and laying out rugs. The evening begins with cavalry displays, which are always entertaining. I really enjoy the evening and have a large picnic which is wholly informal and relaxed. It does not matter whether you are 5 years old or 90, it is fun for everyone.
About 7.30pm, however, we are all listening for the sound of the engine of the WWII fighter, the Spitfire. Scanning the skies it suddenly approaches, sweeping over the Castle towards the display line. It was built in 1944 but is now called the Grace Spitfire because it is flown by a remarkable woman called Carolyn Grace. She flies a carefully choreographed display, whilst the orchestra plays Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March” and “Nimrod”. Somehow the music and plane make everyone’s heart well up. Too soon, it flies off, a disappearing dot into distant clouds and 10,000 people sigh together.
Our own 1936 Rolls Royce sitting in the garage here, has a V12 engine which was the precursor of the Merlin 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce engine in the Spitfire flying above the Castle today. The Spitfires flew above Highclere in the Second World War.
The concert continues with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture played with 200 replica Napoleonic cannon providing an accompanying percussion. The programme continues as everyone settles down to Pimms or Rosé, whilst there are swings and a carousel for children. Then the concert moves towards the finale of everyone singing Land of Hope and Glory with amazing fireworks against a dark sky. Given it is the Queen’s 90th birthday this year, we ended with a rousing God Save the Queen. The Castle is floodlit to one side and it is time to find warmer clothes as it becomes rather cool.
During the evening, soldiers collect for Combat Stress which is the UK’s leading mental health charity for Veterans. It was founded at the end of the First World War and we support them at Highclere as does every Battle Proms concert. How do ex-servicemen and women live and deal with what they have seen and suffered? Curiously, I was reading about early medieval warfare and how monks here tried to help embattled knights regain some mental stability through gardening. We have created a healing herb garden, near the castle, with short descriptions of how such herbs can be used in infusions or cooking. The herbs are very simple to grow and one of my next books about the adventures of Finse, the Labrador from Dogton Abbey, is going to be about gardening and growing herbs.