Like many children at kindergarten, at one stage my son Edward was very keen on a series of books along with the associated TV cartoon called Bob the Builder. So popular was it that it became the theme of one of his more successful birthday parties, with an appropriate entertainer and various cranes, diggers and trucks scattered all over the floor.
In each episode, Bob and his team help with an endless stream of renovations, construction works, repairs and assorted other projects. It included his friends: Wendy was good at electrics, and there was a whole range of diggers and other machinery. For example, Scoop was a yellow digger with a scoop bucket and Lofty was a crane. The whole ethos was based on co-operation and a willingness to learn various skills and resolve problems. Bob’s catchphrase was “Can we fix it?”, to which the other characters responded with a resounding “Yes we can!” In fact, the series was so popular that the theme tune became the UK no 1 at Christmas in the year 2000.
In due course, Edward moved on to other things but in some ways these stories and tasks echo many of the actualities of everyday life at Highclere. The house and estate demand practical and innovative solutions to a myriad of issues and challenges at almost every level. I have a better knowledge of plumbing than perhaps I envisaged at one point and the drain rods are sadly a key asset. In rainy weather my daily life may involve clearing a hopper, sorting out who can repair masonry, spotting a fallen tile, clearing a fence line, replanting or re-laying a path.
Bob the Builder jobs are always best combined with the adage “a stitch in time saves nine.” Every evening, John the Castle Manager walks around the outside of the castle looking for windows blown open, listening for running water or something which just feels unexpected.
Friday evenings are particularly predictable: John goes to check the boiler and finds a pool of water. He finds me, together we find Luis, some phones and lights and the next element of the game is “spot the hole in the copper pipe”. Luis calls the plumber and it is better if John heads home (which is some distance) while we wait. Last week this happened on a Tuesday which muddled us all week so everyday thereafter felt like a Saturday.
Experience and old age on all our parts leads to cooperation, calmness and better decision making. We do fix things and we can do a surprising amount.
Rather excitingly, we have a digger on site at the moment in order to clear out an old walk and firm up a metal arch around which we will plant wisteria. I hope it will give much pleasure and lead you round a corner to a different “room” in the gardens. Whilst it is on site, we have also used it to help plant a beech hedge which now frames a temple, sort out some vegetable beds and renew the soil and fertiliser. Much easier to collect and tip with a bob the builder type truck – I think his was called Muck which, in this case, was entirely appropriate.
The farm has much larger machines and tractors of all sorts from combine harvesters to machines to pick up haylage bales. There are special machines to wrap bales or to load grain and new machines to drill and plant more efficiently to help us tread more lightly on the earth. For a long time now we have bagged our own oats for sale and now have recalibrated the machine to bag wild bird food and chicken corn as well. This is real Bob the Builder land not least in terms of the practical approach of multi-tasking various bits of kit.
Much of the presentation work then comes back to Sally in the gift shop with designs for new labels. Like the farm team, Sally and her ladies (age range 20 to 80), had to go on a manual handing course, though of course it was somewhat different. They had to to learn formally how to lift, lower, push, pull, and carry whilst remaining steady at all times. In fact, it was useful as we all put our backs out for no reason but, with British humour, you only have to mention the name of the course and everyone doubles over in gales of laughter and naughty comments. Who would have thought a health and safety course could be so funny.