Apart from stretching and exploring which bits of me creak the most, yoga is there to remind me to breathe consciously and slowly, and to relax. If the weather is not too wintry, it is exhilarating to walk over to the lawns with the faded morning sun and amazing views, to try a few gentle stretches. The dogs come with me to help and the puppies think it is fun to steal my trainers – it is magical to be outdoors.
We tend to forget about breathing until, of course, it goes wrong, and often don’t remember that it is not just us humans but animals and even buildings which need to breathe as well. From school I vaguely remember that oxygen is about 21% of the air, nitrogen 78% with the balance made up of argon, carbon dioxide and a few man-made pollutants. Trees are vital to make oxygen and I’ve amused myself this week by doing the maths. Given the amount of oxygen each tree produces, and if you assume a tree is about 38ft high, I rely on seven or eight trees per year. Given everyone else who lives here, plus all our pets and livestock, it’s just as well that we have so many woods around the Park and Estate.
Living here, I have also become aware, perhaps more surprisingly, of the need of buildings to breathe. The central hall of the Castle is called the Saloon from the French “Le Salon” rather than the “Wild West” John Wayne films’ version. It is constructed from something called ashlar masonry, which was later coated with a lime and sand mix, picked out into blocks to resemble stone. Then, some of the walls either used to be, or are now, painted. This material is soft and easy to damage so, for example, the Downton crew always had to make sure that any lights positioned over the gallery to light a scene below were very well padded.
Nevertheless, over time, there are scratches and bare areas. One arch, which looked a bit sad, rather bothered both Diana, our housekeeper, and me. There are always things to be done but this really came to the forefront as it was there every time we looked up. Thus, when filming finished this autumn, I asked one of my estate office team, Mimi, to ring up some ashlar craftsmen.
The two experts arrived and set up camp. The traditional mixture is most interesting as, of course, it breathes and moisture is not therefore trapped within the walls, which is what happens with cement and concrete. Lime mortar is more porous than cement mortars, and it “wicks” any dampness in the wall to the surface where it evaporates. Apparently this ability is widely referred to as “breathability”.
Cement can bear more compression but it is hard and brittle so it cannot move so, like the ancient Egyptians who also used lime and sand to plaster the pyramids at Giza, our restoration a typical mix of 1 part lime to 3 parts washed, well graded sharp sand. They did a marvellous job and I hope Diana is happy again.
I reported back to my husband that they had finished perfectly on budget, in line with Mimi’s original quote. He was enormously surprised, not only because this is a staggeringly unusual event at Highclere, but because the whole business didn’t actually happen to be in any of his budget forecasts. I explained happily that this was because it had originally been organised under a need to know basis only but, because it had been such an excellent experience all round, I was now sharing the happy news with him!