We have just come back from a weekend in Florence – my son had never been so we rather wanted to experience the atmosphere just before Christmas and, of course, to wander along the cobbled streets, through the markets, churches and museums and to catch up with friends there. Children are never quite as keen as their parents on this sort of thing but whatever his thoughts, I enjoyed spending time with him.
Florence is particularly evocative for us, as Highclere’s Saloon is inspired by the same principle of construction as that of Brunelleschi’s Cathedral Dome. The view into the Saloon from the staircase is framed by four classic “quinto acuto” arches, its virtue is that it visually allows as much space as possible inside the building, whilst best absorbing the stress of the weight of the floors above.
Florence is, of course, only a short flight from London. But, growing up with five sisters, we would often travel by car or boat rather than plane, taking a few days to reach our destination each time. On one memorably long journey down to Spain, one of my sisters, Penny, sang Rupert the Bear, and only Rupert the Bear, with just two lines of words, for about 12 hours whilst Nanny fed her Ryvita biscuits with ketchup. The miles are still etched in my memory but somehow it has not put me off the idea of travel. Several generations of the Carnarvon family were great travellers, returning to Highclere with ideas: the Italian inspired building you see today, 1661 leather wall coverings from Spain, sculptures commissioned of their children (one is still on the stairs), a pietra dura table and many new friends.
The 5th Earl, a great archaeologist, spent each winter from 1906 to 1922 in Egypt, travelling in somewhat better style than my car journey and taking over two weeks to reach Luxor. He had begun his career studying at Cambridge University but not for long, as he seemed to prefer either scouring antique shops to improve the decoration of his rooms, or racing. After a year, his father could see it was not a profitable path and therefore decided his son should travel and thus acquire an education.
Travel had long been considered part of the education of any gentleman, reaching perhaps its height with the 18th century “Grand Tours” undertaken by European aristocracy, but others encouraged it as well. It was part of improving skills in drawing and observation for those engaged in architecture or painting, a chance to swap ideas, to find something no one else had found or to test oneself. I think there is simply a joy in exploring; to see, to discover and thus understand the pageantry of other people’s lives.
Whilst travel is utterly absorbing, there is nevertheless, a deep sense of belonging when one turns to come home. Home is about my family and my friends who then travel to stay with us, about the dogs and the old familiarity. We have our last Charity event this year tonight: a party in aid of a pioneering children’s cancer unit in Southampton Hospital who need to raise the last tranche of money in order to succeed in their project. I hope we get there. The courage of the children undergoing treatment and the never-ending kindness, care and treatment from the doctors and nurses is inspirational. It is a journey of a sort for each family involved, facing a suddenly very different world with a mixture of determination and exhaustion. Tonight’s event is in a small way a thank you to the dedicated staff as well as a fundraiser and I hope everyone thoroughly enjoys themselves – coming together in support is also part of the journey.