February 20, 2023


When visitors arrive through the gates here at Highclere, I hope they feel as if they are entering a different world for a short time: a few hours of guided tours, delicious food and a wander through the gardens. What is fascinating to me however, is that so many of them have very little idea of where they are, geographically speaking, having simply followed their sat nav to get here.

In fact, in our guidance notes we even suggest a postcode just outside our front gates as some visitors don’t even look out for the brown tourist signs marking the way. They just listen to the staccato voice of the man or woman saying “at the next junction take the fourth exit”.

This lack of interest in the detail of the journey is a fairly recent phenomenon. A whole section of the library here is full of maps and, furthermore I have just bought a map chest to help organise those stored in an archive room. I love maps. I find them fascinating and beautiful, showing mankind’s efforts to record the folds, boundaries and natural landmarks of the physical world. They are a pictorial representation of the geography of where each of us live: as the etymology of the word “geography” tells us, it is about writing on the earth.

In addition to the “natural” writing, we can then add the century old boundaries people have drawn marking out their homes, their countries and their tribes. Older boundaries often follow the natural contours within which groups of people may have instinctively gathered but equally they can be rather more arbitrary straighter lines following wars or diplomatic demarcations, for example the Sykes Picot agreement.

One of the most fundamental questions that humans ask is “when” will something arrive or happen. Children and engineers might also ask “how” something happens but the first question is perhaps more fundamental which is “why”. If you understand the “why”, the “when” or “how” often follow along.

Geography has a remarkable impact on our understanding of all sorts of things and a good map is an essential part of that, helping think about “why”. Open one and look slowly at what it discloses, the steepness of the contour lines, the water resources, the likely climate. It often gives some initial answers as to why people chose to live there, did they move there centuries ago for better agriculture, might it be a place of refuge, is it still a good place to live?

Sat nav may be useful (although it is not necessarily perfect) but I like to know where I am going. So, you will still find me explaining to visitors that Highclere is 60 miles west of London, that it lies between Winchester and Oxford and on the route northwards from the port of Southampton. This alone is a large part of the explanation of why, some 700 years ago, oaks were felled from Highclere to build both New College Oxford and Winchester College. This, along with the fact that Beacon Hill is such a high spot, also explains why there is an iron age fort here and why it is thankfully relatively easy for visitors to get here today. We are not far from various airports and only 6 miles from Newbury train station.

If we wish to promote understanding to those currently in education and just being born, it is vital that they know more than just how to tap in a sat nav code or “what three words”. It seems bizarre to me that geography – so integral to much of the understanding of the “why” of our history, is increasingly being seen as a marginal subject by our educationalists.