As we near the winter solstice, one additional consideration we have to bear in mind when planning upcoming events is the quickly disappearing light. It begins to get dark before 4pm in the afternoon, and therefore most occasions require extra lights around the grounds. The solstice, of course, refers to the fact that we have a solar calendar, specifically the Gregorian calendar, instituted by Pope Gregory XIII and adopted by a number of Catholic countries in 1582. To complicate matters, Britain and other protestant countries continued with the Julian calendar, until they switched 200 years later in 1752, at which point they had to dispense with 11 days. Consequently, they went to bed on September 2nd 1752 and woke up the next morning on September 14th 1752. Time is magical isn’t it?
We still incorporate the Julian calendar (which dates from 45BC) by reference to the names of the months. My hens know nothing about either calendar but are laying very few eggs and the situation will not improve until we are on the other side of the winter solstice. There is no electricity by their run at the back of the old gardens, or by the horses, and so I need to ensure the outside chores are all achieved by twilight. We are lucky that, away from the light pollution of major towns and cities, it does become quite dark here at night.
Taking the dogs out late, I walk slowly along a flat path until my eyes start to adjust to the darkness. The dogs have no such problems and bound off to snuffle around the shrubs and trees. In the darkness I am more alert for sounds, an owl hooting or a bat sweeping by, and to the smell of a winter garden. Sometimes, there is a sense of many unknowns but then my mind settles and it is very beautiful and peaceful.
We are told we are polluting our world not merely with too many physical things, but also with light as it upsets our circadian rhythms. My father used to turn off the lights, so that money was not wasted, irrespective of whether I and my sisters would be in the room with the resultant cries of irritation. We have a similar argument in the Castle. I prefer to turn lights off better to show off a chandelier, but the guides like them on – I turn them off again and tell them to think of the Victorians, who would have settled in for Christmas with oil lamps and candles, fires in the grates and books from which to read stories.
In past years, we have had a few power cuts before Christmas due to high winds. We gather candles, torches and light the central Saloon fire, almost becoming Victorians ourselves. Stepping out of the pool of light to collect something from a bedroom, the Castle does suddenly seem dark and vast. Nothing of course works, because everything relies on an electrical input. One is forced to relax and, despite a different way of life, I wonder sometimes if the Victorians did not have more time.
I asked Eddie our keeper which time of year he most enjoyed living at Highclere – he replied (very flatteringly) that he enjoys every month and every day. I would agree with Eddie, but nevertheless there is something magical about these winter days in the run up to Christmas. We have released our Summer Public Opening tickets on the Castle website today, so I suppose there is a warm glow on the horizon too!