Christmas at Highclere
We have just passed the winter solstice, December 21st, the shortest day of the year. Crowds gathered at Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument 25 miles west of Highclere, to welcome the re-birth of the sun as days slowly lengthen again. 5,000 years ago, when Stonehenge was begun, they would perhaps also have gathered to celebrate at the foot of Beacon Hill in the middle of our estate. We certainly have prehistoric barrows built around it. December 25th was later “acquired” by the Romans from earlier communities to worship their God then the Christian Church adopted the date as a point to stop, to reflect, to worship and to rest.I know I do not rest enough and have worked through too many weekends this autumn. Traditionally, we were always supposed to have one day of rest but the problem today, I think, is that that our minds are constantly interrupted by never-ending pings and beeps and fake light. We are lucky here at Highclere as we spend time outside and probably walk our daily quota each day, albeit going round in circles and spending too much looking for someone or something – especially in my case and usually in pursuit of my keys or phone. My husband sighs in despair. Either that, or I am found clambering on a desk in Sally’s giftshop stock room to lean towards a window for the always elusive phone signal. Good for my balance perhaps. At least each evening I get to enjoy the black stillness when I take the dogs out last thing at night.
We are thankfully and gratefully slowing down at Highclere. The office and gardening teams disperse and work on rotas. I am gathering board games, books and quizzes together for the evenings and my nieces are hoping to be led on a pony through the gardens.
Looking back at my blogs I thought I might post a few updates.
We had a good December week helping charities from Oxfam and Syria to the Air Ambulance, the church and hospitals. As a break, after that last week, I went with my indomitable plane hunting team of Paul and Steve, and found another WW2 plane – in this case a Lysander which we knew had crashed in February 1942. Amazingly we found part of it lying on the surface in a wood gathering moss. Paul also replaced the cross we had placed to mark where Lt Thomas Stewart had died when the P38 crashed. It is now engraved with his name. His relatives had joined us last summer when we held a short service in a beautiful glade on an English hill. His great niece and her son sang a hymn which moved our small group to tears.
More cottages have been refurbished and, at last, the estate office has been completed with the 500 year old beams re-used. Highclere has appeared on a stamp, (1st class of course!), and we began to work with a champagne house near Épernay in northern France to produce Highclere Champagne. Our “Capability” Brown gardens week was a great success last spring, so this coming May I am going to bring together Jane Austen and Downton Abbey. Literature and landscape – what could be a better combination than Mr Darcy, “Pride and Prejudice”, Downton Abbey and perhaps Alan Titchmarsh… I remain way behind with filing however.
Sally is still packing off gift shop items, which means there will be less to count in the New Year. Marvellous.
I have, thank goodness, waved my book “At Home” off to the printers. It has taken so many hours that I have utterly failed on the Christmas card front. Maybe it will help bring back some memories of Downton when it is published in the Spring and you can think back to the Dining Room scenes in the show with wonderful menus and stories from weekends past at Highclere.
In celebration I thought I would ask some of the extraordinary people with whom I have the honour to work here to come and see the draft and the beautiful photographs in the book – it is after all about a home that they help sustain. They spent the evening arguing over who had worked here the longest – Pat was hoping for the award (60 years) but I think Eddie Hughes has beaten her – just. Don the gardener has only been here 45 years so he has a bit of a way to go yet.
The Christmas tree is up and I still have just 7 dogs as we get ready to gather for “the night before Christmas when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings will be hung by the chimney with care…”
I am looking forward to church on Christmas day which, for me, marks the rhythm of the year and underpins the culture and literature I love here. There is going to be something of a crisis however in the evening – no “Downton Abbey” to watch at Downton Abbey this year for the first time in six years!
Happy Christmas to you all with all best wishes for 2017.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” —Ebenezer Scrooge ,Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol