Have you walked beside a field of wheat or barley or oats as the green stems stand close together, straight and tall and full of promise? The ears of barley bow gently before the sun whilst their lingering whisps around the long heads full of swelling grains bend towards the earth. In contrast, the grains of oats perch at the top of the stems singly filling with water and sun. There is even a type of heritage barley called Golden Promise which makes a very fine beer and was one my father-in-law used to sow.
You can hear the soft noise of the breeze gently rustling through the swaying stems whilst the insects’ wings whisper the sounds of summer in the broad sweeps of wild grass and flowers which edge the grain fields. Birds circle overhead whilst the sun plays tag with the clouds.
This is the magic of the cycle of the year: the wonder of the potential harvest from seeds sown during winter which grow over time grow and mature in the warmth of the summer sun. Over the next month the green colours will transform into golden acres from which we can collect the harvest and take them to mill. The wheat goes for flour, the oats for horse feed and the barley for beer…. it does not really matter. Humans have been cultivating grain for over 12,000 years, it is the basis of our lives and often our history.
Just like planting in a garden, the basis for all successful farmers is looking after the soil: the balance of nutrients and then the challenges of the weather. Soil benefits from hugely from organic matter, animal manure, rather than chemical fertilisers and it minimises the numbers of passes by farm machinery as well as facilitating reduced till sowing and longer crop rotations. I think of it as trying to tread lightly on this earth in every way which was the subtitle of my book “Seasons at Highclere”.
The book is about growing, cooking and entertaining as well as looking at how our predecessors lived, laughed and ate at Highclere. It is increasingly important that we don’t just take our way of life for granted and essential that we learn to grow food well, not just for the earth and our own physical well being but also for our mental health. There are ever clearer links being proved between what we eat and mental health issues such as depression and ADD.
The fields and woods, hedgerows, lakes, meadows and downlands give us beauty and space in which to listen to those with whom we share the world. I am not the first to think this and will not be the last. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote: “On either side of the river lie long fields of barley and of rye that clothe the wold and meet the sky; and through the field the road runs by to many towered Camelot”. It can be interpreted in two ways – Camelot as the place and Camelot as a symbol of perfect peace and happiness.
Whilst Downton Abbey, the films and TV series, look on at the characters created by Julian Fellowes and provide much entertainment, much of our life here at the Real Downton Abbey is about looking out, walking in the fresh air through the fields, looking and listening and trying to understand what we can do for the best. Fundamentally, at its heart, Highclere is a farm and has been for hundreds of years.
Geordie and I wear many hats each and every day here but, in all cases, we are trying to make the right decisions today for the future. I turn inevitably to the extraordinary poet John Clare who wrote:
“I found the poems in the fields,
And only wrote them down.”
At the moment, the fields are full of promise and hope and they help still our minds as well.