Before supermarkets there were hedgerows. Instead of picking a bottle of a cordial off a shelf, you first picked the elderflower heads. Rather than putting some onions from an angled tray on an aisle into a bag, you might pop into the garden with a stout fork. Our ability simply to buy whatever food we want,  rather than to have to grow it or gather it or wait until it is in season, is relatively recent in the long annals of our human history.

One of my favourite places to go on holiday is Italy. In one particular village, Acciaroli on Italy’s southern coast, the population seems to have discovered the secret of longevity, often living until well over 100. The village has outstanding views, good fish and locally grown fruit and vegetables. They garden and stay active. They don’t eat much meat and the men head off into the fields in the morning. Age – the number at least – is not a limiting factor.

Sam (left) and Maggie in enthusiastic elderflower mode

A new member of our team – Sam (Samantha) has joined us in the last few months and has moved into a cottage with a long garden. The previous lady had not been able to look after it any more so it needed a certain amount of work although it had been loved and tended in the past.  Murph and Sam had not had a garden before and wondered which plants were weeds and which were worth keeping. Learning quickly, they realised there were many plants and vegetables hidden away, as well as Lupins and other flowers. They are now often out gardening long into the evenings and have onions, potatoes, some good looking fruit and some rhubarb which I gave them as a starter. (Easy to grow, hard to get wrong and good to eat).

Sam and Murph’s garden

Philip looks after our vegetable garden – Geordie and I used to do it but in last four or five years we have really run out of time. Downton Abbey included a scene about a local flower show and such shows are still eagerly attended all over the country. I will never forget stories from the Garden Museum in Lambeth, London, where I saw a medal for the best marrow grown in the trenches during the First World War.  I was amazed, yet thought again because growing vegetables is something to look forward to each evening. There is also a surviving military medal in the Imperial War Museum — not for valour, but for First Prize in tomatoes at the Le Havre vegetable show in 1918. I hope the Garden Museum may come and tell us about some of their stories this September at our Heroes at Highclere weekend.

Philip’s very organised work in our vegetable garden

I grow masses of herbs – they calm, heal and restore.

Here at Highclere, elderflower grows around the old church as well as in our hedgerows. I can usually pull down enough branches to pick some white scented heads without the recourse of ladders. Rob, one of our chefs in the kitchen, has kindly got me some citric acid and I just need lemons and sugar. It does seem that summer is indeed upon us.

Making elderflower cordial is very satisfying and it is delicious.  I would, however, be more likely to win “brownie points” for that than my runner beans and peas which I tend to just pick and eat but I don’t think I’m ever going to get quite so far as a prize at a vegetable show!