On the top floor of the Castle are some old, bent, oval metal rings which are attached to rather faded, threadbare canvas tubes. These are the old fire escape chutes. The faded red metal ring was attached to a window frame and the long canvas chute was thrown out and held taut at a distance on the lawn.
As long as the chutes were braced, the escapees should have a line of slow-ish descent. One amazing woman, my husband’s great aunt, related how she had gone down on a practice escape and said the trick was to wear a thick jumper and keep your elbows in. It sounded terrifying.
In the past really the only heating for us all, wherever we lived, was coal or wood fires which, along with candles, added up to an enormous and constant risk of fire. These days although nearly every room in the castle has a fireplace, they are nearly all unused, apart from the Library and Saloon.
Nevertheless, you can still find buckets of sand stationed around the corridors and staircases. In a practical way, there are fire escapes doors cut into the walls between the top floor rooms where the maids’ used to sleep along with access points onto the roof and a few staircases. Until the end of the Second World War, Highclere always employed a night watchman to patrol at night with his dog and one of his jobs was to keep an eye out for fire. It is different today with smoke alarms everywhere, fire extinguishers and regular fire practices.
This week we were talking about the chutes in the office and, of course, wires immediately got crossed. James on the estate was trying to organize which day would be most convenient to get in a rubbish chute from the top floor of the Castle where over years “stuff” had collected, i.e. old cardboard boxes, broken loos, old paper invoices etc. Unfortunately, in the diary he had spelled it “shute”, an error which was pointed out to him by rather too many people. In any case, I thought he was talking about shoots as in film shoots for which Castle manager John and I had been discussing possible days in the diary.
This in turn was further muddled by the topic of game shoots and the end of the shooting season and Gamekeeper Eddie’s retirement.
Led by John in the Castle Office, we found the best way out of the confusion was to mime which sort of shoot was being discussed. From there it was a short path to “shooting” out of the door being late and to “shooting” yourself in the foot (James!) for saying the wrong thing which led to even more acting potential. For all I know the game is continuing but I did need to get on with some other things.
Rather more importantly at this time of year we are waiting for new shoots to begin to colour the fields and bring the promise of spring. I always find it humbling that the new crops that begin to appear now will, over the next 6 months provide us with a harvest and thus food to eat. From green leaves to colourful vegetables it always begins with green shoots, which is the pale green wash of colour in the very top photograph .
Lady Carnarvon, I have always loved Spring. It is the time for me of having the feeling of being reborn. When winter is gone and it is getting warmer I see that little bit of grass coming up, honey bees and the spring birds return. For me it is a joyful time.
And for me too!
We had those fire escape chutes when I was at boarding school (1960’s!) and yes Great Aunt was quite correct you could end up with dreadful burns from the canvas. Fortunately I only experienced it once during a practice and two of us were the “lucky” ones to test it! Can’t imagine what Health and Safety would say these days!
I am sure they would be horrified!
Wow Mary W! The other day my husband and I wondered the very same thing after watching Highclere Castle on Netflix. We now know….
and I agree with you Lady Carnarvon I’m saw Health and Safety would be horrified today, but I’m sure they have seen it all.
You have so much to keep track of. Must keep many of you busy full time.
It is always busy and mostly a pleasure
Good Morning. That would have been very claustrophobic and scary to have to jump in a chute. Did anyone ever have to use them other then a practice jump? I love the photos. Especially the secret Garden. I would love to know more about the antique furniture in the photo. Have a great day.
Luckily they were only ever used for fire drills.
Lady Carnarvon, I always enjoy reading your posts, they give an interesting view into the way things were done in older times. One of the benefits of someone, like yourself, still having one of these huge, old country homes and blogging about these things. Thank you.
Thank you. I find social history fascinating.
So sand is actually an effective way to fight a fire, as in the Downton episode where it was used? Sand would have the advantage of not causing collateral damage like water does, which would be especially important in an historic house.
Yes exactly, sand smothers the fire cutting off the oxygen which can then be swept from a priceless rug without damage.
Bringing humor to the workplace by having fun indoors with the strangeness of the English language seems to have relieved the gray skies of Highclere’s winter to thoughts of the cheerfulness of spring and sunny days to come. Thank you for your journey through chutes to shoots! Thanks for a Monday morning chuckle.
Thank you – it did raise a few laughs as we were going about our busy day.
There is still a market for those old loos.
For information……….next Sunday, Songs of Praise features Kew Gardens. A chance for more inspiration perhaps.
Thank you for the advance warning. I do enjoy Kew.
Another interesting and enjoyable read. Thank you!
Thank you for the Monday morning chuckle Lady Carnarvon. Who would have thought so many shooting stories could be associated with a start from the word “chute”. Has anyone recently tried out the fire escape chute or is canvas too old?
I fear the canvas might have perished over the years.
Thank you for the fun bit of wordplay. It is an under appreciated art these days. My favorite shoots are the green ones in the garden.
It reminds me of a book I love “Eats Shoots and Leaves” about the important of punctuation.
Well, shoot! That must have been confusing. THAT should be added to my favorite language book – Bill Bryson’s “English: The Mother Tongue and How It Got That Way.”
I am curious – has anyone in modern times ever been tempted to try out a chute??
Thank you for your marvelous stories about Highclere!
Webster Groves, Missouri
I don’t think anyone has been brave enough, and we have much more suitable fire equipment these days.
Thank you, Lady Carnarvon
I remember the FIRE on an episode of Downton, such a terrifying experience.
My own home has never had central heating, just two wood stoves strategically placed to warm from both ends of the house.
Then there’s the daunting task of finding a chimney sweep to clean the two stove pipes! Ugh!….
I cannot imagine how many chimneys your own castle has!
Great story of how one can escape a fire in a CASTLE!
We have a wonderful chimney sweep who visits us and sweeps all the ones in use – which these days is not that many.
We have friends who were fortunate to have visited Highclere and we’re happy for them but at the same time green with envy
Well then you must make a plan to come and visit.
I look so forward to your posts! Always interesting and one feels like you are sitting in on your estate meetings with staff and their personalities shine through. Good luck to Eddie’s most earned retirement. I especially liked hearing about his work there over so many years. Spring is a wonderful time I know, but I will always treasure my visit to Highclere in early October while on a “Senior Sabbatical” in Europe for six months from my home in Fairhope, Alabama. When asked what was my favorite place and time during the six months- it was walking up your drive for a nice tour and thinking- “I’m really here! I’m really here!
Savan Wilby Wilson
A six month senior sabbatical sounds heavenly!
Another delightful insight into your lovely home.Thank you for sharing.
Thoroughly enjoyed this peak at the top floor and it’s treasures. The field of green shoots are a welcome reminder that spring is just around the corner. ❤️❤️
Some days we can scarcely believe it with the weather we have been having.
Good morning, As a firefighter I loved reading about the fire chutes and fire watch. I had no idea there were escape measures like that; so inventive. It would be nice to know who came up with the idea. I am looking forward to my visit there March 30 for the Spring guided tour!
There are some lovely examples here https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-creative-and-forgotten-fire-escape-designs-of-the-1800s
As a Flight Attendant in training I had to jump onto and slide down a DC-10 slide. The DC-10 was a high aircraft and I remember looking down and being scared out of my wits, but it was that or no graduation from training, so I did. Having visited Highclere, I can understand how utterly terrifying it would have been to take a canvas shoot from the upper floors, but it would have been better than the alternative. Kudos to your ancestors for being mindful of the safety of all the residents of Highclere. Would love to see Highclere again in the spring without the May deluge that was happening when I visited with a private tour a few years ago.
This year the deluge has been never-ending so we are hoping for a brighter Spring. May is (usually) one of the best months for weather in the UK so you were unlucky.
Dear Lady Carnarvon (and, yes….autocorrect keeps trying to change your surname to “Carnivore”),
Different ways for different days, indeed……
About fifteen years ago, the newly-established Alumni Internet-Message Board (the school I attended is old, all too respectable, academically sound, but predictably laggard when it comes to adopting newish technology) went haywire, as all the alumni (and a number of then-current students) got into a remarkably violent and completely unanticipated brouhaha that resulted in the message board’s being abruptly shut-down so that NO ONE could express his/her opinion over the matter.
“The matter” involved the ongoing restoration of the oldest dormitory on campus. As ever, half the alumni wanted nothing whatsoever to be changed, and the other half insisted in knocking the building down and replacing it with something entirely new. The administration compromised by retaining the face and appearance (both exterior and interior), while totally replacing and re-arranging all the guts, so to speak of the old building.
The restoration/renovation of the building was halfway finished when, late one night and after many hours of heavy drinking, several fraternity boys (of the sort referred to as “hearties” at Oxford) decided it would be terribly fun and clever to break the “Do Not Enter” barrier-tapes around the building and go exploring at 2 a.m. or so.
Unfortunately, one of the boys, who’d been raised in a very large and old house, spied one of those old chutes on the third floor. He told of how much FUN it had been, when he was a child, to irritate the help by going down the chute with his brothers. Then, with appropriate cheering-on from his fraternity brothers, he opened the lid and slid into it……laughingly telling his pals that he’d meet them on the ground level.
What neither he nor, obviously, any of his buddies knew was that the entire system had been preserved, but redirected so as to serve as a conduit to the recyled-trash compactor. As you might guess, his drunken friends waited for a minute or so, expecting to hear his whoops of delight, but, instead, all they heard was an ominous, sudden clanking, far below…. followed by a long, low grinding sound from the basement of the empty building. Then…..silence.
You can guess what happened to the boy. That was, to say the least, a very bad way to go, as such things are arranged in this world.
Unfortunately, when the story hit the alumni internet-message board, the third respondent wryly (if markedly unwisely, given that many other readers actually knew the boy and/or his family) remarked that our school had finally produced a prime candidate for The Annual Darwin Award (google it….the basic premise is that the winning candidate has done the general population a favor by eliminating him/herself from the species gene-pool).
Of course, this resulted in an enormous outrage all-round……the offending alumnus and his pals wondering why no one seemed capable of “taking a joke”, and the other half of the alumni demanding that the offenders have their degrees revoked, etcetera. The authorities simply shut down the entire operation, For once in my life, I had not said or written anything whatsoever, beyond my publicly declaring that no one in the alumni office was paid enough to have to deal with this kind of mess.
Suffice it to say that i was raised to never get into anything on a dare, unless the person issuing the dare goes first. They never do, in my experience.
In your shoes, I would play it safe and stay out of the chutes. Call me a coward and send me all the white feathers to be found at Highclere, but no one will ever catch me trying out any supposed safety-feature until I’ve seen the thing actually work for someone else.
thanks for the obviously evocative posting, of course.
Advisedly yours as ever,
Quail Roost Farm
Thank you for a wonderful morning laugh!
Despite the fact that there was a tragedy in there, that was a hysterical story! Thank you for the laugh!
Thanks for my laugh for the day!
I’ve seen that type of fire escape chute on old buildings when I would visit relatives in Dallas as a kid and thought what fun it would be to try it out. I wish they would have written a representation of it into the fire episode of Downton. What a fun moment that would’ve been to see Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore all come whooshing out at the bottom!
That would have been fun – but the insurance probably wouldn’t allow it!
Meetings have a way of taking on a life of their own. I was laughing out loud reading your blog this am because that is exactly what happens when your hearing starts to go – conversations go awry and go down several paths – HA! I’m glad you “escaped” the meeting without having to climb into a chute! Spring is happening here and looking forward to seeing all your new flora and fauna in your neck of the woods. Thank you for another delightful start to my Monday!
You are kind – thank you
Lord Carnarvon’s great aunt was a woman with true spunk and moxie.
She is a woman after my own heart.
This really made me smile! All the different meanings and confusion with words.
So many shoots!
I suspect one of the drawbacks of a worldwide sensation like “Downton Abbey” is the decreased likelihood that Highclere would be selected as a film set for future period dramas. Everyone now knows it as the Crawley estate! I see both interiors and exteriors of Wilton House — the home of one of your husband’s relatives, the Earl of Pembroke — being used constantly, most recently “The Crown” and the new “Emma.” It seems no one notices (except me, perhaps) that Wilton’s Double Cube Room appears in practically every period drama we can name. Its opulence has the virtue of being both splendid and, dare I say, generic. (Wilton shares at least one other attribute of Highclere: you each have your own enormous and truly spectacular painting by Anthony Van Dyck.)
Hard to imagine Highclere being the home of any other than your own and the Crawley family’s. But of course, we’d all love to see more “Downton Abbey” films shot at Highclere.
Highclere Castle has appeared in many films and TV series including The Secret Garden (starring Maggie Smith), The Legend of Tarzan, Jeeves and Wooster, The Four Feathers and Eyes Wide Shut among others – so it is on screen more times than you might think.
What Fun! Our English language certainly offers many opportunities for such word games. Have fun and Happy Spring!
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
Thank you for a wonderful blog, it cheered up my Monday, especially the confusion over the Chutes. I also love Spring, and all the new life, we had snow this morning, and now it’s raining, we had sunshine in between, my Camellia is flowering, and the daffodils are out, they will be wanting to hibernate again at this rate.
Our daffodils are just about poking their heads up too.
I just completed your book, “Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey.” I do not know if this is the right place to comment on your books, but I loved Catherine’s story and the World War II history. My sister-in-law had met you on the Viking Cruise from Greenwich to Norway last June and she gifted me with this book and “Lady Almina” also. Thank you for signing and personalizing these for me. I am looking forward to going even further back in time and reading about Lady Almina. These books are keeping me company as I recover from a foot sprain. Thanks again,
I am so glad you liked it. I very much enjoyed researching and writing both Catherine and Almina – amazing women.
Ha! Those old chutes would have been a hair raising ride after the initial shock of the fire. It’s a long way down, and not being able to see the ground coming up to meet you would no doubt have elicited strong feelings of ones mortality.
Adventurous times back then. Thanks for sharing. I do enjoy seeing the old methods that were employed a century and more ago.
As do I. Some of the old engineering was so ingenious and others makes our health and safety experts go rather pale!
Good Morning, Lady Carnarvon,
How interesting! I have heard of the escape chutes, but a picture is worth a thousand words in this instance. I imagine myself on the roof of the Castle looking down….yikes! Hurling myself into a canvas abyss from that height strikes terror in me. There had better be flames licking at my heels to let go and take that ride! I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but trusting a canvas chute to propel me to safety from so far up…oh my!
I am reminded of the scene in Downton where Mrs Hughes buys an electric toaster and burns the first slices of bread. In runs Carson scurrying into the room with a sand bucket… are there still red buckets of sand in the hallways? I think I remember seeing them, but I’m not positive.
The very first time we visited England was for our 50th Anniversary. It was Spring. We were so excited. The flowering trees and the Wisteria in England took my breath away. We didn’t roam around on the property since it was raining…(how unusual for England) but I’m sure the flowering trees and plants on the estate must be amazing. I hope to visit again and explore the grounds.
Thank you for another interesting and informative entry.
L Sue Smith
Yes, we still have sand buckets on most landings and the original fire hoses which sit next to the new fangled electronic system.
Good Morning Lady Carnarvon,
I really enjoy the historical references in your posts. But have equally enjoyed the humor. Film shoot, game shoot, vegetation shoot, fire chute, or shooting ones self in the foot! I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Highclere twice and hope to return again. Have a glorious day Lady Carnarvon and thank you for the laugh this morning.
This was a fun one for sure. I was chuckling all through. Chute, shute & shoot!!! Great.
Have a wonderful evening (your time).
I loved David Terry’s story of the student’s activity going awry!! Sad but hilarious too in an odd way. Yes I have enjoyed the Almina and Catherine books. The history is so beautifully written!! Now I am enjoying Christmas at Highclere – yes, while I too look forward to Spring!! Thank you for your marvelous writing. Nora Huber, Columbus, Ohio
Golly I am looking forward to spring too – the croci are out but the wind and rain keep returning!
Dear Lady Carnarvon
Spring flowers as well as more film shoots (hope I spelt it right) are something to look forward to. Wishing you all a great week.
Thank you and you too
I just wanted to let you know that I look forward every week to your blog. All the history and other little things are so interesting!
Thanks for sharing, enjoy reading about the nooks and crannies of your home. It’s entertaining.
After a stressful day at work, what a wonderful way to wind down and have a good snicker at the confusion and hilarity one little word can cause! One has to love the English language. As for those canvas chutes, it would have to be frightening to use from heights as great as those in Highclere’s highest floors. But if that were the only escape from a fire, there would been little choice. Thank the Good Lord it has never been necessary. I find it interesting that “old school” methods such as sand buckets are still in use at Highclere. And I pray they will never be needed.
Ah, spring! We still have snow on the ground here in the Midwest, but hopefully it won’t be too long before my own daffodils and tulips start peeking up.
Thank you again for another excellent and rather humorous blog!
I love the English language too…
Such a funny posting today! I thoroughly enjoyed it. The fire escape chutes were part of my family history, too. My mother attended a school that had exterior metal(highly polished) chutes from the roof down the three floors to ground level. They were part of regular fire drills until 1960s, I believe. The metal chutes were angled at each floor to provide a smooth “safe” descent. There were also covered red buckets locked inside cabinets(glass doors) with very large sharp axes.
The language/definitions in the posting gave me such a laugh. Imagine adding other languages into the mix. I’ve had employees speaking American English, French, Spanish and various dialects of each language. We experienced a moment when “el gato” and “le gâteau” at a luncheon created confusion. Everyone laughed after explanations were provided. No one was eating a cat!
The impending spring is teasing my azaleas(rhododendrons) into bloom and what a beautiful sight.
It’s almost meteorological spring: 01MAR; soon it will be spring equinox: 19MAR. I have been following the farmers in UK and the weather has certainly been a challenge. Wishing the best to all your agricultural team and farmers. Best wishes for safe foaling, calving, lambing, and farrowing to all your livestock, too.
thank you – luckily everything is foaling/lambing a little later this year
I have only been a subscriber of your blog for a few months, but reading your posts and seeing the photos take me to a timeless place where I enjoy thought and solitude. You take me to a place away from the routine of my daily life, and perhaps these timely pieces were part of a previous life, why I look forward to your writings so.
I look forward to your next post!
Thank you !
Lady Carnarvon I’m sorry to try to reach you this way but I don’t know how else to do it. “The Office” suggested I email you as I have found myself in a most disheartening position. I have scheduled a trip for my daughter (30) and I to England and we were excited to include Highclere Castle as the highlight of our visits. Unfortunately I didn’t realize there were seasons for visits and my hotel reservations fall outside of all those dates. I am willing to pay for a private tour or hope to learn if there is anything we can do to be able to see Highclere during our trip. If there is something we can do you can email me personally so the whole world won’t see my dilemma. We will be in London September 17 but I can easily back that up to 15th or 16th if I need to. I appreciate your time and your consideration.
It is quite fine – we are trying to resolve our Autumn Diary – there is the booked weekend on the 12/13 September ( a mad fun idea to dress as your favourite Downton character and I thought I would write a little script and film it amongst castle tours and 1920 ‘s costumes/ afternoon tea). It also looks likely I will propose a special guided tour on the 16th pm and 17th pm September – We have some Viking cruise tours in the morning!
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
As a young child we played a board game called Chutes and Ladders. That is immediately where my mind returned.
Once again a thoughtful and insightful blog. THANK YOU! Your Monday Blog is something I look forward to.
Cheers from a dreary and wet Virginia with nary a flower in sight.
It has bee a tough few weeks were..
Lady Carnarvon, I was just wondering if you received the second greeting card dated Feb. 7 and I mailed it on that day. I hope for the best. Hope your day is a pleasant one.
Yes I did – with the 2 adorable puppies on the front. Thank you so much. To answer your question yes the dogs are ours – we have 8: four Labradors and 4 Spaniels.
Lady Carnarvon, Please forgive me if I am being too bold in my request but I was wondering if you had a photo of Shoots of green in the Secret Garden that I may have. It is the last page of your blog. I would gladly send you some Sterling pounds. Thank you for time.
I am just sending it!
I always enjoy your posts but this one, in addition to the replies & related anecdotes it has stimulated is especially entertaining. Thank you!
Thank you for a wonderful blog! Interesting and hilarious at the same time! The vagaries of the English language! Must go – got to shoot!
off you shoot…
I have had the extreme pleasure of visiting your beautiful home twice when traveling in England from Illinois, USA., and have read both of the biographies you have written about your predecessors.
What a fascinating look at the past those fire chutes are! Are they in tact and being kept as artifacts of your glorious house? Your story of the confusion caused by the word chutes was absolutely hilarious, and highly entertaining. I am now 1 year retired, but my students and I used to enjoy wordplay using homonyms, homophones, and misplaced punctuation. They thought I was off task, and I knew they were learning.
Truly enjoying your blog.