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 .