At some point each day I look in on our biggest building project – the renovation of the Castle Estate Offices. There are always a few building works trundling along at any given time but this particular one is marked both by its longevity and its remarkable ability to absorb money at a great rate.
One of my roles at Highclere is to act as a sort of cross between an agent and project manager. It is not the easiest job as one of the main tasks is to try to keep teamwork going amongst the craftsmen by continual “critical path analysis”. That is basically not allowing one trade to hold another one up. As I suspect is common in a lot of marriages, my husband tends to think I am spending too much money, whilst I think he has too many follies and a pile of maintenance problems that have built up over 100 years or more.
The Estate Office stands amidst the foundations of much earlier buildings: it looks Georgian but there were ox houses and stalls for horses in medieval times. The building, especially the oak joists and purlings, tells its own stories. Around 1680 one of my husband’s ancestors rebuilt the old church beside the house and rebuilt and refurbished what was then called Highclere Place House. In so doing the old oak beams and wood would have been pulled out and re-used and you can clearly see, for example, that what is now a floor joist in the Estate Office was once a roof tress in a much earlier building. Some of the oak is perhaps 600 or 700 years old and takes a hue and texture which is very beautiful.
To add to the sense of history is the knowledge that the oak used for these beams would probably have come from trees growing on the Estate for hundreds of years before they were cut for joists. We can make this assumption as records show that oaks from Highclere were used in the late 14th century to rebuild both New College Oxford and Winchester College. In fact, old oak and beech trees still mark the skylines and woods here, especially beautiful with their autumnal colours.
Today, Scott and Tony the joiners are fascinated by their predecessor’s work and how they handled the wood. Both have said how much they would love to be able to go back in time to spend a day working alongside the craftsmen who created the joints and beams that they are now in turn refitting inside this building.
In amongst all this history are lighter moments. It is noticeable that the first thing the men do as they move onto various new parts of the building is build themselves their own mini kitchen. Out come the chairs which are always arranged in a neat semi-circle. One of the electricians rigs up a lead so that their battered old fridge, kettle and microwave can all be plugged in and Tony and Scott make sure that either they are not going to fall through the floor or alternately the ceiling fall on them (both scenarios have been possible so far). It is all very domesticated and cosy. Mostly they bring in their own lunches but periodically it is “fish and chips Friday” or, as it was last week, “fish and chips Wednesday”. The gift shop manager, Sally, and I were guests and we all sat happily in a circle eating fish and chips collected from the local pub. Luckily Scott had bought in a bottle of ketchup whilst someone else had the vinegar. It does not get much better.