Last week we finally finished repairing the Victorian greenhouse behind the Monks’ Garden. Repair is a somewhat loose term here since it had to be more or less rebuilt from the first course of bricks up, given how little there was left to actually repair. In any other situation, the greenhouse would simply have been demolished, and a modern replacement installed, but it is part of our heritage at Highclere so it was restored and the Victorian system of opening the lights re-installed.
Greenhouses were always a bit of a luxury, even more so these days since we can pop down to a supermarket and find a wealth of available food options.
In the past though, greenhouses helped provide a little more diversity in our diet than would otherwise have been possible in this northern climate. Highclere was particularly well equipped having a melon house, a pineapple house and a vinery as well a number of greenhouses in which to grow tomatoes, peppers, peaches, apricots and so on.
The greenhouses were backed up by walled gardens, vegetable beds and orchards. Old maps and records from four or even eight hundred years ago, show that beyond the surrounding productive gardens here at Highclere was a mixed farm employing many people. Just as today, the animals enjoyed large areas of good, sheltered pasture, there was and is long rotation with variety of arable crops as well as downland and woodland. The dairy herd was based near the walled garden as it would provide excellent compost later and it was easy for the fresh milk to be delivered to the kitchens and dairies next door to make the cheese.
The pigs, however, were behind the orchards and on the high downland. Pigs are effectively recyclers, enjoying the kitchen peelings, the remains of orchard trees, the bounty of woodland edges as well as grains from the arable side. Our British Lop eared pigs are now again playing their part as did their predecessors. Meanwhile, the sheep grazed, and still do, on the permanent pasture. In those days, food was grown locally and menu plans had to follow the seasons. Surpluses were sold to the local grocer’s store or at market.
Incidentally, in these days of carbon footprint concerns, grazing keeps carbon locked in to the earth, whereas tilling soil for crops may release carbon depending on cultivation methods and uses diesel to till and harvest. High in the skies above, the red kites slowly circle seeking the remains of dead animals, which they need to survive on. Below, insects and beetles thrive amongst the animal manure and fallen trees as these are their habitats.
Nowadays, many of us are completely unaware of the countless organisms which are involved in these complex interactions that put food from the fields onto our tables and remove our waste although our life could not continue without their assistance. Nor the fact that it is the diverse elements of our landscape, flora, fauna and livestock which leads to the production of the delicious foods we need to live and love to enjoy.
Interestingly, we are now slowly going full circle. People are querying the both the feasibility and the morality of continuing to transport food over thousands of miles and the “Eat Local” movement is growing. Understandably, if an ingredient cannot be grown locally there may therefore be a reason to fly it over or bring it in by boat. Food manufacturing techniques are also being questioned and the transparent link between field to table is slowly being re-established. Grain to cereal, or grain to glass, orchard to fruit bowl or bottle of juice, vegetables to cooking pot or salad to bowl, milk to bottle. It is in fact a rather miraculous consequence of watching seeds drilled into the waves of earthen fields that gives rise to a delicious bread, cereal or cake.
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you sow” RL Stevenson