Geordie and I, along with rather too many dogs, were walking through the Secret Garden engrossed with discussing the borders and the damage caused by a sudden influx of mice. At the far end, Paul the head gardener and his team were finishing off a new path linking the garden, via an archway, with the Wood of Goodwill; forks and spades leaning against the small garden tractor.
This industrious scene was interrupted by the voice of Darren at the crossroads announcing over the radio that a van had arrived with a delivery of candles. I immediately answered back asking “is that four candles?” Geordie, not to be outdone, added that he hoped it was fork handles, quickly followed by John the Castle Manager, broadcasting from the Castle office, that there were “more than four candles in a van, Lady Carnarvon.” We were all, of course, thinking of the “Two Ronnies” sketch “Four Candles”, which is essential and repeat viewing at Highclere.
The scene opens in a village shop, with an old-fashioned long counter, high shelving, rolling country accents, fork handles, four candles and all options in between. My parents so enjoyed the Two Ronnies and, fortunately, some of their sketches are now available on YouTube. They do make many of us laugh out loud and in fact I sometimes ask those applying for a job here if they have seen it. A sense of humour, and possibly a British sense of humour at that, is almost an essential component of life at Highclere.
John suggested to Darren that the van with said candles were most likely to be for Sally in the gift shop. The van driver was therefore directed to pull up behind the courtyard and John radioed James in the estate office to help who, in turn, dispatched Alex to help unload. Meanwhile, Sally got on the radio, slightly bemused, saying she was not expecting any votives or diffusers but she was leafing through her desk to try to work out what might be arriving.
By now, Geordie and I had returned to the courtyard to find Alex and the driver pushing a huge pallet of enormous candles uphill. Slightly startled I said “Golly there are more than four candles and they are enormous! What has Sally ordered?” It was obvious they were not going to fit into Sally’s shop entrance and, far from votives, might they be outside candles?
Sally appeared looking somewhat nonplussed but it suddenly dawned on Geordie that, in fact, they were his “four candles” which he and Simon the farm manager had ordered for the vineyard to help protect against frosts. They were therefore now in the wrong place and either Alex and the van driver would either have to push the pallet downhill for a mile or so or reload the van and take them there. Sally was hugely relieved and retired from the scene.
The whole saga had occupied “Radio Highclere” for some twenty minutes to great hilarity but at this point everyone lost interest and Geordie realised that it was up to him to call Simon to help sort it out.
We planted a vineyard some three years ago so it is very much in its infancy and we have pursued a steep learning curve with it. This spring has brought some welcome sunshine but that has been contrasted with deeply cold, clear nights. Our first defence is a gas heater which is activated on temperature and then stays on until the temperature rises. However, the frosts have been so severe that we soon bought a second one and then the candles to act as a back-up to the modern heaters.
It is a traditional and beautiful sight to see rows of candles lit underneath the vines but it does mean getting up in the small hours. They have been much used in France which has had some utterly devastating frosts this year which have wiped out large areas of vines. From Bordeaux to Burgundy, the Rhône Valley to Champagne, the destruction has been the worst in decades and the families owning the vineyards need emergency rescue packages as some have lost 80% of the vines.
Here in England, the vines’ growing season is a little later due to our climate but nevertheless, although we have now pruned our vines, we have left on a good three buds above the usual place to prune in order to be able to do it once more if we get a late long frost.
Although it has been hard work so far, we are still hoping that, in the long run, having our own vineyard will be worth all the effort. After all, in the words of Napoleon Bonaparte: “Wine is inspiring, and adds greatly to the joy of living.”