Evacuated children playing on the Castle lawns during WWII

I always enjoy researching my books but particularly enjoyed the research I did on Highclere and World War Two for my biography “Lady Catherine”, which looked at the life at Highclere and of the wife of the sixth Earl in the interwar years and during the conflict. I am quite disciplined and usually follow the same structure. I start with the historical framework, the politics and the challenges of the time but then move in closer to everyday life at Highclere, in this case the Land Girls, the children evacuated to the Castle, the family and the shape of their life at this time.

Reading assiduously through the estate papers, I was always thrilled to unearth the details of daily life. One which always makes me smile was a description of a journey undertaken by Geordie’s grandfather, the 6th Earl. As part of the war effort, all the local signposts were removed including the railway station ones.

The aim was, of course, to cause confusion in the event of a German invasion but it also confused everyone else. In this particular instance, the Earl needed to get to Devizes, which is about 36 miles to the west of us. He was driven by his chauffeur Bloss, a Yorkshireman who was new to the area and I am not sure that they ever arrived. There was certainly a major argument but apparently Bloss gave as good as he got and the lack of signposts was firmly blamed.

Today the signposts have been long reinstated but over the last ten years they seem to be used less and less, whether for better or for worse. It is all too easy to imagine: we are off to dinner with friends, leaving slightly late (of course), with only a hazy idea of the address and we have forgotten it is dark and that when we last visited, it was light.

The frontispiece of one of the wonderful map books

In the past I might have been reading a large battered road map on my knee which was inevitably missing the key pages (which never helps) and suggesting the route. My husband is already exasperated as I am looking for some key lipstick rather than the road and then suggests I must stop telling him what to do. However long it is that any of us have been, and are, married, I am sure this scene resonates.

Today, of course, instead of the road map there are mobile phones with map apps and car sat navs. Personally, I think this leads to far more controversy. The first crisis is predictable – which one of us remembered to write down the postcode? Should we follow the sat nav in the car or Google maps or Waze on my phone? Which phone is better and is his phone safe on my knee beside my cup of tea in the car?

Then there is usually a crisis en route when one of these directional media tells us there is an accident or perhaps there are some roadworks. At the moment in our car, it is female voice relentlessly giving instructions above the sat nav map. We both end up arguing with her as well. Scrabbling around I try to see if all direction versions agree, whether there are new routes offered and whether we should now accept, decline or look at another route finder.

Map books on the lower shelves in the Library

Exhausted already, we then discuss (argue) whether everyone else with their route finders will be sent off the same way as us in which case we could be contrarian and ignore it, or whether we should follow it. Then Geordie says “why did we set off so late?” and I ask him, as he is being such a grouch, why we are going at all or, even more inflammatory, should I drive?

I tend to assume we are all much the same so that when, in reverse, friends come to us for supper I imagine they are in need of a reviving cocktail, and make sure we have one available (made with Highclere Castle Gin of course) when they get here. Being Highclere of course causes more potential crises: Did anyone remember to open the main gates so that our guests can get in? Indeed some have been found trying to climb in over the gate prior to stumbling down a couple of miles of dark driveway to find us.

At heart, however, I remain a huge fan of old fashioned maps, especially beautiful, large scale, coloured maps. Examining them gives a sense of direction, of the major towns and landmarks, of the gradients and landscapes and real distances that is simply not available on a sat nav. I love turning the pages to other countries and seas to explore places with unfamiliar names and the sense of anticipation and future travels.