On Sunday 13th April the last of the Easter Castle visitors wended their home. Waiting in the wings for the last cars to depart were the Downton lorries, hoping to begin to park up. It had been a very busy week, where everyone had felt so encouraged by the bright sunshine that they had worn more summery clothes, only to find the wind was whistling round the Castle and thick jackets might have been more sensible.
To the west behind the Castle lies an old courtyard; the buildings around it have medieval and Tudor origins and on one corner was an old carriage and tack room. This is now our gift shop. Some of the gift shop girls – for some reason they are always called girls – have been with us for quite a few years. Apparently, if you added their ages together, you would exceed the Carnarvon’s period of ownership of Highclere (350 years). Anne- part of the 350 years- is one of the nicest, kindest people I have ever met. She also brings in an endless supply of treats for my dogs, who run round to see her and sit gazing adoringly at her in the stock room. Of course the most famous time was when Bill the horse exited from his stable (I had photographs in an earlier blog) and pottered round the gift shop too.
Sally, a wonderful girlfriend, is now our retail guru and runs the shop and on-line business. Her laughter and enthusiasm precede her entrance into the grounds each morning. Camilla, another girlfriend, wears two hats. She helps us in the shop and is joint master of the local hunt, helping to organise the horses in the first series of Downton. However, she is notorious for her late arrival. Sally and I have given her at least six alarm clocks and then set her false arrival times. We were taking bets on how late she would be when the clocks changed and the hour went forward for British summer time. It wasn’t too bad. She had thrown herself in her car and trundled down the hill a mere hour and a half late.
There are two Sarah’s, Sue, Carol an Ellie and some youngsters who are usually the best at counting. Sarah (who I do yoga with) was today wrapping up Highclere soap dishes, chirping happily about her handiwork until Sally told her the tissue paper was all wrong. Duncan, our computer colleague, was wheeling in books and guidebooks from another garage, dissecting the rate of sale, whereas Sally just wanted the shelves stacked. The stock count which is, quite often, a work of total fiction, said we had lots of mugs and biscuits left. In fact, every single one had been sold which was a shame because Adam Hillier had arrived to photograph the Ladyship/ Maid/Butler series for the web site. We gave him coffee in another mug instead.
It has a fun atmosphere. Sally takes such pride in creating and filling the shop full of locally made produce, charming china bowls, amusing signs, “Downton hats”, jewellery, seeds from our flower meadows and soaps and bath oils inspired by our gardens. In between I and the gift shop girls have time for new ideas, laughter and chat over cappuccinos and tea. It is a real community.