As you drive through the gates of the park, you catch a glimpse of the Castle before you lose it again as you sweep down the hill. Local taxi drivers slow down at this point and turn up the Downton music as visitors crane their heads. Turning left at the crossroads, you again glimpse the Castle tower as the car winds up the main drive, which is just the right width for a horse and carriage. A magnificent English oak leans out an inviting arm, the aged bough suggesting a welcoming. Finally you arrive at an oblique angle to the Castle, before you wave goodbye to the cheery taxi and walk, hopefully with admiration, between the lawns, towards the graveled sweep in front of the Castle.
It is not just the Castle which all of us, whether visitors or community, find inspiring. It is also the setting: a marvellous compromise between untrammelled nature, man’s vision of what nature could be and farm land.
Several thousand years ago there would just have been woodland, scrub and pasture. Early Neolithic farmers cleared areas and farming gradually grew more sophisticated with settled field systems and byways. Here at Highclere, the church started to organise the land with fields and bee hives and fish stews (ponds).
In the 13th century, the creation of a medieval deer park significantly changed the immediate landscape so that, by the 18th century, the small agricultural fields of the time created a tessellated view of patchwork hedgerows. In 1771, Capability Brown swept all this away, using elements of the old medieval deer park as a frame to remove boundaries in order to create the “Arcadian” landscape which was so fashionable at the time.
Walking around the Castle to the south, sheep graze the park pasture whilst deer live in and around the fields and woods. A key element is the lack of fences – the relaxed continuity. Oaks tend to stand on their own in fields, as do the cedars, whilst limes, beech, rowan and birch create mixed woodland areas. Trees age and die, some still standing in skeletal majesty whilst others fall and slowly begin to decompose, the nutrients recycled by, above all, the fungi followed by a myriad of insects, larvae, bacteria, slugs, snails, millipedes, springtails, earthworms and beetles. Death leads to renewal, a replenishment of nutrients.
I believe that walking under trees, on a beach or through a landscape, admiring a view, gives reassurance and helps us restore our balance and calm. A poet, John Clare (1793-1864), spent much of his work mourning a rural idyll, a way of life that can never be recaptured. Whilst not wishing to be romantically innocent, there is a value in nature beyond money. With technological advances and a sense of superiority, we act as if we are able to develop and take from land at will, rather than allow the earth time to recoup. We don’t always remember that we are partners and how dependent we are on the earth. There is an endless unfolding complex natural process which interconnects and I would suspect Clare would think we have never been so unconnected to it.
To see the beetles their wild mazes run
With jetty jackets glittering in the sun
Now summer is in flower and natures hum
Is never silent
As one critic (The Guardian) wrote about his poem An Invite to Eternity: “After a flowing pastoral start this quickly becomes a darker glimpse of a damaged life in a damaged world.”
Not only does his poetry describes a world he feels is passing, but he uses a vocabulary which we are also, in a way, losing because we forget to look.
Over one hundred and fifty years since John Clare died these are again interesting times, for nature whether in the raw or surviving in Arcadia. It takes only a little time to recognise and listen to the bats diving out of the yew trees, or delight that the house martins return to the corners of the Castle courtyard, look out for the owl on the fence post, the red kites circling lazily, the field fares crowding a thorny field border or hearing the shrill cry of lapwings. They depend on the insects encouraged by the slow reclaim of fallen limbs to multiply.
The trees and plants in our pastoral landscape give us so much during their lifetime – pleasure, shade, food, and yet are still able to contribute to the circle of life even after their death and thus they give back.