In the southeast corner of Highclere’s acres lie seven Bronze Age tumuli. It is believed there were originally more – perhaps as many as twelve, remnants of a people who lived here around 4,500 years ago.
Looking around at the landscape I can imagine them farming and hunting in this area, drawing up clean chalk water, storing foods for the winter, and collecting berries or nuts. Examination of DNA links these people to travellers and settlers from the Rhine area whose evolving use of metals such as copper and bronze led to the development of agriculture and settlements, ornaments and memorials and, of course, weapons.
Above these tumuli lies Beacon Hill, an iron age hillfort (below) within which you can see the embanked circular outlines of what might have been dwellings. It is a spectacular view back down the slope towards the Seven Barrows and other possible settlement enclosures marked today as low earthwork banks within the grassland.
Moving forwards in time there are indications of Roman settlements around this area too, before they became absorbed as part of the kingdom of Wessex. Anglo Saxon communities and Viking incursions led to new settlements and perhaps new burial places. There is a truly beautiful glade where the land is disturbed at the northern foot of the hill near where we have found a few Roman artefacts and hence signs of a settlement.
It is a beautiful part of England, good trees, good hunting, and light soils. Who knows how many people have lived here and buried their dead under these fields – they are indeed God’s acres. This is an Anglo-Saxon phrase literally meaning – God’s fields. The German phrase is the same, “Gottesacker” and standing looking at the landscape I wonder if we are losing our ancestral wisdom. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun chose to be buried in the fort, (you can see the iron railings around his grave in the photo above)to become a part of the history and be forever connected with the past.
Henry Longfellow’s poem of the same name has always had a particular resonance for me. This is part of it:
“I like that ancient Saxon phrase, which calls The burial-ground God’s-Acre! It is just;
It consecrates each grave within its walls,
And breathes a benison o’er the sleeping dust.
God’s-Acre! Yes, that blessed name imparts
Comfort to those, who in the grave have sown
The seed that they had garnered in their hearts,
Their bread of life, alas! no more their own…
…This is the field and Acre of our God,
This is the place where human harvests grow”
Today we usually organise our dead in graveyards or crematoriums and thus separate our daily lives from them. In fact, in the middle of the Park here at Highclere there is a charming chapel, built by the 3rd Countess of Carnarvon after her husband’s death. It is there to offer comfort for all those who grieve with an annual service taking place each September to remember those we loved. Although we live apart from them, at specific times we can come together to pray with them. Perhaps there were also specific times that the settlers around Beacon Hill chose to sit and remember those they loved.
At this time of year, with Autumn well underway, it is inevitable that our thoughts turn towards Remembrance on November 11th. The poppies, silence, respect, and prayers are to honour and to acknowledge our debt to the millions who died in the First World War and all subsequent wars. The past and present come together as we try to reassure ourselves that our memories will always bear witness: “They do not fade, they shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.” ”
To that end, four years ago Highclere commemorated the beginning of the First World War and, in September 2018, we will again gather together to celebrate the beginning of the end, and the weeks grinding slowly towards peace. It is a weekend to understand, to engage, and to raise money for those who suffer in war zones today, from doctors to veterans, from those fleeing war to the soldiers’ families left bereft. My thought was that this is for those who serve but also for those who save.
On a practical note I know I need to bring visitors to Highclere so to make this weekend happen, I am turning to my aviation friends for planes old and new, to other friends for cars and for marching bands. The Castle operating theatre will return and there will be songs and lectures. What a weekend! In the end, looking after those who serve and those who save needs support, kind people and money.