After breakfast on New Year’s Day, I set off with whoever else has surfaced, to walk down Lime Avenue, following the old paths around the corner of Siddown Hill to reach Beacon Hill. It rises to the south, some 850 feet above the Castle; a distinctive, long, exposed slope of ground leading up to the remains of the Iron Age hill fort circling the topmost acres of the hill. It seems an elemental part of the land, always open to winds and rain, but also to far reaching views which today give us pleasure and in the past, beyond pleasure, would have given advance warning against marauders.
There are few trees near the slopes and I imagine they were cut down several thousand years ago to give clear views. That however was not sufficient defense against the Romans in AD43 when they invaded this island. The early settlements around the foothills were likely simply acquired and resettled by the Romans, then later by the Anglo Saxons. Perhaps even the Vikings passed through as well. All have left traces of everyday life: pottery, coins, brooches, clips, and rings.
At the far foot of the hill’s slope lie the remains of a rectangular building. It dates from about 1905, over two thousand years later, therefore, than the iron age fort in which I am standing. Steve, part of my plane search team, and I had been looking for the footprint of this structure for some time. However, it is amazing when you are struggling through nettles and brambles, to find anything. It is much easier to trip over than to see what might be in front of you. We began to close in when I saw the outline, by chance, at the back of an old photo. I emailed Steve in the middle of the night, squeaking with excitement.
It is the outline of the hangar in which Geoffrey de Havilland created his first aeroplane. He made it by analysing newspaper reports on how the Wright brothers constructed and flew a plane, as he had never actually seen one.
The wings were sewn by his wife, he utilised piano wire and bicycle tyres in the construction and believed that he had worked out a way to control direction and altitude. He let the plane gain speed running down the shoulder of Beacon Hill in September 1909 and crashed forwards. Unhurt and undaunted he learnt his lessons, rebuilt it again, and on September 10th 1910 took off and flew over the bronze age tumuli, over the fields, turned in a circle and miraculously landed.
He was to become one of the most important men in British aviation, later building Puss Moths, Tiger Moths, Mosquitoes and the Comet. During the Mary Berry TV show on BBC1 we touched on the planes that are part of the aviation story here. Aviation at Highclere takes in both World Wars through the airmen who were nursed back to health in the hospital in the Castle in World War One and the airmen who crashed here in World War Two.
I can never decide which layer of history and landscape matters most and which to highlight. This September we are going to highlight Highclere as a place of healing which was its role in the First World War, as well as sharing some of the stories about flight; the successful ones and the tragic ones.
New Years Resolutions seem to last a week, and are usually about eating less or exercising more. However, my resolution this year is more reflective – it is to create a memorial, one from a fallen Cedar tree which is monumental in itself, a statue of an airmen looking back towards these hills from the gardens at Highclere, thus everyone visiting Highclere can see it. The airmen who died on the Estate are from many places: the USA, Canada, New Zealand as well as the UK so I hope we can do it together. We can unveil it in September, during a weekend to remember these men and carve their names in the Cedar.
UPDATE 7th January 2018: Today on Siddown Hill we found the radio compass of the B17 which crashed on 5th May 1945 – quite an extraordinary find.