In a conversation with Dr Christopher McCreery in Canada last week, I was asked to describe my day – what do I do, what exactly was my job? Dr McCreery waited expectantly but, most unusually, I was temporarily silenced, simply trying to work out where to begin.
In Downton Abbey, Lady Grantham seemed to lead an almost effortless elegantly sedate life being generally supportive to her family. Sometimes, like other mothers or wives, she clearly felt under-appreciated but mostly left her husband and her daughter to worry about “Downton”.
For better or worse, my life is rather more proactive and involved than that and much less serene. Like other businesses, the modern Highclere is about creating a culture and energy; building a strategy as well as embracing the challenges and deadlines of the every day. Watching Downton Abbey on TV, much of the action involves merely entering or leaving a room, running upstairs or walking downstairs. In contrast, much of the real action at Highclere begins outside.
An average day for me usually starts with a cycle ride round the gardens with a gaggle of dogs, possibly a bit of yoga on a far lawn out of sight of early visitors before returning for porridge and coffee. Quite often one dog is missing and is busy tidying up discarded scones around a bin. Sometimes the enthusiasm of the estate team overtakes me and coffee becomes a good meeting time and I miss the porridge.
Heading inside, I then look at what building project is critical and therefore needs a visit. Currently we have one cottage which we have to turn round in a month – a tight deadline for what needs to be done but one which I am determined to stick to. I often remind my husband that he did not declare all his follies when we married and nor did he declare the state of the cottages and therefore he is not to grumble. This particular cottage needs to be re roofed, re-plumbed, re wired, insulated, a new kitchen and two new bathrooms installed, new gutters, new soffits, in fact new everything before it is completely re- painted. However, it has the most idyllic views and I hope will bring much peace and pleasure to its new family.
In fact, I thought during the Art and Architecture tours which are taking place here from next Sunday that it would interest people if I shared some of these projects and the issues involved in maintaining such old buildings.
Moving on, in addition to various estate projects which are never entirely within budget or control given the wibbly wobbly fences, leaky pipes, overflowing tanks or missing tiles, there are also the matter of the events happening at the Castle. As our business shifts in these challenging times, so do the job titles in the office. Instead of being more conventionally formulaic, they tend now to be based more around events and shared themes with everyone taking part and sharing the load.
John, the Castle Manager, and I work closely together, all meetings being punctuated by laughter, by his desire to act out his topic of discussion and my need for coffee. None of his meetings can be too short and most days and meetings involve wellington boots, a minimum of 12,000 steps and plenty of notes. A typical example was the visit from the team putting on the Downton Abbey concert on June 22nd to discuss the build schedule which, apart from adding to the teetering piles of paper in John’s office, also involved a tramp round several “parking”fields to their evident bewilderment.
Emily helps organise car parkers, visitor reception, and manages and codes the estate invoices. I have no idea what I could call her except charming. Margery used to organise school visits but then has decided to retire from that in order to work as a gift shop elf. In fact, the word elf is perhaps more used at Highclere than in any Harry Potter film.
I gathered from a recent radio programme that modern company’s today use, amongst other tools, algorithms and AI to try to recruit people. There are apparently many layers of faceless computer choices and interviews before seeing anyone in person which seems so sad. I think work is about giving each of us a chance to get going in life and become part of a community.
Most skill sets can be learnt and that the most important thing is emotional, empathetic intelligence given that we are all working together and spending so much time together. I am not sure that many of us at Highclere would have been able to win our roles here through such formulated channels. Thinking of this and our own process of recruitment, I thought I would try some new questions at the stage when I meet an interviewee. “What is your favourite line in Dad’s Army?” “Have you seen the skit about two Scotsmen in a lift?” Do you know the “Two Ronnies” sketch about 4 Candles? Do you like Fawlty Towers? They seem just as valid given that a sense of humour is vital here.
With the humour and diversity of our Highclere team, I simply hope that we operate in such a way to welcome visitors, to smile and make them smile and to hope they will come back for another visit.