Keepers’ Café

The first part of my morning bike ride is downhill all the way. I head off slowly as the dogs run round in excited circles and we avoid the early cars, all of which have to stop, as the dogs bounce up to say hello and are convinced that they should be patted. This is their walk as well as my exercise, so I watch as they happily disappear into an old piece of hedgerow, tails wagging, before bounding into an old dew pond area, emerging with muddy legs.

Carrying on another 100 yards, I turn in to the back of the old walled kitchen gardens and visit my chickens. Propping the bike up, I tell the dogs to sit and wait and undo the old gate to find the chickens happily clucking and running towards me.  Lizzie and Jane, Elinor and Marianne, Emma, Anne, Kitty and Lydia roam through old raspberry canes and nets, settle under wild plants the faded red brick walls and find their way into the laying sheds. They are keen to see me and above all their food at this time of the day.

Job done, I return to the dogs who are more or less waiting enthusiastically to continue their morning outing.

Opposite my chickens is “Keepers’ Café”. The keepers, Eddie, Terry and Tom, are up early every morning so by 9am, are ready for a coffee break and have set themselves up in an old building here. They are often joined by John on his tractor, in between cutting the park verges and Scottish Robert (security), who likes to have a catch up. Sid can also often be found there and now they have a new visitor every morning: Gwyneth and her tiny dog Suki.  Gwyneth and her husband Don lived in a cottage next door to Keepers Café for over 40 years. Sadly, Don died earlier this year and Gwyneth finds the camaraderie and laughter of Keepers Café very welcome.

Don was quite a unique personality, full of stories and direct opinions. He would never fail to tell me “those plants won’t work there” or “not to bother with that” and relate funny incidences with 6th Earl; how he had to confiscate his Lordships’ secateurs many times and of refusing to help when his Lordship wedged his car in a garden gate. He would tell of his predecessors in the gardens, usually in terms of how useless they were and he would complain that visitors didn’t move out of the way fast enough as he was approaching on the mowing machine so that he would have to wave and hoot. When they did eventually move, he would sweep round and have another go at them from another direction!

When Geordie and I started off at Highclere we had two gardeners, Don and Philip, looking after a much smaller area of gardens than we have today. We have expanded these by another 10, or even 15, acres over our time here so far and Don’s favorite gripe was that it was just the two of them, so how was that going to work then?  I used to tell him to get up earlier and would move back quickly, grinning, before he told me what he thought of me…

For all his jokes though, Don was a really talented gardener. He knew so much and loved Highclere’s gardens, finding beauty in every corner, knowing the soils, the seasons and the cycle of jobs.  He bicycled up from his cottage nearly every day, reliable to the point where I could set my watch by him. He always said he wished to die doing what he loved and when he was ill, even towards the end, he still liked to come up to the potting sheds for a few hours. Paul, our head gardener, would kindly collect him in his car.

Gwyneth and Don first met when they about 14 years old and his death has left a tremendous hole. Keepers’ Café, with its familiar voices and figures who have also been at Highclere for years, is more than a breakfast club; it is about being part of a community that draws you in and keeps you up.

I thought Gwyneth, their son Pete and I would plant a tree for Don in our new woodland garden: the one that made Don nearly go on strike.  I can hear his laugh.


54 Responses to “Keepers’ Café”
  1. Nora Huber says:

    So touching. I was there in July and remember standing right there in the garden. It was a fabulous treat for me. Thank you so much!!

  2. Catherine Splane says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    Are your chickens named after Jane Austen characters, by any chance?

    Love this piece about memories of your head gardener, the Keeper’s Club, your dogs’ participation in your daily chores. As I am a constant questioner about your animals activities and welfare, I love these pictures of your dogs and chickens.

    Have you viewed my ELEPHANTS DOT COM website yet to try to catch a glimpse of my adopted eles? Sometimes they are on camera, sometimes not. They roam 2,700 acres so catching them on cam can be tricky.

    How are your animals doing?

    Once again, thank you for your delightful, daily life stories.

    Catherine Splane

    • Catherine Splane says:

      Keeper’s Cafe, not Club. Sorry.

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      I did look at the elephants – they looked amazing! I think my dogs would like to free roam that sort of area!!! The hens are all named for Jane Austen, they are very happy at the moment and laying well.

    • Jill Brewster says:

      I went on your web site ELEPHANTS DOT COM and read your story. What a wonderful thing you do for for these aging giants. You give them a reason to live a long and happy life. Thank you for all you do.

    • Sulane Roesler says:

      I visited Highclere just last week and of course loved it. I especially loved the grounds and the secret garden. It was all lovely. Thank you so much for allowing us to visit your beautiful home. Next time I visit I plan to spend the whole day.

    • Catherine Splane says:

      My thanks to Jill Brewster for appreciation of my ELEPHANTS DOT COM project.

      Lady Carnarvon kindly viewed the eles on cam on my suggestion.

      Our Elephant Sanctuary here in Hohenwald, Tennessee USA shelters these eles on 2700 acres as eles are a roaming animal. They have medical issues from being kept in captivity through zoos and circuses. Their complete personal bios on the website reveal danger, cruelty, fire, shipwreck, being held hostage, neglect, total isolation, never seeing another ele for over 20 years.

      When I call for whatever reason, every single employee I talk to conveys 100% deep love, concern, joy, and hope for The Girls. Medical care, enrichment food puzzles, toys, treats, classical music keep the eles alert, loving, and loved.

  3. Joan says:

    Oh my, my……I feel like I was UP and enjoying the morning ride with you !! The bicycle, the dogs, the chickens…..and your lovely story of your gardener !
    All of which are all so heartfelt……..I love your blog and thank you for all that you do, including finding time to share your life with all of us.
    Hugs, Joan

  4. Maureen longobardi says:

    Wonderfully touching story. Do you have any musical instruments in the castle? Piano? Are there ever concerts?
    See you November 1 with Viking!

  5. Jeffery Sewell says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,
    Very sad to read of your gardener, Don’s passing. Sincere condolences to his wife, son, family, friends and all who worked with and knew Don at Highclere.
    It certainly sounds like Don had a wonderful sense of humour. Your story of Don saying that the visitors to Highclere didn’t move quickly enough as he zipped by them with his lawn mower is reminiscent of the tale of the driver who had never had an accident but, gee, over the years he had seen many, many collisions in his rear vision mirror!
    It certainly sounds like Don would be amused by (and appreciate) the planting of a tree for him in your woodland garden. A fitting tribute.
    In sympathy,
    Jeffery Sewell

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      Don was a legend – funnily enough I offered to mummify him when I showed him and other colleagues around the Egyptian Exhibition. He replied and said he would want overtime.

  6. Ruth Goebel says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    How delightful to name your hens after Jane Austen’s characters! I hope they keep you well supplied with fresh eggs everyday. What a lovely story about your gardener and how you have remembered him…I wonder if he is ‘tut-tutting’ your choice of trees! Thank you for sharing your lovely home with us.

    Kindest regards,
    Ruth Goebel

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      Philip who worked with him for 25 years (Don was here for 45) suggested a birch but I will go along with Gwyneth and i think she should choose it

  7. Susan says:

    I can sympathize–I have quite a few acres too, but I’m afraid that without any gardeners at all, only the 2 or 3 acres surrounding the house is manicured. When I am biking downhill, all I can think is of the trip back!! So I got one of those bionic bike-assist mechanisms–make uphill much more fun. Love your posts–maybe some day I’ll make it see it in person.

  8. Judith Callahan says:

    I will be visiting in two weeks. I live in a desert so seeing your gardens will be a wonderful treat. Thank you so much for sharing your lovely home with all of us. It is a world we can only dream of. C

  9. Lady Carnarvon says:

    There are so many shades of green, I just think how clever God was.

  10. Ruby says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon ,

    My heartfelt condolences to all who knew and loved Don . He sounds like quite a character ! I only wish I could have met him . I think planting a tree in his memory is a lovely thing to do .

    I enjoy your blogs about life at Highclere so much and of course you had to name your chickens after Jane Austen characters although I’m surprised there isn’t a Lady Mary or a ” poor Edith ” in there !

    Thank you for all the pictures and sharing about Don .

    Love from Canada , Ruby Corman . 🙂

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      My main problem is what happens when a chicken dies – I did have a Mary (one of the Bennet sisters) but she died, so if I had Lady Mary and she died, I think we would all full of consternation!!!

  11. Sandra Mettler says:

    I love the names of your chickens!!! If you ever get a strutting banty rooster, you could name him Mr. Collins! I’m watching live TV coverage all day, covering the Eclipse, and sending you love and hugs from (getting gradually darker!) normally sunny northern Wisconsin! xxx, Sandra

  12. Mary-Carolyn Lawson says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    Once again you’ve touched my heart and tickled my funny bone. I laughed out loud at Don’s quip in response to your offer to mummify him.

    Much love to all of you who mourn,


  13. Jo says:

    What a lovely tribute to your gardener, Don. Those who serve/help us in actuality become our lifetime friends and when they are no longer with us it leaves a bit of a hole in our hearts. Growing up in the south (US) in the 40’s and 50’s our family had a housekeeper, Geneva. We four children felt as though she was our second mother and told her all our secrets. I regret not throwing my arms around her and thanking her before she left this earth.

  14. Chantal Leblanc says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    Deepest sympathies to the family and for all that knew Don and thanks for sharing this story. Very touching.

    Planting a tree is always a good idea, and it is a nice tribute to Don who will be remembered in Highclere’s gardens for his contribution to making and keeping them beautiful.

    I love that you have called your chickens in the names of one of my favorite author’s characters! But now I’m reading another one of my (new) favorite author! I am almost finish with Lady Catherine’s story. I loved both hers and Almina’s. Thanks for sharing these story with us as well. I find it very interesting to see how the fifth and sixth Earl of Carnarvon managed to keep Highclere in the family where many English families sadly lost their inheritance because of a lack of funding and whatever resources necessary to keep them up and running. I also visited Blenheim this summer, another great house who is still owned by the (now 12th) Duke of Marlborough.

    I wish I could run and bike with my dog like that and mostly that I would have the grounds to do so! But you need to keep a husky on a lead at all times, they are a breed of dogs that really like to explore and wander a lot. I also wish I could have more than one too.

    I really like reading you! Do you have much colored leaves in the Fall at Highclere? I hope you can post pictures of them eventually.

    Chantal Leblanc
    Montreal, Canada

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      The coloured leaves here are exceptional and it is a wonderful time of year – given you are from Canada have you read the Blog about your country? John A and Highclere – it is called a Constitutional Walk…they all walked round here

    • Chantal Leblanc says:

      Hi! Yes I did read it, thank you! I thought it was pretty cool that Highclere played a part in the history of Canada.

  15. Althea says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon
    I loved your blog from your downhill bike ride with your beauriful dogs to your ‘Jane Austen’ chickens and the Keepers’ Cafe. You definitely deserve a coffee after the uphill ride back.
    I was touched by the lovely story of Don, your faithful gardener, who sounds an amazing character of a man and highly regarded by all. I too visited in July and loved the new Woodland Garden – the perfect spot to plant a tree in his memory. Being the wonderful gardener that he was, Don will have had many favourite trees over time, and it will be a fitting tribute to have Gwyneth choose and, with their son, help plant a special one in his memory.
    Althea – Auckland, New Zealand

  16. Lady Carnarvon says:

    Don was hilarious and if I was bit down, I would sit down and ask to tell me story. I have asked his son Pete to do a few jobs for me (he is a plumber) so I don’t lose the Dowsetts.

  17. Sharon Tuck says:

    Hi Fiona,
    What a lovely blog! I felt like I was right there. You are a beautiful writer… Love that you named your chickens after Jane Austen characters. It is my dream to visit Highclere. Hopefully in a couple of years. I just noticed you have Instagram. Will you be posting on there again soon? So thankful you graciously permitted Downton Abbey to be filmed in your gorgeous home. The series and your blog are my “happy place”. Thank you for sharing. Cheers from Toronto Canada!

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      Hello Sharon from Canada! Highclere does have instagram you are right and my office is gettin very better organised – we have been indexing photos etc.
      The other thing I found was the front page of the BNA with edits by John A – which I might try to turn into a PDF to add to here …

  18. Simone Archer says:

    Thank you for sharing, can’t wait to come for a visit one day . Almost felt like I was there, great writing, love reading my emails . Enjoy your day .

  19. stacey brown says:

    Lady Carnarvon,

    My deepest sympathies to Don’s family and to yours. Thank you for sharing the touching story of Don’s lasting contribution to Highclere and his genuine friendship with your family. It touched my heart! Planting a memorial tree is such a thoughtful tribute. It is wonderful that his family can still be a part of Keeper’s Cafe too.

    Your dogs are precious.They must enjoy walking with you, trouncing through the mud and swimming in the pond. It’s the perfect outing. What lucky dogs! Your story also brings back sweet memories of walks with my faithful terrier, Arthur. He passed away at the ripe old age of eighteen earlier this year.

    The stunning garden photo confirms that the earth really does laugh in flowers (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Do you choose a garden color scheme or add random plantings as needed? It is such a joy to see colorful and beautiful flowers when the temperature is a sweltering 97 degrees. Flowers are one of life’s true pleasures.

    Thank you for sharing your lovely post about community, the bonds of friendship and family.

    Warm Regards,

    Stacey Brown
    The Woodlands, TX

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      Thank you Stacy, yes we do have colour schemes and sometimes just to wind us up, Don would put something bright orange in the middle of a scheme, or a yellow foxglove in a white border…

  20. Amy Hunt says:

    I love Don’s straightforwardness and know that you will miss his talents and his humour. A tree is a beautiful remembrance of any loved one- we have a pink dogwood to remember my father-in-law—and especially for a lover of the outdoors. I am thankful for your friendships with so many of your staff and neighbors and friends, which you recount with such graciousness and fun. Life is a blessing and relationships makes us rich in many ways. So sorry for Don’s family and friends in their loss.

  21. Jane Hrabak says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,
    I feel I can relate to so much of your letter this time. Short of going into detail, you have hit the greater meaning of these ‘cafe clutch’, and the true value they do hold in the friendships they all share with one another, perfectly. My husband wouldn’t miss his time together with those friends for anything .
    We, too, have a dog of character, just not not of size,(but please don’t tell her that!) Although she doesn’t run along side us as we ride, she has decided she should rid our garden of anything resembling a bunny, or squirrel and it’s nothing for us to loose her in the bean patch. But when called, up and out jumps MADDIE, our 8 year old Jack Russell, ever so happy to be where she is, but back down into the abyss she goes, ever vigilant. There have been times when we have held back our laughter because of her hunting skills, the bounding and chasing can literally go on for hours. They have a wonderful amount of energy I could only hope to have. She has been our asst. gardener this year, but we have nothing like you, and I do appreciate you sharing your photos .
    Your tribute was at the very least, extremely touching. Such an honor to be remembered in such a perfect and loving way. Thank you for sharing your garden, and your ‘friends’, including chickens and dogs with us.

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      It is only when you get a bit older you figure out what matters in life, don’t you?

  22. Elsa Bekkala says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    What a pleasure it is to read of your experience of Highclere is such a natural way. Here in Kentucky, we too ride our bikes to check
    on our gardens and little out buildings. As it is too hot now for bike riding, we use golf carts, and even get about the town in them. Our own dogs, as well as many of the town dogs, love to follow us around. Thank you for your writing. Elsa Bekkala

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      My dogs love it when it gets cooler, the sharper scent of Autumn air. They have quite think coats for heat

  23. IFortuna says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    I was very sad to read of Don’s passing. Please accept our condolences.
    Thank you for your newsletters.

  24. Sandra Cook Carpenter says:

    A very touching story all around.
    Especially when you suggested to Don to have him mummified and he replied that it would cost you overtime!
    I am among the millions who love your blog stories.
    Sailing on the QM2 September 2018 with our sheltie Dixon.
    Highclere is on my list. Are dogs on leash allowed to come to visit the gardens and gift shop?
    If not my hubby will take him for a stroll elsewhere outside of Highclere.
    Sandie from Whitefish, Montana, USA

  25. Margit says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon!
    After reading your post,I will think on you and the cafe group, when I sitting by my writing desk in my office, at 9 a.m. on a working day.
    Greetings from Austria – Margit

  26. Rita says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    My deepest condolences on your loss. Sounds like Don was a very entertaining and valued member of the team.

    May He rest In Peace!!

  27. Diane Clavareau-Vandenberghe says:

    So touched by your lines about Don. Yes, please, plant a tree for him. So when he years pass, you will remember him more and more as the tree will be growing. Great idea!
    Thank you for the bike ride, the dogs running and swimming, and the Jane Austen chickens. It makes your writing so present and lively. I can see you while I am reading. Makes me smile. Thank you again.

  28. Lady Carnarvon says:

    I will take photos of said tree!

  29. Brenda Watson says:

    It is so wonderful to see how your grounds and gardens are so well taken care of by the gardener lads. We have a lawn service, but it is nothing like yours! A bit of laughter noted here. So love your posts. You make life at the castle a part of our lives too.

    Thank you!

    Brenda Watson
    Glenn Heights, Texas USA

  30. Bonnie Ashley says:

    Hello Lady Carnarvon,
    I was so appreciative of this post.
    Firstly, condolences to all Don’s family and the Highclere family as well. I’m sure his wife feels blessed to have all of you near at this time.
    Secondly, it was a treat to see pictures of many familiar faces from around the castle grounds. I was especially pleased to see pictures of Ed, we love that very sweet man.
    Thank you for continuing to share moments of life there, as those of us who have spent time at Highclere are made to feel so at home because of your open arms.
    With much admiration,

  31. Lady Carnarvon says:

    Don’s wife, Gwyneth is a great character, and I have got to know his son Pete, so the Dowsett’s continue. Don and I used to laugh about whether or not he would retire and of course he never did. This place is about Don and everyone who works here – and each time I write a book I am trying to share our experiences of living here, upstairs and down. I still look at the portraits in “A Home” of Eddie, and Diana and so on feel so glad they are included.

    • It was Donald that my daughter Shari and I met when walking around the Secret Garden. We took a picture of him with his permission to remember our conversation by. I wanted you to know how well he spoke of you and Lord Carnarvon…how well you treat everyone. He also had some cute stories we will never forget! I’m just so sad he is gone.

  32. Ann C. Flood says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    I so enjoyed your stories of Don and Highclere’s gardens. For all of his banter and complaints, the love he had for his job is evident. When I look at Highclere’s gardens I see the hand of the perfectionist in their beauty. I think that the beauty of the gardens is going to truly be Don’s legacy. I read that one of my fellow bloggers suggested Don’s family pick the tree to memorialize Don. What a splendid idea! I think a little tree planting ceremony could be held by those who knew Don. I know that everyone who works and lives at Highclere add to the beauty and graciousness of the estate. I thank you for Don’s story. It is nice to know he is so well loved and remembered by his employer. He seemed truly to be an integral part of the fabric of your home. Thank you Lady Carnarvon for this beautiful remembrance of this fine man.

    Kind Regards to all at Highclere,

    Ann Catherine Flood

  33. Lady Carnarvon says:

    Highclere is about people like Don- I have trees for Albert Saxton – clerk of works- Stan Anstey – a brickie, Pat and Mike Withers (they are also in At Home) Nora Sutcliffe – she was here 42 years ( but is alive as is her tree doing well! ) and so on. I really like my Wood of Goodwill and it gathers the past and present and there is no difference

  34. Jennifer says:

    What a lovely tribute. We were fortunate enough to visit in April. The gardens were stunning even though they were not in full bloom.

  35. Lori says:

    Like always I enjoy all of your blogs.Although I don’t live in or near England, I am in the United States of America. Peoria, IL to be exact. With every blog you write it brings me to the Highclere castle everytime.I just love the gardens. Please don’t stop blogging about the castle, as I enjoy reading them.

Leave A Comment

Copyright 2017 Lady Carnarvon · RSS Feed · Website Design by MAXX Design