Valentines’ weekend was different this year. For the last six Februarys, Downton have been parked up with innumerable white lorries crowding the gravel around the Castle. This year the crew and actors have dispersed to follow other paths and Highclere is building a new calendar for itself.
As a result, this weekend, instead of the Downton lorries, we welcomed small groups of visitors for a valentines afternoon tea and then held an evening champagne reception. The oak staircase was decorated with a charming rose garland, champagne flowed and the choir were led by a wonderful soprano who sang “O mio bambino caro” in the Saloon just like Dame Kiri te Kanawa sung for Downton. In fact Dame Kiri was following the fictional steps of Dame Nellie Melba but there is a non-fiction link in that Dame Nellie used to sing at private soirées by request of Alfred de Rothschild, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon’s father.
To mark the occasion I chose and printed a small collection of poems about the many sides of love and companionship for the guests to take as a memento. There were some obvious choices: Robbie Burns, whose poems reflect his enthusiasm and love for women (he certainly embarked on many romantic relationships), Sir Philip Sidney, Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth and Robert Browning, especially since the latter stayed at Highclere. John Donne’s poems and life have been part of my reading and study since school years and thus I included “The Good Morrow”. Likewise, I have always loved the poems of Yeats and I chose the one which begins:
“When you are old and grey and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire…”
To counterbalance the poetry I added in some wonderfully acerbic comments by the likes of Mae West and Noel Coward:
“Love thy neighbour – and if he happens to be tall, debonair and devastating, it will be that much easier” ( Mae West) , and
“Familiarity breeds contempt, but without a little familiarity it’s impossible to breed anything.”(Noel Coward).
I ended with Winston Churchill’s tribute:
“My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me”
The celebration of St Valentine’s Day is a bright point in a wintry and, in Britain, very rainy month, although the roots of the association with St Valentine are obscure (He was a 3rd century Roman Saint). Our personal celebration relates to our marriage which took place in the Savoy Chapel, a small beautiful church in London. Every year, everyone who has been married in that church is invited back to a special service on a date near February 14th to remember, to give thanks and to repeat their vows. Some of the congregation are only recently married, some like us can count a good few years and one very special couple were celebrating their marriage in 1940. I am not sure Geordie and I will quite achieve that, although I suppose I could always mummify him to aid preservation , quite appropriate really given his Egyptian heritage from his great grandfather’s association with Tutankhamun!