The days are now very short and the weather sometimes saps even my optimism. Looking out today at the thick clouds, the driving rain is coming in at an angle that ensures it finds its way into the corners of collars you were convinced were warm and dry despite best efforts to dress for the weather. John Gundill, our incorrigible castle manager, has for years arrived at work with a well-stocked car boot complete with spare waterproofs, jackets and socks, wellies, a spade and a hammer. In fact, all the necessary items for several changes of clothes and a job that can involve lifting drain plates or freeing pipes. He also has his own drying system hidden by the castle boiler with a washing line strung up ready and waiting.

The weather impacts every day. What we wear, what tasks we choose to do or put off, what we should do to anticipate its effects and what we can create given its vagaries. Everyone here has their favourite weather stations and we all tend to cherry pick through them to find the most optimistic one, apart from John who likes to plan for the worst.

As in all things, planning and preparing, double checking and then going over it again means that whilst challenges will still arise, you should be able to deal with them. Highclere does present novel tests where we have to think outside the box, much of it is derived from the weather, the size of the building and the natural course of events which can happen on an estate like this. Yet we cannot see the wind and cannot always read the skies.

The comfort is that, in many ways it has all happened before and there is a season to everything. At the same time, it is worth noting the natural lore in which our predecessors were well versed. “The sharper the blast the sooner it will pass” may well have some truth as, for example, a storm builds stronger and moves faster than a steady rain shower which often seems to hang around for ages. This is a more useful saying at this time of year whereas “red sky at night shepherds delight, red sky in the morning shepherds warning” is one to go with in summer months.

Nanny always goes by whether her knee is aching to predict bad weather which may or may not have something to do with changes in barometric pressure or simply too much gin. Equally doors can be stickier in damp weather. Recently it has been wet first thing in the morning – my cue to have another cup of tea in bed – before improving later: “Rain before seven, clear before eleven.”

In spring time, I find myself most anxious to keep checking:

“Ash before Oak
You are in for a soak
Oak before ash
You are in for a splash”

Sadly, these days the first thing you have to do is find an Ash tree as they  have been the subject of a terrible disease here in the UK. Luckily, we do still have some healthy ones here and last year the oaks did bud first. Is it superstition or useful pointers? As with so many things sometimes there is a grain of science in such sayings and some are merely superstitions. I’m not sure, for example, whether I would set much store by the advice to be wary of full moons which bring chaos or to ensure continued good looks by carrying an acorn with me at all times.

There are many traditions and superstitions associated with the New Year and perhaps this New Year above all others we should plan to try to welcome 2021 in as propitiously as possible. Firstly, plan ahead and make sure your pre–New Year’s Eve shop includes a bunch of grapes, some herrings, a lump of coal, some bread and some whiskey, whilst ensuring that you still have some loose change as you will need a coin. In addition, those living in Denmark should save up some old plates to throw at their friends’ and family’s houses to wish the recipients good luck in the year to come.

On the day itself, just before midnight, you must open both the front and back doors in order to welcome the new year in and let the old year out and kiss someone you love as the clock strikes midnight, pausing only to check the latest Covid guidelines of course. This will ensure that the love continues for the next 12 months.

Then you could follow the Spanish suggestion and eat 12 grapes at midnight—one for every month of the coming year, remembering not to cry as that would set a bad precedent. Also make a loud noise at midnight, fireworks are a good idea, as apparently this will scare away evil spirits and bad omens, but again, this year, your options may be limited to a couple of fizzy fireworks in a garden

Moving on, pause briefly to eat some herring, either pickled or fresh, to bring good luck according to the Germans and Scandinavians. However,  please be very careful not to eat chicken as that will make your luck fly away.

In fact, it’s going to be an extraordinarily busy midnight as, in Yorkshire tradition just before the clock strikes you should say “black rabbits, black rabbits, black rabbits”, and then, as the it chimes 12, say “white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits”, presumably either side of eating the grapes and herring. John our Castle Manager is from Yorkshire so may be busy trying to say rabbit with his family in unison whilst drinking whiskey and opening doors…..

In Scotland, Hogmanay is a much-loved celebration with its own superstition of “first-footing”. The first person to enter a household in the New Year is considered to foretell its fortunes so a bit of forward planning is vital here. A “lucky” first-footer is a dark-haired male who arrives bearing a coin, lump of coal, piece of bread and a drink ie whisky, symbolising financial prosperity, warmth, food and good cheer. No blondes allowed.

In the end, of all the qualities to treasure, one of the most important is hope.  It is an extraordinary facet of human beings that there is a remarkable optimism amongst most people, whatever is thrown at us:

“No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again.” Buddha

If T S Eliot is most famous for poems such the Wasteland which is certainly one aspect of this last year, he also is the author of the belief that:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice”

May I take this opportunity to wish you a very happy and safe New Year from all of us at Highclere and best wishes for 2021.