Christmas at Highclere starts in November when Lauren, who runs public opening with Sarah, orders the Christmas trees: 20 for the drive, another eight for the courtyard, two more for the front door and the big tree for the Saloon. By the end, sitting at her desk, her head is buried in her hands, caught between all the advice and laughter.
The trees arrive, are dried out and checked at the farm and then brought up to the Castle. Paul, the gardener, and his team plant most of them in half barrels and distribute them in the appropriate places. Then the main tree is carried into the Saloon from the back of the farm trailer and John G, the Castle Manager, keeps up a running commentary about its length. It is supposed to be between 18ft and 22ft but this tree arrived 32ft long: it was trimmed!
Sally from the gift shop is in charge of the theme and the decorating. This year has a Victorian feel with reds and greens and swags of matte gold beads. It takes most of the day to complete whilst Sally’s Christmas elves bustle around the Castle putting up decorations on the stairs and the mantelpiece in the dining room. The decorations are brought down from the Tower, the days are never long enough and the Castle seems rather large as everyone runs around…
For perhaps 15 years now we have held a Christmas Fair in aid of the Thames Valley Air Ambulance. Stallholders arrive on the Tuesday to set up both in and around the Castle and the fair runs on the Wednesday and Thursday. It is a lovely event and we have extended it into the Wednesday evening. This year, a charming visitor, studying opera at the Royal Academy of Music, gave an impromptu performance by the Christmas Tree.
Friday was a festive shopping afternoon with mulled wine for those who wished to collect hampers, or buy gifts, before we opened again to the public on the Saturday with the same programme of events for Monday.
Sunday, however, was a day with a difference when guests gathered together to “Sing for Peace” in aid of OXFAM. It was wintry and rainy but we carried on. John, Luis and I did have to climb the Tower (arguing about who was least fit as we paused for breath) to take the flag down as it was whipping around the Castle pinnacles in the wind.
In fact, rather appropriately, we gathered in the courtyard outside the stables, whilst the pianist sheltered and played inside the stables. She was next to a couple of horses with mangers full of hay. Christmas is after all essentially a story about refugees, and OXFAM is one of the charities offering help to those living in weather such as we were experiencing, but without the warm house into which we walked, with piping bowls of soup and hot food waiting for us in the tearooms.
Monday morning and it is snowing – the gardeners are out gritting, Sally is making coffee for early arrivals in the gift shop and John the Manager is rightly worried about potholes and puddles and how to get the cars out of the car park. Margery, the school liaison lady, was spotted in the Courtyard trying to help him tie his waterproof trousers to his jacket, with the tea room staff acting as helpful bystanders. In fact, he is working so hard today that, following his plaintive complaint on the Mary Berry television programme that he was never included in the fish and chip run, he hopes he might get a special treat.