The chapel at Highclere

Tomorrow, February 2nd,  is Candlemas though perhaps fewer people than in the past will remember either the date or what it signifies. 


This was the traditional time that candles were lit to symbolise the hope of spring: a day to mark leaving the darkness of winter behind to enter a lighter month. Metaphorically, it also symbolises a holy illumination of the spirit of truth, which would also be most useful in this current year.


The word candle comes from the word to shine and candles radiate thoughts of romance, security, warmth and the comfort of light. Similarly, out in gardens and churchyards snowdrops, those resolute little white bells of flowers, are associated with the coming of spring. They are nature’s counterpart to the candles lighting up homes.  


Mahonia Japonica

In a whirling and rather discordant time, these small flowers both bring a smile and offer focus. Nor are they alone as they break through the earth. Hellebores, also known as Lenten or Christmas roses, flower from late winter until spring and are both frost resistant and evergreen. Winter Viburnums, an evergreen shrub, add shape and form to the border in the garden or in woodland as well as perfume.


Behind the statue of Charlemagne in the Secret Garden are a mass of large architectural shrubs – Mahonia Japonica. Much of the year they are just a backdrop, large and bushy with bright green prickly leaves, but at this time of year they have fragrant lemon yellow flowers which are produced in pendulous racemes. You catch the scent on the air and walk in circles until you find the source. On a different scale, delicately wound round fences, the small cream bells of winter clematis ignore all weather warnings whilst bright yellow winter jasmine adds a pop of colour to a wall. It is strange how so many of these early spring flowers, harbingers of light and warmth, are either white or yellow, light and sunshine. 


The white border yesterday

Around these glad tidings, the main effort in the garden at this time of year is on the practical work of preparing for spring and summer: digging, mulching, pruning, planting and moving. Just as Paul and his team work in the garden, so the Castle team are working with me to plan and prepare for our tours and events for the next eighteen months. 


A crystal ball would of course be most useful but instead, like Agatha Christie’s character Poirot, we have to apply our little grey cells and gather up our optimism. Caution is our byword: keep the numbers of visitors lower, offer space inside and out and continue as we did last summer. All our sanitisers will remain in place, masks will be worn inside and social distancing maintained and we will hopefully offer moments to enjoy and relax away from the stresses of our other lives. 


Picnic afternoon tea -perfect for rugs or tables..

Our calendar and tours must remain adaptable … nevertheless I think we will plan for an outside classical concert in June – not too many people sitting, scattered at tables in front of a temple, enjoying picnic afternoon teas following a tour. We had hoped to do this last June and sadly were not able to but I would like to honour our commitment to the young students of the Royal Academy of Music – they need goals too. Then, beyond the usual  calendar of public opening, later in September, the Magic of the Movies, which is just fun.


Like many others, we also hope we can contribute back as well whether by offering days out to NHS staff like last year or family days out for those who don’t have their own outside spaces. It is all a balance. 


Perhaps we need more distance – we think takeaway food will remain but what is certain is that we all need a new experience, a horizon, something to look forward to to stimulate our hopes and imaginations. Just like a snowdrop, a symbol of positivity, we need something as well.