During the time of the 5th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, which is the real era in which the fictional story of Downton Abbey began, guests may have been welcomed into the Castle by one of three people, depending on their importance and the time of day. The butler and the under butler are well known characters but there was also the House Steward.
The house steward was the most senior member of the household staff and employed by only the wealthiest of families. He, and it was always a man, was responsible for the smooth running of the household, engaging, dismissing and disciplining lower servants and controlling the main household accounts and was in many ways a hangover from medieval times. Effectively, they were the guardians of the house and the name and meaning goes back to the root of the word: “stig” meaning hall and “weard” meaning to protect.
In today’s world, most of the traditional “downstairs” roles have changed and evolved into careers and jobs. The concept of “stewardship” however has never been more important but is now primarily connected to the owners of such properties. It is the core responsibility of Geordie and myself: our role at Highclere is that we are simply looking after the Castle and its landscape during our lifetime, working to understand, serve and share.
The castle itself is just one part of this stewardship. The wider estate includes ornamental gardens, orchards, vegetable gardens, fields, farms, woodlands and downland. In our time, we have re-planted gardens to grow vegetables, fruit and vines, put in new specimen trees and planted copses. The fields which we farm have records going back 500 years.
We grow food and farm sheep whilst leaving space for beetles, birds and wildlife, trees to decompose as they fall, rough areas for small wildlife, field margins, wildflower borders and stubble for endangered birds such as curlews. It is a landscape of time and space and our role is to tread lightly. The sheep graze the downlands, our pigs live in outside fields and we put down feed for the wild birds through the winter.
Some of what we have done has been created and supported by various Stewardship schemes over the past decades and I think they have worked well and should be augmented. The wild flowers, wild bird support, beetles, downland and chalkland conservation are invaluable to the preservation of the landscape and nature.
There is a growing understanding and impetus towards conservation and preservation in most countries now but we are still at war with ourselves over the cost of such things versus cheap food and consumerism. Our predecessors had fewer choices and, somewhat ironically, were therefore much “greener”. They grew food and cooked it rather than manufacturing and packaging it. Whether we are carnivorous, vegetarian or vegan, it is our “addiction” to modern food processing which is a large part of the issue. The refusal to eat misshapen vegetables, the insistence on food out of season and the miles travelled for global choices to be available is, in many ways, the heart of the problem.
This weekend I found myself watching the Netflix film “Don’t look up” which is a parody but nevertheless a little too close to home for comfort. Our never ending “need” for finite natural resources, our ever-expanding populations and the understandable desire in each of us to have what everyone else has, fostered by nonstop advertising campaigns, is fundamentally incompatible with our growing knowledge of the damage we are causing.
Back here at Highclere we do our best to balance the practicalities and realities of life with the desire to pass on this magical world in the best condition that we can. We try to grow food in a way that also offers space and deference to those we share this world with and to “steward” it safely into the future.
This summer, when the weather improves and the landscape comes into its own green splendour, I thought it might be interesting organise some tours exploring the wider landscape here, looking at the beauty of the plants and trees and the ancient views of fields, downland and barrow. Watch this space!