The last time I sat down for supper with friends in this room was early March 2020. Thankfully, none of us were ill in the following month and perhaps it was just as well none of us really knew what was on the horizon. Looking back, it was such a happy evening, catching up on news, laughing and enjoying food and conversation. Such evenings are the highlight amidst the work and business life of Highclere.
Such an evening now exists only in my imagination so I have been entertaining myself with the game of who I would like to have supper with. It could be anyone from anytime, the only proviso being that they needed to have visited here in reality.
I think my first guest would be Bishop William of Wykeham who built a palace here at Highclere around 1370/1380. Probably an obscure figure to most these days, his story was the archetypal rags to riches. Born in Hampshire in 1324 to a yeoman family, he went on to become architect to King Edward III, rebuilding Windsor Castle amongst other royal residences. A talented administrator, he was promoted to Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of the Exchequer, beginning a school in Winchester (now Winchester College) to educate the poorest and providing a college for further education at Oxford University for them.
He survived not only the plague which swept through Europe including England several times but also the politics of the last years of Edward III and then his successor Richard II. From all I have read he was much admired and took practical steps to help the poorest. I imagine him as having a slow deep voice, a ready smile and the ability to inspire me with peace and hope. I would like to ask him to firstly to say grace and then what drew him to Highclere in the first place. He clearly enjoyed living here, creating gardens and beautiful rooms, collecting books, and saying prayers in the vaulted hall before dinner.
My second guest would be Lancelot “Capability” Brown, arriving at speed by uncomfortable coach, feeling harassed and tired but looking forward to a warm fire and bed. The next day he would be ready after breakfast to meet his client to ride round and understand the topography and the potential for Highclere. I would much enjoy listening to his views of the fields and woods, the enthusiastic possibilities and his schemes. I suspect he was not only a rather good salesman as he shared his expansive ideas but also a successful and canny businessman. He was certainly not inexpensive. At the height of his skills and experience, I am sure I could learn so much from him even if the enormous scale of his projects might make me feel a little overwhelmed.
Mrs Eleanor Coade was an 18th century British business woman who created a unique manufacturing process to make decorative statues and architectural decorations. She became the overwhelmingly successful producer of stone products of her time. Just look at St Georges Chapel, Windsor, the Royal Naval College at Greenwich or the Royal Pavilion at Brighton as well as the new entrance to Highclere park built in 1793. She guarded the copyright to her process so fiercely that reproductions are still guesswork to today. She was outstanding at building relationships and I would love to find out how she created the decorations, without of course prying into her secrets.
Still contemplating my figurative guest list, I asked Geordie whom he would like to invite and he said his grandmother Catherine. She was much loved and adored by her son and the kindest lady who stood in such beauty and excitement on the steps of St Margaret’s, Westminster on the day of her marriage in 1922 yet lived through so much, and felt such sadness, as her life unfolded. There were many moments of happiness too and she loved a good party and was a great dancer. Immensely popular with everyone, even the staff at Highclere called her “the good lady”. He would love to listen to her stories and get to know her better and, like her, my husband is one of the kindest and most gentle of men and a good dancer.
We all need a good party and Elvira de la Fuente, a double agent by trade and a regular visitor here during the Second World War, was the ultimate sophisticated guest. I suspect she smoked, I gather she was partial to cocktails (I do hope gin cocktails) and bridge which I rather like although I suspect she played it better than I do. Well dressed and fluent in a number of languages, who would not like hearing her stories and adventures from her mad London life in the 1930’s. I would guess that as agent Bronx she was given to sudden disappearances so her presence might not be guaranteed.
Geordie’s grandfather knew Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond) and used to stay with him in Jamaica or, I imagine, ask him back here to play golf together. In order to help himself win, Geordie’s grandfather used to keep an extra ball in his pocket to roll down his trouser leg to improve his position as needed which irked so much Ian Fleming that he put it into his book Goldfinger in revenge. Ian Fleming was partial to gin and martinis so perfect in spirit for Highclere’s new gin.
I think they would all get on very well and it would be a most amusing evening !!