The archive room lies on the top floor of the Castle, two floors above the study in which, when I have time or a deadline, I sit and write. Given it is high up, it has outstanding views and it is an amazing room, lined in embossed, painted, gilded leather like the Saloon. When I first came to the Castle there was no power on that floor: no lights, no heating and certainly no internet. Thus I would work on my laptop using the natural light from the windows until it was too dim to see properly. Then I would run back downstairs to my study to continue my writing.
To my immense pleasure, I have now completed the rewiring of this room and even installed a small heater. All in all it makes research and writing much easier and certainly much more pleasant. Opposite the great old desk, piled high with boxes and papers, there are glass cupboards full of brown and blue boxes which, to my mind, are full of treasure. The first first book I had published “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” was written from letters in some of those boxes. Amongst them are several hundred thank you letters written to the 5th Countess from her patients and their families whose lives she helped save during the time when Highclere was a proper working hospital in the First World War.
Sitting reading these extraordinary letters, I often had tears streaming down my face. Fortunately for me, after the war ended, she also sent presents to the surgeons whose skills she called upon and they too wrote to say thank you. Thus I could begin to piece the stories of various individuals together.
Almina was a woman who found a vocation and, undaunted, followed it. Many other women during these war years stood up and were counted, valued as part of the economy whilst their employment moved beyond traditional roles. Almina made her own decisions and forged her own path, albeit one that was underwritten financially by her father and her husband. Her organisation, drive and compassion along with that of the team who worked here with her, the names from the estate listed on the Roll of Honour, all testify to the contribution made during those harrowing years.
2018 marks one hundred years since that war shuddered to a halt, changing the structure and vision of European cultures and governments. For all the study of history, for all the knowledge of the pointlessness, wars and suffering continue to afflict so many today. Given it is a centenary, Highclere is creating a weekend, if one of a different nature from that intended by Maggie Smith as Lady Grantham’s crisp aside of “what is a weekend” in “Downton Abbey”.
In September, Heroes at Highclere seeks to bring people from many countries together, through entertainment, love of cars, vintage planes, dancing, afternoon tea and football in front of the Castle. We will recreate an operating theatre in the Castle and a First World War field hospital with mule and horse next door. There will be speakers, tents, choirs, fairground rides and costumes on display plus, of course, the obligatory fancy dress competitions.
On the Sunday (September 9th) I hope people will join us as we remember a later story of the airmen who crashed and died here at Highclere in The Second World War. We have been quietly finding their names and stories, and thus we can inscribe their names on a memorial to unveil on that day. Some of their relatives have made contact and I hope will join us too. It will be a weekend to say thank you to those who served and those who saved one hundred years ago but also to raise money for those who do the same today.
A number of charities have already joined us – I hope more will. Above all I wonder if I could ask those of you who read this blog to help: to spread the news to help sell tickets, or help with any sponsorship. It is just us here organising it, a few great girls in an office and two extraordinary volunteer ex-Concorde and RAF men. Unless mummified, I will not be here in another hundred years so I thought it would be good to do something now.