During Castle open days, Paul (MacTaggart) is usually to be found in Visitor Reception, swiping barcodes and selling tickets. At other times, at any time of the day, he is also to be found taking photographs of the beauty and detail of the Castle from the moment it wakes up to the moment it goes to sleep. In many ways, Highclere has become part of his DNA.
The story of how and why I met Paul originally is something of a tale. I was just trying to finish a book which told the story of the family and characters who lived here at Highclere during the 1920s, 1930s and through to the end of the Second World War, when I fell to chatting with Eddie our Head Keeper. He asked if I knew about the B-17 that had crashed here during WW2?
Amazed, and feeling somewhat aghast, I replied I had no idea. He had been told by his predecessor (Eddie has only been here for 60 years) that, towards the end of the war, a large, very noisy, plane had flown low over the Castle in murky May weather, circled twice, presumably examining their maps looking for an indication of the direction towards the US Greenham Common Airbase, before flying on southwards through the fog and rain into the only high escarpment : Siddown Hill. It tried to pull up and nearly made it , but caught the trees, failed and exploded into a ball of fire cascading down the hillside.
It became the epilogue to my book “Lady Catherine” just before I handed it in to the publishers. It also became however the start of another journey researching the lives and families of the young men on the plane.
I needed help to find out what had happened and turned to a marvellous man often found in his own flying machine, Steve, who flew Concorde amongst other accolades professionally and is now a pilot of vintage planes and part of the Tiger Nine Display team. He told me he had a friend who was an experienced metal detector, whom he knew from a pub called the Flower Pots. This friend turned out to be Paul who, ironically, doesn’t drink. From these beginnings, the plot developed to find not just the story of the B-17, but also a P-38, two Mosquitos, a Lysander, a Whitworth Whitley and a Proctor.
Steve, Paul and I have spent hours clambering through the undergrowth looking for signs of charred trees, asking the keepers for their long recalled, handed down memories. It was completely by chance that we found the approximate place to look for the Whitworth Whitley. Following a storm, a fallen tree limb was found to have a large jagged piece of metal wedged deeply in all the way through the bark to the sapwood. Terry the keeper thought it might be part of a plane.
All these planes crashed by accident, through tragic bad luck or pure mischance. Nevertheless the chances of disaster happening in action in WW2 was very high: forty-four per cent of the bombers flown were brought down and the survival rate for Lysanders was even worse. To quote the Irish poet W. B. Yeats:
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love.
Each of the planes builds the story of how we all lived and fought during those six years of war. The airmen’s courage was celebrated through films such as the “Dambusters”, “Reach for the Sky”, “The Battle of Britain”, “Mosquito Squadron” and “Memphis Belle”.
Our cedar wood airman statue carved in situ here at the Castle is our way of saying their names whilst the silvered plaques recall these sons, grandsons, brothers, uncles, fathers…
Emily, who organises the logistics of public opening and teams with us, suggested that Paul go down to the cedar airmen at 11am, 1pm or 3pm each a day to share the stories of these planes with our visitors. We have not yet signposted where our cedar man stands turning round to say goodbye to those who sit or stand behind him. Nevertheless Paul marches in good time along the gravel path to find visitors gathered there. He takes a few display boards, the compass from the Proctor, or other small plane parts although the majority of the twisted mass of the plane remains are stored in the farm barns. Paul has such tremendous enthusiasm and passion for the journey we have shared and, with all the teams’ help, we will turn again to think what we can do for VE day next year, to mark the date 75 years ago that the B-17 crashed on May 5th1945.
“In balance with this life, this death” (the last line of “To an Airman” by W.B. Yeats).