As I have often described, driving through the Park gates, past tall hedges, under the branches of a copper beech trees, and into the broad grass verged park, I always feel I am entering a different world. One which offers moments of peace, of views and of time to stand and stare and I hope that is what many visitors and guests feel as they arrive here too.
Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is that every part of this journey requires maintenance from the roads (we have 9 miles), to the fences (many, many miles), to the trees, the parkland, ditches and all that before you have even arrived at the Castle and so January, along with all the resolutions to lose weight and get fitter, is peak maintenance and repair time.
The Castle, the follies, and the land are, as the English expression goes, a bit like the “Forth Road Bridge” The latter is one the longest suspension bridges, built in 1964 to replace the ferry services which had operated for at least 800 years before that. It spans the Firth of Forth, connecting Edinburgh to the northern shores. The tradition is that you start painting at one end and, by the time you get to the other end, you would be starting again at the beginning. Thus, for example, at Highclere, by the time the windows on the one side of the Castle have been painted, Pat and her team are working their way round to ones they painted fifteen years ago or even longer.
When Geordie and I took on our “life tenancy” at Highclere after his father died, we firstly tackled the roof (2003 and 2006/7), then the plumbing, electrics and cellars. We are nowhere near the end, but have built up some pace.
The final flourish and fun part of each project is the painting and choosing the colours, the sense of warmth, space, grandeur and cosiness. The pace of restoration was quite intense to begin with but now proceeds at a slightly gentler pace and with the experience of the last 16 or 17 years – one step after another.
Nevertheless there is rarely a day when Diana our housekeeper does not mention something in passing: a rug now frayed and too fragile, a chipped door, a broken frame or a suspicion of a damp area with discolouration. The last comment is the one to pick up on urgently and, whatever else is on the agenda at that time, we are to be found peering out of various windows to locate a possible source of the damp, standing outside looking up (that will be John the Castle Manager) and clambering up through various roof hatches to see if any gutter looks blocked (not John). Depending on our analysis, my little black book for roofers or plumbers will be on stand by.
Diana, ever smiling, always charming, often worrying too much, is our own Mrs Hughes, helped by Sheena and Genevieve. Following six years of ‘Downton Abbey’, I suspect that many viewers would love a Mrs Hughes – calm, dependable, upright and kind, the Mary Poppins of the housekeeping world. Diana and her team have a plan every day and have an intimate knowledge of all the furniture, clocks, carpets, carvings, shutters, marble statues and china. They care for the details which make the whole always look beautiful and loved.
Occasionally I am assistant housekeeper, although sometimes I catch Diana’s face which tells me I am clearly not helping. Sometimes, late in the evening, to help the banqueting team tidy up, I claim a hoover. In order to make it interesting I hoover in patterns, figures of eight and imaginary shapes on the floor, moving at speed or slowing down, a sort of sweeping hoovering. I am just trying to pick up the worst before Diana arrives in the morning as I do not want her to be upset by too much mess, as she loves the Castle so much.
The experience and knowledge that come through experience and attention to detail is incalculable. Highclere is “the Forth Road Bridge” but that is just fine. After all it is the journey that matters, not necessarily the end point and, like the Forth Road Bridge, we just hope for “Guide Passage”.