I have just returned from a beautiful historic house built on a hill in Farmington, Connecticut to our own home, Highclere, built on an even larger hill. It was incredibly busy at Hill-stead with teas, talks, lunches, gala dinners and various interviews for press or PBS.
Additional requests for a few words over dinners always make me pause because I end up thinking about what is at the heart of the event. Hill-Stead is a gem, a house designed by an architect who was a woman, around an outstanding art collection. She was a contemporary of Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, an indomitable woman who lived here at Highclere and who, again unusually, found a vocation in the era before the First World War in that she set up hospitals both here and later on in London.
The art at Hill-stead was collected by one man and reflects his personal taste at that moment in time. What is so fascinating is he met Monet and there are diaries that record the meetings. So Hill-stead is a home and the art hung on its walls is for a personal appreciation rather than just a museum. There it is to remain.
Again like Highclere, Hill-stead is set in a park, this one designed by Theodate Pope Riddell. A source of much pleasure for walkers, families and joggers alike, parks, like houses, also need maintenance. This past week at Hill-Stead was to celebrate this historic house and grounds and to raise much needed funds as it does not have an endowment. Other “health” or “fashionable” charitable causes may be easier to raise money for, yet the benefits of walking, picnicking, running and being out with the family helps in other, more subtle, ways. Such activities help maintain body and spirit and give a sense of belonging, of being grounded. It is of huge benefit and so, like Highclere, I hope Hill-stead will be there for future generations to enjoy.
Highclere’s park is far larger than that at Hill-stead, which is both good and bad. Here there are more roads, fences and verges to maintain (the bad bit) but its size also enables it to make more economic sense as a business (more sheep or park events).
An additional advantage we enjoy is that Highclere’s hill rises well above the surrounding countryside thus providing not only a spectacular view for miles around and an excellent spot for kite flying but also very useful for deep chalk water wells. In addition, because it was so windy, in medieval times the monks who lived here began a tile business. This not only ensured a constant supply for Highclere’s roofs but, because the surplus was sold, paid for them as well. Sadly this is no longer viable and today the remains of the tile kilns lie under pasture to the north west of the Castle. Now we have to buy in tiles, all of which usually need to be specially sourced, and in terms of maintenance, ensure we sweep the gutters, gullies and clear hoppers several times a year to keep the replacement costs down.
Today we have swapped the tile business for the TV business and, like picnics and family activities at Hill-stead and Highclere, watching Downton Abbey brings us all together.