The Castle sits in the centre of its world, surrounded on all side by rolling parkland studded with ancient spreading trees; the setting built partly by man and partly by nature, each working in harmony with the other. Every evening it settles down, sinking into the lengthening shadows and darkness of the encroaching night. To quote Homer “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
We are lucky. Here there are far fewer lights punctuating the darkness than in the neighbouring towns and villages but still more than would have been even 100 years ago. We don’t have street lighting but there are houses on the estate marked by sparks of escaping gleams, the odd car headlight and planes overhead. Our language separates the two halves of our life, the day and the night, but I rather think we have muddled the reality by being able to introduce so much light at night and that we are in danger of losing the cycles of the day and night which were innate to our parents and ancestors.
A lack of darkness is undoubtedly not good for us, just as a lack of daylight is not. Our bodies respond to the unseen signals of light and dark, to be active and to rest, to sleep and recover energy and calm to undertake another day. Night signals a time to sleep, something which we often regard today almost as a waste of time although it isn’t.
We need sleep to restore our memory, to knit our thoughts together and to help us function well during the day, to not be bad tempered and impatient. Apparently good sleep can also help to ward off depression and might even help keep illness at bay by protecting our immune systems. If I had a problem, and could not sort out what I should be doing, my mother always cheerfully suggested I sleep on it – if I let it float around my head during the night, it would sort it itself out. Irritatingly, she was often right.
Shakespeare often explored sleep and the lack of it in his plays. It was regarded as a somewhat precarious state, closely tied to safety and security but also that it quieted the senses and improved the digestion.
O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse
Allied to this was dreaming, an entire subject in itself and the source of perhaps one of his most famous quotes: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep’, though here, of course, sleep is a euphemism for death – perhaps a reason we seem to be so fearful of the night.
For most people taking off the day and preparing to sleep is a well-worn ritual: climbing into bed, picking up a book or a puzzle or reading stories to children, mothers singing lullabies, repeating cradle songs, just leaving a muted light until your children are fast asleep.
I would always sit and read a story, watching my little son nod off, and promise, as my mother did before me, to return in ten minutes to see if he was asleep – he always was. Later it is my turn, a side light creating a muted pool of light by which to read before turning over into the peace and rest of darkness.
Falling asleep in the Castle is a gift; the large cool rooms enclosed by ancient hinged, linenfold wooden shutters in front of which thickly lined curtains ensure a cosily darkened bedroom.
The next morning, waking up, there is the wonder of what the view and day holds, pulling back the shutters a little to enjoy a few idle moments. The views never disappoint, whether it is a clear autumn day, or one with fog shrouding and swirling around.
I once read in a newspaper article that it was the dream of many to stay at Highclere but, whilst we offer tours, it remains very much our home and you cannot “buy” a stay. We have, however, twice offered such an opportunity to help raise money for charities we feel particularly strongly about. Now, working with Airbnb, we have decided to welcome two guests on November 26th 2019 and to celebrate this special offering, Airbnb will be making a donation to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey, is above all a home and staying here will give two guests this experience whilst helping others. If you follow Irish advice, if you have a good laugh and then a long sleep, it will cure most things.