Imagine sitting in a horse-drawn carriage, listening to the steady balanced clop of the horses’ hooves as you turn into the entrance to the Park at Highclere. The carriage, jogging along through a mass of dark green rhododendrons that effectively hems in any view, suddenly rounds a bend in the drive to catch sight of a much wider landscape of distant follies, wood studded hills and grazing sheep. After a few minutes, it might be possible to glimpse the sharply drawn silhouette of the Castle tower and the edge of the roof spires.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Highclere’s Park led guests into a world apart and in the same way, today, I hope it is an Arcadian setting and journey to a spectacular home, one that offers time, space and peace to let visitors rest, look, listen and enjoy.
One of the many authors who have stayed at Highclere was Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. This book was an immediate success and remains much loved. It worked on various levels, both as a children’s story and a political commentary on his time. Political challenges still disturb our material and emotional equilibrium, now as then. Pondering this as I travelled home by train a few days ago and, with many apologies to Lewis Carroll, I wrote about afternoon tea:
“A long white clothed table was set for tea under an ancient tree in the midst of the old lands. Every guest had a chair of a different size according to age. The March Hare sat at the top, which could be the bottom, where he could be mad as a March hare. There were bundles of herbs and flowers in vases and white napkins on pretty china, huge silver and china teapots and a large feast of cakes, sandwiches and scones with all with different sorts of jam.
Alice arrived late because she had said she did not want her invitation, and therefore did not read it. The March Hare shook his long grey ears and his whiskers and grumbled “what did your parents teach you? That is not the way to deal with an invitation”. Alice sat down and then tried to cheer everyone up: “I know a good game, which some of my family like to play. It’s called musical chairs”. She smiled happily and stood up and took her own chair away first, so that when the music never started, and therefore could not stop, Alice had no chair. The Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse and Caterpillar ignored her and carried on talking.
Standing alone, she told the March Hare and all his friends that their conduct was uncivil. He had just tasted a mouthful of the softest sponge cake “Delicious!” he said and added that it had been uncivil of her not to answer. “But I am here now and I think tea and sandwiches, cake and jam are very important to the afternoon, and to me,” said Alice leaning back by the tree. “I like sharing them so why can’t I have tea with you?”
“Only people who sit down can have tea” said the Hatter. “Before you began to arrive late, you made excellent scones which we all shared, in our gardens and our sunshine. We shared our friends and we shared our formulas and recipes,which helped make friends”
“Friends aren’t from formulas” said Alice, “they are much more than numbers!”
The Mad Hatter replied “ they are imaginary and irrational just like numbers. No question. If you try to lead life without any numbers, you have a conundrum!” Alice asked what a conundrum was. The Dormouse suddenly woke up “It is all about drums and loud noises and cons who can’t add” before he fell asleep again, his head on his sandwiches.
Alice said “I don’t understand, you are talking in riddles. Mad Hatter, please may I see what is in your hat? I can see long soft ears. Is that a White Rabbit in your hat ?” The Mad Hatter looked up and then looked down at his cake. “My Hat”. Alice was not sure what to do.
The Tea party sat in silence until the time for March because time had gone missing.