To reach the tower, I tend to break it into stages: up a small stone staircase, along the corridor, up the Red Stairs and through a heavy door to reach the first staircase leading up to the landing above the Robing Room. At that point, I am standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the tower door. Usually I am accompanied by a few of the office team and everyone is uncharacteristically quiet as they catch their breath.
The purpose is to discuss “the next step”. The Castle Tower remains a project started with a vision of what needs to be done but it has some way to go. Like everything at Highclere, it takes time but that is no bad thing. This lower area has been redecorated with a huge lantern and wall lights set against a specially coloured hand blocked wall paper. The carpet is new and the windows have been mended.
We all walk up the stairs and pause, knocking loudly on the door before unlocking it in order to let the resident ghost know, out of courtesy, that we are here and planning to explore and climb further. It gives him warning and we hope he will kindly not be present.
I love this stage of a project: the stairs and rooms are clean, waiting for their next life. I know what I want to do but other things take priority at the moment. It is a sense of excitement and curiosity that encourage those with me to keep climbing. The stairs wind round until we reach a large empty room which fascinates me because I wonder what it was used for. There was clearly once a huge painting in the alcove but who came up here?
Going up again, there is another similar room with tiny little rooms off each corner before the stairs narrow and we finally climb up to the next door and thence to the roof. From here you can look for miles north, south, east and west. Looking down onto the tops of the cedar trees make me feel very small and humble and Beacon Hill and the Iron Age fort are clearly visible 2 or 3 miles to the south east.
A small tower in the corner leads to the access to bring the flag up and down whilst another small lead roof slants at an angle to one side. Crouching down beside it my fingers trace the names etched into it. I recognize some of them from the ledger book of “below stairs” 120 years ago but can also see names of those who work here today. Recently, I found a photograph which shows some of the nursing assistants and teachers based here during WW2 standing in this spot. They too wrote their names as they looked out, sometimes windy, always awe inspiring.
It is in places like this at Highclere that I find the layers of time and sense of the past that makes this place so very special.