Walking down the hill away from the Castle, past a rather muddy pond (a favourite place of the dogs), you can then turn left into an old, brick walled, slightly forgotten, farm yard. Directly ahead there is an unobtrusive wooden door which gives no hint as to what lies behind it.
Push open the creaky heavy door and you step into another world. A huge expanse of what was once a hardworking, ordered kitchen garden full of texture and colour. To the left and right stretch mellowed brick walls some 10ft high, giving shelter from prevailing winds. A couple of hundred years ago bricks were the most prized building material, expensive and labour intensive to make, until the mass production of the later mid nineteenth century.
They retain the warmth of the sun whilst the lime mortar holds the nails that supported the wire against which espaliered trees could be trained. In fact, a tree belt was planted beyond the walls to act as a further windbreak to help give extra shelter. A few gates and doors of assorted shapes and sizes are set at various points in the walls to give access, whilst a frost gate at the centre of the lowest wall leads into an ancient orchard.
Old walled gardens gave protection from predators, created a sort of micro climate in which to grow more tender plants and tended to face south and west, often on sloping ground just as the one here does.
The original and oldest walled garden here lies much closer to the Castle and now welcomes visitors with mulberries, crab apples and flower beds. However, in 1771 Capability Brown marked out an area for a new walled garden, extending to some four acres, in his plan for the park here and it is this one which had lost its role. It had a central axis of paths dividing the garden into four quadrants, is adjacent to where there was the old dairy yard and hay ricks to ensure a ready supply of manure and had a series of pipes laid to allow for plenty of water.
Within this space, the head gardener and his team used to grow outstanding vegetables and the best fruit. Crop rotations would have been diligently followed to prevent the build up of pests, legumes followed by alliums, roots, tubers followed by brassica. Behind the garden were outbuildings and storage sheds.
The First World War depended on huge quantities of imported food which continued to supply the UK in 1920’s. Thus the necessity for a walled garden began to wane and, apart from a brief resurgence during World War Two, continued to decline until often, as it was here, they were abandoned altogether.
We have been looking for a new role for this space for some time whilst in the meantime quietly clearing the walls and turning the soil, working around the paths. It now has one: we have planted a vineyard. It has taken the last two years to test the soil, consider the temperatures and consult an expert. As a result, Chardonnay grapes are planted in the top two quadrants and Pinot Noir in the lower two so that, hopefully, we will be able to pick and make a delicious sparkling wine in years to come. Around the walls I can plant again espalier pear trees and roses, lavender underneath which we can then pick for the Highclere Castle Gin. All in all a spiritual journey.
These are the first steps in what I hope will be a new life within these walls. I always loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book “The Secret Garden” and the magic of that hidden space: “It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place anyone could imagine” and I’m hoping that we are creating just such a different magical world here.