Early on in World War Two, in the spring of 1940, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon was offered a role in his old cavalry regiment as adjutant to Baron Amherst. The 7th Hussars were stationed in a strategic part of the country at Shorncliffe, near the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent. Originally classed as medically unfit, Lord Carnarvon had struggled to join the war effort so was utterly delighted with his posting and set off in a camouflage painted car with Gibbins his chauffeur, Robert Taylor his valet and Monsieur Pascal his chef.
There was not a huge amount to do but the air raid shelter had a very well stocked bar. To begin with Gibbins and Taylor would try to outwit their curfew and reprovision from Highclere or slip off to see their sweethearts but, as the Battle of France unfolded only 30 miles away across the Channel, the mood became more sombre and everyone fell into line.
One of Churchill’s first acts in office after May 1940, was to get out from behind his desk and inspect the troops. Arriving at Shorncliffe, he growled over the ridiculous location for training a cavalry unit. “You are right next to an aerodrome and if bombs fell, the horses would gallop over the cliffs into the sea.” They were disbanded and Lord Carnarvon went back inland, once again looking for a job.
World War Two was a great leveller in the UK, just as we are facing an indiscriminate leveller today. In our case, the call to action to swathes of people is to stay at home, the key to supporting and protecting the nurses and doctors and associated services. Entire countries, their businesses and life have come to standstill. Highclere is settling quietly, holding its breath, until we can begin to turn the propeller again, albeit slowly.
The team here cannot work remotely (visitors and guests come here) and, as the world crashed, we have retracted into a tiny nucleus around Geordie and myself. As ever, it is about communications and, to begin with, it was overwhelming in both volume and spirit. Despite the spring weather, and like many others, we have been inside, often working late into the night, answering thousands of emails and assisting our IT department as they wrote computer programmes to offer reschedules to much later this year or next year. As that began to work, and the kindest of people stayed with us to transfer, we have begun to work on vouchers where those who are rescheduling holiday plans, perhaps from abroad, can look at the next eighteen months to see when they can plan to tour their beloved “Downton Abbey.” The uncertainty will begin to clear.
The other side of this work is to plan how we can start up again, perhaps keeping our tour numbers small. We are an infinitesimally small part of a large industry: in 2018 the tourism and hospitality business in the UK was estimated at £100 billion, encompassing 127,000 businesses and employing at least 1.6 million people. Like many stately homes, visitor attractions, seaside towns, hotels, bars,pubs and restaurants in the UK, Highclere was about to welcome thousands of visitors for the start of spring. Like others, this is what keeps the roof on and pays the bills.
We buy locally, people come here by train and taxi, they stay in hotels and pubs, eat in cafes and even rent vintage cars for fun! Tourism, hospitality spread threads throughout society from full and part employment to a sense of inner well being for customer, for families. On a busy Spring day when we are open, there might well be towards 100 Highclere team on site. Now, in order to do the most essential work, there are Geordie and I and three part time support team,so this keeps the castle systems ticking over.
Down on the farm, Simon and Tom each sit in a tractor on their own to drill the spring crops, Matt and his team with Clive the sheepdog are busy lambing and Maggie continues to look after the horses with Sam and my husband, who does the weekends. The pigs and chickens still need feeding too. Paul continues in the gardens so that when we are able to welcome a few visitors again, the walks, spreading trees, lawns, flowers and views might restore spirits. Sadly all the beautiful pots of flowers grown for spring visitors are now just wilting in their pots. Unlike Lord Carnarvon’s time in Shorncliffe there is no French chef. I try to cook lunch for whoever is around, and we all sit with sufficient space between us, taking the time to eat and update each other.
I do slightly feel as if we have inadvertently jumped over the White Cliffs of Dover and are trying to pull the parachute open before we land a bit hard. In this country, we clearly have to stand still, to hold the line, for what in our lives will be a short time so that we, and the doctors and nurses, may all have a longer time. Easter is about hope and finding faith and a new life. Continuing the story, Jesus Christ stayed on earth for a further forty days (or approximately 5 weeks) before leaving on Ascension day. Maybe our future too is about having faith and waiting for 40 days or so to start a new life.