Walking past the front of the Castle, around the yew trees and into the courtyard at the back, I have often glanced to my left to an ivy-filled muddle, flanked by a grass strip with some fallen stones and bricks. Perhaps because it is spring, this year I felt the urge to tidy the area up. Needless to say my husband was in London when I persuaded Ashley and his team to clear fallen limbs and Mark to come and help me extricate the remains of the building from the brambles and undergrowth.
When Highclere was first given to the Bishops of Winchester in 749AD there was certainly a building, or collection of them, where the current Castle stands today and naturally they built a small church. It may well have been repaired and renewed over the years but these ruins represent the remains of the small church built 900 years later (1689) by Geordie’s distant grandfather, Sir Robert Sawyer, It had a portico, small tower with a flight of stairs leading to the wooden doors.
In his will dated 1692, Robert Sawyer requested that when he died “in the Communion of the Holy Catholick Church and of the Protestant Church established by the Laws of England”; he wished to be interred in his vault at Highclere. I suspect he is still here at peace, hidden under the grass where we know the vaults still exist. To one side is a broad trunked Yew Tree, one of the oldest trees in the Park and hundreds of years old – what it has seen …!
Two hundred years later, the 4th Earl of Carnarvon decided to build a much larger church nearer Highclere village, which would be more central for the local community, many of whom would not have had horse and carriages and one which would be able to welcome a larger congregation. He commissioned Sir Gilbert Scott (a highly respected architect of, for example, St Pancras station and the Albert Memorial) to design and build what is today still a much loved church.
The archives reveal the agreement, dated 12 May 1869, between the 4th Earl and Charles Wakefield Jackson and George Shaw, to build the new church under the direction of George Gilbert Scott, architect, for the princely sum of £3367. A largish sum then but which seems laughably low now.
Some of the memorials from the old church were moved down to the new building, including an outstanding effigy from the 17th century, but otherwise the old church was taken down to the ground and gradually became lost, leaving only a ring of more recent Yew trees to mark its boundary.
In both rural and urban life, churches help mark our seasons and provide a place for peace and contemplation. We have all felt for the tragic fire and loss of Notre Dame in Paris. Such buildings have shaped our civilisations and our hopes. They provide a heart. Just as the old one did, the new Notre Dame will reveal craftsmanship and beauty, and embody the values for which we all search.
By tidying up the shape and boundary of our little church here, I just hope to remember those who lived here in centuries past, particularly at this time of Easter when we celebrate rebirth after death. My mother -in- law, who made her final journey last week, used to organise Easter egg hunts in the Monks’ garden at Highclere for her grandchildren. Yesterday, it was an Easter trail for a thousand children raising money for a charity, The Murray Parrish Trust, which works to give life – to advance emergency paediatric medicine for children affected by major trauma. Set up in memory of a beloved daughter, it too is about affirming life as well as remembering those who have died. It was amazing day and I wish you all a very happy Easter.