One of my favourite memories from the last few years was standing in Lime Tree Avenue with the film crew from Viking Cruises. We were creating some promotional and historical archives to share and they had asked me to “interview” or chat to Eddie Hughes, our Head Keeper. The idea was to represent and record the stories and lives of some of the team who work here at Highclere as a sort of modern ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’.
Lime Tree Avenue runs roughly north-south some half a mile to the south of the Castle. I love walking, biking or riding along it whatever time of year it is – it somehow settles the soul.
We chose a spot half way along and Eddie was standing there in his hat, tweed coat and breeks, long walking stick in hand, spaniels to heel. I wondered where to start. Looking around, I asked him what was his favourite time of year, what was his favourite season? In his soft country burr, he replied “every day is my favourite day Milady; I love every tree, every path, every time of day”.
I was silent. He was so right. He wears the same tweed suit, he loves his dogs and knows every gnarled tree trunk. He can sense the weather, the rain, the eddying wind, from his sense of being far better than I can. I felt very humbled as I realised how much greater his knowledge was than mine partly because I just never seem to have enough time.
Last week, we threw a party here in the Castle for him, his family and friends and our community, to say thank you for everything he has done and achieved for us. He has worked here for sixty years and has decided it is time to retire.
Eddie was one of six people I chose to create a portrait of in my book “At Home at Highclere” and sitting down to listen and write his voice was for me one of the highlights of the book. One morning in 1957, as fourteen-year-old Eddie Hughes was cutting firewood in the fields, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon and his agent came towards him. Lord Carnarvon commented that Eddie was doing such a good job he would like to offer him a more permanent position. Eddie thought nothing of it – after all, he had only just finished school – but three days later the agent returned and offered him a job assisting the keepers in rearing pheasants.
His day began at 4 a.m., learning from the Head Keeper and Under Keepers about the land, the woods, the birds and the crops. Eddie met his wife here at Highclere where she was a lady’s maid. She looked after the ladies each evening before helping Robert Taylor the butler in the Dining Room. Sometime after they separated Eddie met Val, an accomplished assistant keeper, with award-winning dogs who shared their skills with Mary Berry in a television programme. They have been together for some 25 years and live in a cottage at Beacon Hill with the old iron age fort on the skyline. I hope they will continue to enjoy their walks, the country life and myriad of marvellous spaniels for many years to come.
As Eddie and I ended our chat in Lime Avenue, he said “You could not work for a better employer than Lord Carnarvon [my husband], very fair and honourable, a lovely bloke. I have been very lucky. It is a lovely place to work and I would not get a better office than this.’
What a wonderful accolade from a lovely man. Eddie and Val wrote to us “We have both loved working here…it’s been a wonderful experience.” And I hope that for the hundred or so friends who came to toast him, to say thank you and by whom he was showered by accolades. I have only known him for one score years and it has been my privilege.