Walking up the narrow grassy path from the wildflower meadow into the heart of the Secret Garden, the winding paths and mosaic of colour have never looked better. It is the visible, beautiful result of planning and preparation and a tribute to Paul and his gardening team, the result of winter work, of mulch and soil care, pruning and planting.
Planning and preparation is about detail and list making, getting ahead with the important jobs so that the unexpected urgent tasks, which invariably rise up, can be tackled in a timely and sensible way. In some ways the gardens are simply a more visible example of good business practice.
Like all businesses, everything at Highclere is about time spent in planning and preparation: what, how and when. Diaries and archives suggest this is little different from the past in terms of the defined departments and responsibility though, in terms of numbers of staff, the departments are far smaller despite the fact that the house and estate remain the same size meaning there is always plenty to do. Naturally it does not always go to plan but with Highclere humour and speed of reaction we can, and do, muddle through.
For all the years of our marriage, Geordie continues to be entirely surprised and amazed that I did actually train as a chartered accountant. It causes him constant amusement but, as he teased me yet again, I did dig out my old certificate just to remind him. It is my sometime disinclination to open envelopes and reluctance to budget when I am decorating a house or Castle room that seems, in particular, to set him off.
Despite Geordie’s and my focus on sensible things such as marginal contribution, it does appears that neither of us seem ever to remember to accurately measure a room, a wall, a tapestry or carpet.
Some time ago now, I had organised a new rug for the North Library to be made. Sadly, when it arrived, rather than a rug with some wooden floor showing around it, it was the size of the room or more. It was incredibly heavy and, having heaved it in through a window and cleared the room and laid it out, we had to fold it back up. It then had to go back to be reduced in size by about two metres in each direction – not my finest hour.
Geordie recently bought a beautiful old tapestry for the Castle which unfortunately suffered the same challenge. John the castle manager and I ended up literally carrying it around in circles (it was not very heavy) looking for a suitable wall with John claiming I must tell my husband to get a bigger castle. Eventually John and I found the best fit and it now does look absolutely marvellous as if it were perfectly planned for the very wall but we have to confess to serendipity rather than planning.
These light moments in time are most welcome at a time when many of us feel our lives have lost focus and strategy. Looking back, the five years I spent with an accountancy firm have underpinned much of our work life recently. The process of audit is a skill set which is about understanding previous audit files, asking the manager about the key points and risks from their view, preparing the current year, allocating time and team, getting to know the client and their business and undertaking the work. The parameters are the time given to prepare the statutory accounts, discuss them, present them and file them within budget and time before moving on to the next project.
Now that the country is rather bumpily moving on, this process too should be about informing ourselves as best we can, planning and anticipation, examining the research on health analyses, economics and politics, being prudent like any good accountant and stepping forwards at a steady pace. We need to keep looking, 5 days ahead, 5 weeks ahead and 5 months ahead. Time spans help us plan short term and gives us all focus and reassurance.
Unfortunately, some of the politicians appear to have a rather different approach where they fly kites, ideas and instructions almost as if they are assessing their popularity, structuring their latest pronouncements more on what might garner them approval rather than any real research into all sides of the picture. But then, unlike most businesses, politicians can also borrow endless money without seeming to consider the long term consequences.
I too enjoy flying kites, in that it at least impresses the direction of the weather which has a direct effect on our car parking issues. However, we could not run our business like this, it would lead to disaster. Looking forwards we have our strategy and within us we try to find that still small voice of calm and to keep following it.
Perhaps the only real answer is to find a quiet corner in a garden, make a cocktail and tell a funny story. Laughter is not just the best medicine: sometimes it is the only medicine.