Walking across the apparently flat lawns toward Jackdaws Castle looking carefully at the ground as you go, you will see depressions and variances which mark the sites of what was there before: lost walls, fallen trees and old flower beds.
In Victorian times, this was a mass of much admired flower beds. They were lost over the course of two world wars, either deliberately removed or just hidden by overgrown brambles and fern. Without the pre-war staffing levels, grass was simply easier to maintain. Once you know they were there, they are relatively easy to spot. Given that they used to host azaleas in specially brought in ericaceous soil. From time to time we dig them out and replenish the naturally alkaline soil of what is basically a chalky hill top.
Now, in front and to one side of Jackdaws there is a new tree in an old bed – a maple tree. It is part of a diverse family, a genus that grows quickly throughout the northern hemisphere and they are renowned for their autumn colours. They are drought tolerant and can usually be recognised by their distinctive leaves. They have quite shallow roots and some of them, for example the paperbark maple, have beautiful cinnamon coloured bark that peels away.
The colours are seasonably variable, dark green in summer turning to a brilliant scarlet in autumn but are more predictable in neutral to acid soils and it prefers not to be planted in chalk. Therefore, we used one of the slight depressions from these earlier gardening endeavours in which to plant it and dug deeper to add in some new, additional, ericaceous soil as well. The new tree now stands sentinel and, over time, will add a beautiful highlight to the garden here even if it more usually found in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec or Ontario.
Most famously of course, the Maple Leaf is the emblem of Canada, the symbol on its national flag and the national tree of Canada. Hence the real reason it is planted in sight of the Library at Highclere: it was a gift from the people of Canada to Highclere in celebration of the 4th Earl of Carnarvon and his contribution to the birth of Canada during his life time in politics and specifically in Disraeli’s Cabinet in 1866.
Today, January 11th, is the birthday of Sir John A Macdonald, founding father and first Prime Minister of Canada. Reading through the diaries, notes and letters between the 4th Earl and the founding fathers, it is clear that the constitution was drafted through compromise and consensus. It was, in modern terms, a team effort, with a set of principles established and a desire for checks and balances.
Lord Carnarvon had a number of strong tenets: for example the protection of minorities whether of religion, culture or language; he also felt that those who served in the senate should accept the position for a term, rather than for life, though not all agreed. The bill which Lord Carnarvon presented to Parliament was a compromise with enough “elastic” in the construction of a new constitutional infrastructure to make its way into the future. With retrospect, other agendas might have been included but all of these men, for better and worse, lived in the sensibilities of their time.
Lord Carnarvon began his speech to present the Canada Bill in 1867 with descriptions of an extraordinary landscape, of the great trees, forests, lakes, rivers and oceans. It was a speech partly of romance but was set against a pressing political need to create Canada with all due speed. The US civil war had ended and neither the British, nor the inhabitants of this new country, wanted Canada subsumed into the USA.
As usual, Lord Carnarvon had felt discussion and friendship was the best strategy. To that effect he invited Charles Adams, US politician, diplomat and historian to stay at Highclere over Christmas 1866 along with some of the Canadian founding fathers. Adams was the grandson of President John Adam, the first President to live in the White House and the son of President John Quincy Adams. He too had his own agenda as he had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as ambassador to the Court of St James (Britain) to promote British neutrality during the American civil war. Thus they all ate and drank at Highclere together, walked in the gardens, admired the trees and slowly history was made.
I came across much of the above when researching our Archives to write my book “At Home at Highclere”. I had no idea what I would find when I started but there is nothing more thrilling as a historian than reading about how a country was created and I feel truly honoured to have looked into a window in time. Given our knowledge of the world at the moment there is no greater gift than a tree and I hope it will survive well into the future along with Highclere itself.