Four months ago I was fortunate to go to the London “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition. At the end of the tour there was an additional experience. I walked into a room full of chairs looking like, and arranged as, cinema seats. I sat down in one of them, carefully pulled on a comprehensive helmet and headset ready to travel back in time. It was over too quickly but it was fascinating: an imaginative and fun virtual reality experience. Ancient Egypt was an extraordinary culture and there I was moving through the deserts sands and temples.
The word virtual is not new being derived for the Latin word “virtus”. It travelled through the centuries into the 14th century meaning “to influence by physical virtues or capabilities, effective with respect to inherent natural qualities”. Today it suggests what is not physically here but seems to be. Highclere Castle is very much here, indubitably real and you can touch it. You can run your hands across the weathered stones and walk barefoot on the grass. It has stories to tell and a cast of inhabitants both real and fictional. Visitors are drawn here by a love of a make believe world and hopefully depart equally enchanted by the real world of Highclere.
The past few months have challenged all of us on many different levels. In more normal times, the passage of a year is marked by celebrations: by times of feasting and of fasting, of partying and of quiet, of work and relaxation. In lockdown, suddenly we could do whatever we wanted as the whole rhythm of our lives was overturned. Highclere’s layers of history and people are part of this more normal world yet we have had to dance in a different “virtual” way over the last few months, from filming for “At Home at Highclere” for Viking TV (cruises) on Fridays, to a fortnightly virtual cocktail party and Instagram. I look around at the team who have been here and am amazed at what we have managed to achieve.
Friday marked the last of our Virtual Highclere Castle Gin cocktail parties this summer. What made for a marvellous evening was that, rather than just Geordie and I making and discussing cocktails, to our immense relief Luis, our butler and banqueting manager, was back. It was fun just listening to his tips. We positioned ourselves at Jackdaws Castle, one of the follies here at Highclere, although the summer weather was slightly cool and “a little British”.
This particular Temple was built by Geordie’s ancestor in about 1743 using Corinthian pillars which came from the remains of a house in Berkeley Square in London. Appropriately, therefore, Cat (Catriona) one of our lockdown team, began the “virtual” party by singing “A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square”. Although the air was a little too fresh, undaunted we tried a proper a Highclere Castle Gin and tonic, with rosemary and orange before moving on to the two chosen cocktails, neither of which I had ever tried before and both of which I hope to try again.
For some reason not merely did we have two Labradors present but, by way of a whimsy, we also thought we would introduce Phoebe, who is the most charming mare, to the party. She is not always aware she is a horse and decided to step up inside to have look at what we were doing. She found the blackberries and raspberries much to her taste and would have eaten them all if allowed and next made a grab for the orange which needed rescuing. Enjoying herself Immensely, there were a few moments of concern as she swung round and so, whilst nothing had been inadvertently tumbled over, it was perhaps time for her to depart. Delicately and carefully she stepped off the kerb and, utterly relaxed, walked off.
The evening passed quickly and I hope we will revisit our virtual cocktails later in the year and be able to welcome some guests to drink with us. We have ever better microphone equipment and every day we learn a little more about how we can interact virtually. At a time of faint horizons, it can add perspective and a momentary view.
Now we are turning round again to re-open. We have created a “Luis” gin bar for those who come here although with our new found skills we thought we might continue to film him showing off his mixologist skills. I am always fascinated by both new cocktails as well as old favourites.
We have our own permanent Egyptian exhibition in the cellars which celebrates the discovery of Tutankhamun by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter. Lord Carnarvon was passionate about Ancient Egypt and, for all out modern technologies and skills, we just have to hope that our achievements might have the longevity and impressiveness of the pyramids.