I am writing this from my lovely bedroom at the Fairmont Royal York, Toronto where I am a guest of the Canadian Museum of History. I am here to give a series of lectures in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto which touch on, amongst other topics, Highclere Castle’s connection with the foundation of the modern State of Canada. It is tremendously exciting as I only really found out about this as I was researching the book “At Home at Highclere”.
In the autumn of 1858, the 4th Earl of Carnarvon recorded a meeting with a number of leading Canadian politicians including Mr. Cartier (Attorney General and co-Prime Minister), Mr Galt (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Mr Ross. Also at the meeting was Mr Tupper from Nova Scotia, Mr Smith and Mr Fisher from New Brunswick and a number of other gentlemen who had come to England to discuss primarily the Confederations of the North American Colonies, but also the intercolonial railway. Given that the Canada East Government was on the verge of dissolution and the Conservatives were themselves in a minority government in Britain, it was not, however, an opportune moment. These large schemes were too much for the times.
However, all the delegates were invited to Highclere for a weekend of dinners and discussions – Lord Carnarvon noted that “they were agreeable and easily disposed to be pleased” and that the weekend was a great success.
There is no record of which bedroom they each stayed in but I can imagine Lord Carnarvon sending his carriage to collect them from Highclere railway station, the park and surrounding hillsides full of red tinted trees as they still are in the Autumn today. Met at the door by the staff and warmly greeted and welcomed by the then Lady Carnarvon, I am sure they would have found Highclere as fascinating as I hope it remains today.
Following a candlelit dinner, each guest would have found their bedroom warmed by a fire in the grates with thickly swagged curtains and carefully disposed furniture in which to rest and perhaps write letters or diaries at the desk. I still think one of the greatest gifts is a good night’s sleep, the ritual of settling down for the night, reading a book before falling asleep and extinguishing all the lights. If I am trying to persuade someone to come and stay I always say the best part is the cool quiet bedrooms which will ensure they sleep well as there are no TV’s nor Wi-Fi!
In the morning, they would have been brought jugs of warm water to fill large china bowls in which to wash, whilst a footman opened the shutters. Through the windows are the distant hills towards Oxford, to the east and south follies frame the views just begging you to pause and admire them. Today of course we do have a selection of bathrooms…
Following an excellent breakfast, still one of my favourite times of day, undoubtedly Lord Carnarvon would have invited them to go for a walk. To walk and to talk, to listen and to understand.
In the autumn of 1866, the delegates returned to England and gathered together in London at a conference chaired by Lord Carnarvon, again accepting his invitation to go down to Highclere for the weekend. This time, they caught the tide of time and were able to carry through the creation of Canada.
An extraordinary time with men of intellect, purpose and compromise.