Eighteen months ago, I was wandering around Florence – I hardly needed to go inside any gallery to see a work of art because everywhere I looked, on every corner, there was “art”. It was in the architecture, the statues and fountains decorating each square and thoroughfare, in the bridges and even amongst the artists sitting, easel and paints to hand, creating pictures to be sold as mementos to tourists such as us. (The top painting is of course Venice and hangs as a work of art at Highclere)

An 18th century cedar – still standing on it own despite all the weather and challenges …

Given where we are today, in almost every country in the world, it seems a world away now, almost a dream. Those who lead us are having to learn from day to day experience and constantly revising knowledge. The one strategy we are now all being asked to take is to hunker down, to withdraw into our homes and not to congregate in cinemas, pubs, restaurants or even beaches. We are being told we should neither work together, or perhaps even walk together, but to retreat into self-isolation.

It seems strange and uncomfortable, almost impossible, yet in the past our ancestors did encourage times, sometimes even weeks, of discipline, of silence and self-isolation. They believed it led to clarity of mind and thought. Indeed, the word discipline originally meant to learn, to gain knowledge and instruction. Ironically, in recent years, over-stressed and over-stretched people have often paid often huge sums of money to go on retreats where there is little or no contact, limited food and only water or tea to drink.

For everyone’s sakes we need to follow this advice, to retreat and be quiet in order to avoid spreading the virus further. We need to look at our homes as a sanctuary rather than a prison, a place of contemplation and meditation rather than a time of enforced inactivity.

Growing up, my sisters and I were often thrown into our own worlds. Often there was no television. Horrified my son likes to ask me if I was born before or just after World War Two.

Our mother was pretty organised in school holidays – the first thing we had to do was draw up a study plan, the next thing was a job rota. Whose turn was it to set the table, to bring the food through from the kitchen where Queenie, who cooked for us, prepared very traditional lunches, whose to dry up, put things away and so on.  It saved a lot of arguments although naturally we found other things to argue about instead.  Queenie made scones and cakes for tea and we helped her and licked the bowls out. We all read – although I read much more than my sister Sarah, who read only precisely what she had to and who only ever got A*s which was, and still is, incredibly annoying. If the weather was really bad sometimes we would try drawing a still life: for some reason I remember  drawing shoes as well as the more traditional apples.

Turning back to structure, to timetables, to cooking a cake or a loaf of bread, makes me feel calmer and in the end more hopeful. Yesterday my son and I baked a loaf of bread – it should last us 2 or 3 days. All my books have a bread recipe in – it takes a little time to make and to knead but you now have time. The remains of a chicken from supper is stock for a soup tonight.  Take it in turns to cook supper – write out a menu. Do some yoga stretches every day, listen to your breathing.

Amongst all the archive papers here are numerous sketches – likely done on rainy afternoons. Looking at them I have had the idea of a painting competition. Using photos of Highclere here or on Instagram (where I have already mentioned this idea), decide what you are going to paint or sketch.

From our archives, painted by a guest – staying for the weekend in 1854

We will have winners and runners up (two categories divided into over and under 12 years old). If you prefer words to paints – paint a picture in a poem, write a letter by hand… You could always submit a painting and a poem? The closing date to email in a photo of your work of art is Easter Sunday and I will put all the details on our website including the email address for your entries. The email is:  [email protected]

works of art …

We may be separated in space but we can be united in determination. I suspect we will all remain alone with our thoughts this year on VE day – the 75th anniversary.  We have postponed our commemoration at Highclere to October – a time to remember others, support charities which will be even more hard pressed than they are today and to wonder what our parents and grandparents might think.  Have we squandered their legacy of peace?  We are distrustful of politicians, and thus the systems which lie at the very heart of our lives, and appear short-sighted, divided and angry. The veneer of kind behaviour is looking very thin with supermarket queues and shortages acting as the new battlegrounds.

We have to have hope and, as we travel deeper into this challenging storm, we need to help each other think of the common good. We can do it together, and it can bring out the best in us. We are part of a wider world, the borders we have created mean nothing to any virus and we each have a contribution to make. Humans are the most resourceful species and we will rise to the challenge now facing us all.