The seasons change at Highclere Castle, the real setting for Downton Abbey. A few days ago we were brewing fresh lemonade in a tall pitcher, to the sound of tennis balls being beaten and the buzzing of insects in the wildflower meadows.
Now in the morning there is a fresh scent in the air, and soon my husband Geordie, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and I will feel the creaking of leaves under my feet.
The cool clear scent of an early autumn morning signals the change of the season. I love the arrival of autumn in Highclere, but then I appreciate all the seasons here. They have been running gently for almost 1,300 years.
Lady Carnarvon shared her appreciation for all seasons at Highclere Castle. Pictured: Lord and Lady Carnarvon preparing for a picnic
The current building has a cozy splendor, with between 250 and 300 rooms, set in a 1,000 acre park designed by Capability Brown (whose statue stands on the property) – and we look after farmland, woodland and downs of a further 4,500 acres .
Whether we’re gardening, growing or cooking, there’s always plenty to do during the seasons at Highclere…
Our first sparkling wine
Lady Carnarvon revealed it took four years of research to plant chardonnay grapes in two quadrants and pinot noir in two more quadrants (pictured)
I once took a ride on a combine harvester, humming the Wurzels song, “I’ve got a brand new combine.” Did I warn Geordie? No, I did not!
As evenings fall, departing birds circle the castle tower, from warblers and flycatchers to nightjars and swallows, all preparing to head south. The late blooms provide one last pit stop for the bees, and our beekeeper Mike Withers (now in his 80s) has to judge how much longer he can take honey from them so they have their own stash for the winter.
Geordie and I leave the harvesting to our skilled and experienced farming team. My agricultural prowess is more useful in the vegetable garden and orchard, where apples and other fruit trees have been growing for at least 800 years. Grapes, however, are a new starting point and one that I am very excited about.
Over a glass of champagne one afternoon with friends, we began to muse on the geology of Highclere’s soil. The château sits on a layer of calcareous soil and clay peaks, speckled with flint, which extends all the way from Champagne country in France.
Highclere Castle is set in 1,000 acres of parkland designed by Capability Brown. Pictured: Statue of Capability
Could we have a vineyard, we wondered, if it was in a large walled garden that would help retain the heat? It took four years to do our research, but now we’ve planted chardonnay grapes in two quadrants and pinot noir in two more quadrants.
To protect our vines from frost, we invested in a hot air blower, something like a giant hair dryer.
Soon we will be bottling our own sparkling wine. Of course I volunteered to do the first tastings. Another new addition is the revived forest walks, the replanting of native species aware of the loss due to Dutch elm disease and the current challenge of ash dieback.
Some of the planting is inspired by memories of a walk with my father-in-law through the gardens at Milford Lake, about a mile from the main house. We started with a group of Parrotia persica or Persian ironwood trees, which turn a beautiful red in the fall.
Take care of the lambs
Lady Carnarvon (pictured) revealed she and Geordie would help lambing during the March 2018 cold spell
Every barn and stable is filled with animals as spring sets in, protecting mothers and babies from late frosts. During the cold spell in March 2018, Geordie and I enjoyed a lovely evening meal in the castle with friends before swapping evening gowns for Wellington boots at 11pm to head to the lambing sheds for a few hours to help with the lambing.
We refilled the water from the ewes, put hay wedges [moist hay] in corners of pens and made sure there was enough straw around their perimeter to help the lambs survive the frigid temperatures. Lambs expect ‘food and room service’: water, hay and formula for the orphans.
The piglets like to sniff through the forest, squeaking and keeping the sows awake. Across the park is a courtyard with stables where the thoroughbred broodmares spend early spring.
Did you know that bringing bluebells indoors is bad luck? It attracts elves… who can be mischievous.
It is inevitable that their foals will be born in the wee hours of the night, although we are now blessed with cameras to warn us. Then we go there, armed with thermoses of tea and coffee.
The telltale signs of polar bears begin and stop until the mare suddenly lies down, then hooves and a face appear, followed by a collection of long legs landing on the straw. As the weather warms our thoughts turn to cocktails in the gardens with friends.
Alec Waugh, novelist Evelyn’s older brother, claimed he invented the cocktail party – and since Evelyn married not one but two of my husband’s relatives (nieces of the 5th Earl), I expect there are some memorable Waugh here. parties were. In fact, if something was particularly good, Evelyn would describe it as ‘very Highclere’.
A wonderland for the wildlife
Lady Carnarvon said a fence away from the castle was overgrown until they bought two young female pigs. Pictured: Lady C with her pig Lady Mary
Our chic piggies
Our five new sows are called Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Lady Sybil, Lady Violet and Lady Cora. I really hope the Downton stars don’t find out.
Walk down the hill, away from the castle, and you’ll come to an overgrown fence. At least it was once overgrown until we bought a flock of ‘gelts’, or young female pigs.
Their names are Thelma and Louise, and they are British lop-eared pigs – an old, endangered breed. At one point, there were only about 100 breeding sows left in the country. These two wasted no time digging up the ground.
Within a few weeks, it looked like it had been professionally rotated… just the way Thelma and Louise like it. A boar named Arthur joined them, and five more females – we look forward to piglets in the spring.
Our formal 18th century gardens, designed by Robert Herbert, encompass a ‘great wilderness’. Robert was a fashionable ancestor and character, famous for his gold laced clothes, with an amazing imagination.
Lady Carnarvon said there is nowhere more beautiful on the property than the park in the snow, which is a haven for deer and pheasants (pictured)
He built a theater in the woods, spread images through the bushes and clearings, and gladly welcomed his friends to enjoy the gardens.
By the 21st century, its great wilderness had been completely lost. We have erased and reinterpreted it and renamed it the Forest of Goodwill. Much of it consists of native species, including juniper, crab apple, lime, holly, hazel, yew and hornbeam.
Others are more exotic, planted as a salute to Geordie’s adventurous ancestors, including Japanese cherries and tulip trees. There is nowhere more beautiful in the entire property than the sprawling park in the snow.
It was once the domain of nobles who hunted here. Now it is a haven for the deer, but also for the pheasants and French red-legged partridges.
Season of scents
Lady Carnarvon revealed that one of her favorite walks on a warm evening is among the faded wall of the Monks’ Garden. Pictured: Croquet and cocktails on the lawn
One of our favorite walks on a warm evening is between the faded wall of the Monks’ Garden, which dates back to the time of King John, and a tall yew hedge (it wasn’t always that high, but jumped up during WWII because there were weren’t enough gardeners to keep it under control).
In this tranquil space, Geordie’s parents planted a border of white plants, including buddleia, sage, lilies, anemones and white agapanthus, as well as hydrangeas and wisteria.
The 1993 film The Secret Garden was shot in our Secret Garden and starred Maggie Smith, who returned for Downton Abbey.
Walk past and under a stone arch and you’ll discover the Secret Garden – laid out on a site that has been used as a garbage can by gardeners for centuries.
This garden was designed in 1962 by Jim Russell, a childhood friend of my father-in-law, and the first thing you notice when you open the gate is the delicate scent of the frankincense cedars.
Jim likened the garden to a painting, though he also said it was a sculpture—because the view changed as you walked around it.
We can also walk in the rose arbor that I made in memory of my mother and enjoy the scents. I laid it in a circle with four paths meeting in the middle, making sure there were gaps in the pavers so I could plant chamomile in the crevices.
It crunches underfoot and more wonderful scents emerge. A fence keeps the rabbits and deer out. One of the most dramatic roses is a creeper that is fuchsia red and white. His name is… Lord Carnarvon!
Seasons at Highclere: gardening, Growing and cooking through Year at The Real Downton Abbey (Century, £30) is published on 16 Sept. Edited here by Christopher Stevens