A flight of fancy to Lucknam Park gives our columnist pause for thought
There’s a certain irony to lockdown. Just at the time when we have been banged up in our homes without hope of early release for good behaviour, the spring weather has been lovely. This is good if your place of isolation is a country estate – although country-house owners whose income depends on weddings and concerts have been knocked for six.
It’s bad if your place of incarceration is a city. Back when coronavirus was still barely with us, my wife and I addressed it squarely. Where would we most like to be holed up for an indefinite period of isolation from the outside world? Answer: a luxury hotel with spa, equestrian facilities and Michelin-starred restaurant, set in its own rolling acres, at the end of an avenue of ancient limes and impeccably maintained by a smiling staff.
‘Quick,’ I say, ‘pack the bags for Lucknam Park.’ We arrive. All is calm, all is bright, as the carol has it. After a dinner of exquisite craft, served in a décor of swags and tassels that comfortingly evokes the late 1980s, when the hotel opened, we sleep in heavenly peace.
Next morning, I throw open the shutters to see a couple of deer in the park. They stand stock still. And for an exceptionally long time, considering that around the corner prowl two equally convincing lions. They’re works of the sculptor Hamish Mackie. Hares were boxing on the lawn on the way to the spa (fabulous massage, incidentally: shoulders knotted from too much screen time are now as soft as a scallop, as served by chef Hywel Jones).
It’s as if spring has made the bronze come alive and it has succumbed to the madness of the month. And March 2020 was mad, though not always in the way Nature intends.
Alas, we haven’t spent lockdown at Lucknam Park but in Pimlico.
Of course, one must philosophise, as the American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson did when he wrote his poem The Humble-Bee. Emerson, having lost a significant part of his income in the banking Panic of 1837, was consoled by the ‘mellow, breezy bass’ of the bumblebee, who spent the summer among flowers and went to sleep when the season turned:
Want and woe, which torture us,
Thy sleep makes ridiculous.
I found a similar solace by looking at the walls of Lucknam Park and what they’re made of: limestone. England’s limestones were laid down 250 million years ago, when what is now Wiltshire was nearer the equator, submerged beneath a shallow tropical sea scattered with islands and coral reefs.
Untold numbers of sea creatures died and their shells drifted to the ocean floor. Apply a loupe or magnifying glass to what seems to be a smooth wall and a miracle takes place. The surface no longer looks flat; instead a miniature landscape leaps into view. It may be a smashed-up shell, a memory of beaches that, through the eons of prehistory, were once pounded by waves.
The best stone comes from the beds of vast, warm lagoons, in which so many crustacea lived and died that the water became supersaturated with calcium carbonate. Tiny circular deposits of it formed around grains of sand – each of which is termed an oolith.
After millions of years, these dots fused together into butter-smooth oolitic limestone… and Lucknam Park was the result. The unfathomable immensity of geological time puts the eye-blink of the present into perspective.
And I cannot recommend too highly the pleasures of the loupe. By coincidence, it was in the year of the Great Plague, 1665, that Robert Hooke published Micrographia, a huge volume dedicated to engravings of tiny objects – like the ant which he had to immobilise by depositing a drop of brandy on it. (It recovered after an hour and ran away blowing bubbles.)
It’s worth remembering if government guidance, natural prudence or agoraphobia, developed during lockdown, forbids you to go out. Hooke had a microscope, but even a modest loupe can teleport you to new and unseen worlds without leaving the all-too-familiar comforts of your home.
This piece first appeared in issue 74 of Spear’s, available now. Click here to buy a copy and subscribe