Walking the Halls of Downton Abbey

By Carl Larsen ~ Surely, something was wrong. Carson the butler wasn’t there to greet me. Maybe it was because I had arrived at the castle the cheap way — on foot from a nearby country inn, not by Rolls-Royce or carriage.

From the empty gravel forecourt, where normally a rank of servants greets distinguished guests, I was left to open the massive wooden door myself. Stepping inside, past the two winged dragons at my feet, I immediately entered a privileged domain lived in by few but known to millions. I was in the real “Downton Abbey.”
For a minute of two, I was the actor Hugh Bonneville playing Lord Grantham, gazing toward the overpowering Gothic Revival great hall and saloon, with its 50-foot-high vaulted ceiling and adjacent broad oak staircase. Beyond were the magnificent dining room with its nearly life-size painting by Anthony Van Dyck of a mounted Charles I and the massive, clublike library containing volumes hundreds of years old.
“Downton Abbey” is television’s wildly popular period drama, following the fictional Crawley family and their servants from the Titanic disaster through World War I and into the uncertain 1920s. With an ensemble cast that includes Bonneville, Dame Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern, “Downton Abbey’s” one constant is the spectacular estate and home in which the drama is filmed. For American audiences, the fourth season of the series debuted in January 2014 on PBS.
The TV drama exists beyond the imagination of screenwriter Julian Fellowes as Highclere Castle, a 5,000-acre working estate a little over an hour from London. If the architecture of the manor house looks familiar, it’s because Highclere was redesigned and enlarged in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of Britain’s Houses of Parliament.
The program, aired around the world, has made Highclere Castle England’s best-known country home, attracting 60,000 visitors annually, many of whom come on bus tours. The house and its fabulous gardens, refined by the great British landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown, are open on a seasonal basis.
Visitors are drawn here by the TV series, but the unexpected story they find at Highclere is even more compelling than the romantic, political and financial exploits of the fictional Crawleys and their cadre of servants. This house has its own “bones”: a fascinating history that includes a mummy’s curse, love triangles, pressing financial burdens and periods when successive lords and ladies converted their home into a military hospital and a wartime refuge for young children.
Dating to the late 1600s, Highclere is the ancestral home of the Carnarvon family. The present Earl of Carnarvon and his second wife, the Countess Carnarvon, live in the castle as well as a nearby residence. Unlike with other open-to-the-public estates where the occupants have long since departed, visitors to Highclere are treated to constant reminders that this is a working home. On a recent tour, the master bedroom revealed a bottle of Sinex at bedside and reading material that included books by Ian Rankin and John Grisham.
“I don’t want to present a museum,” said the present countess, Fiona, as we sipped tea at the outdoor cafe set up for visitors. “I want people to know that we reside here. It’s a living history.”
These days, the countess has been consumed with making sure TV crews don’t light candles under the Van Dyck painting and that their electrical cables don’t topple marble statues.
Parallel to the plot that has unfolded on TV, the countess recently published a book on an earlier Countess Carnarvon, Lady Almina, who turned the estate into a convalescent hospital for British officers during World War I. Almina’s generous dowry, and later inheritance from her father, banking tycoon Alfred de Rothschild, allowed her husband, the fifth earl, to pursue his interest in Egyptian archeology.
That’s where the name Carnarvon strikes home. It was the fifth earl, along with Howard Carter, who in 1922 opened the treasure-filled tomb of Egyptian boy-Pharoah Tutankhamun, which had been sealed for centuries.
“Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon is said to have asked as Carter peered through an opening in the tomb. “Yes, wonderful things!” came the reply.
Carnarvon’s instant celebrity status was to be short-lived, however. Shortly after the discovery he died in Cairo of blood poisoning from an infected mosquito bite. His son, “Porchey,” who would become the next earl, related in his memoirs, “No Regrets,” what happened next.
At the time of Carnarvon’s death, all of Cairo was thrown into darkness by a mysterious blackout. And far away at Highclere the lord’s favorite dog, a fox terrier named Susie, started howling and dropped over dead at the same time his master died. This has led to stories that the discovery of the Tut relics brings a “mummy’s curse” to those who deal with them.
Today the basement of Highclere Castle is devoted to an exhibition on the fifth Lord Carnarvon’s Egyptian expeditions.
As the present countess is first to admit, maintaining an estate such as Highclere is an expensive proposition. That is why the house has been thrown open for filming, weddings and catered events, while the estate also hosts paying hunting parties.
So it’s possible for those with the money to enjoy a five-course meal in the famous dining room, attired in formal wear, of course, but minus the quick wit of Maggie Smith.
Long gone are the 24 household servants listed in a 1924 record book. Today there are far fewer, but the job of butler remains. It’s a job not so far removed from the role played by “Downton’s” Carson. But the overall divisions of labor are gone.
“We’re all good at multitasking,” the countess told me.
Before I left, there was one nagging question I had to ask as we walked past the downstairs bell board, which was used to summon servants to the upper rooms.
I had seen the footmen performing an unusual practice on “Downton Abbey.”
“Did they really iron the daily newspapers?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, it was quite common,” the countess replied.
As I left Highclere I walked past grazing sheep and under stately Cedars of Lebanon planted hundreds of years ago. One last look at the grandeur of the castle, and the words of “Downton’s” Lord Grantham rushed into my mind.
“You see a million bricks that may crumble, a thousand gutters and pipes that may block and leak, and stone that will crack in the frost. … I see my life’s work.”
Highclere Castle is open to the public during summer and on selected holidays, but the popularity of “Downton Abbey” has made getting tickets difficult. Those wanting to visit should check with private coach-tour operators, who offer day trips from London. For more information, see www.highclerecastle.co.uk
By train, a visit to Highclere Castle is an easily done day trip from London’s Paddington Station. Getting off at Newbury, visitors take an eight-mile taxicab ride to the estate. Be sure to arrange a pickup time for the return to the station with your driver. For information on schedules and rail passes, see www.britrail.com.
Newbury, the closest large town to the estate, offers several lodging possibilities:
Carnarvon Arms hotel (a country inn close to the estate): www.thecarnarvonarmshotel.com
Hilton Newbury Centre (UK): www.hilton.com
Travelodge Newbury Tot Hill Hotel: www.travelodge.co.uk
For general information: www.visitbritain.com and www.visitingengland.com