Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series.
When your mahogany desk features a silver-framed photo of Queen Elizabeth II holding you at your christening, plus a later photo of the Queen in attendance at your wedding, that pretty much says it all in Great Britain.
“My grandfather listed his occupation as Peer of the Realm on his passport application,” jokes the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon, heir and owner of Highclere Castle, and the subject of the framed photos. A Peer is a member of the nobility who has the right by birth, to sit in the House of Lords in Parliament.
His late father was, for decades, racing manager for Queen Elizabeth II, whose love of horses is well known. His grandfather financed the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt in 1922. A large collection of artifacts remain in a Highclere exhibit.
“Downton Abbey,” a megahit dramatic TV series on PBS watched by an estimated 282 million viewers worldwide, was filmed at Highclere, a 1,000-acre estate an hour north of London.
I was part of an international media day with a press contingent from France, Italy, Japan, Germany and elsewhere, hosted by “Georgie,” as the Eighth Earl is known, and his wife Lady Carnarvon, known as Fiona or Lady C. They spend winter in the castle and summer in a modest home behind the castle, when it is open to the public.
As our taxi from the Newbury train station pulled onto the gravely circular drive, Highclere was immediately recognizable from the “Downton” series, written by Julian Fellowes, a Carnarvon family friend. It was easy to visualize the fictional butler, Carson, standing in a line with the other uniformed servants, to greet our arrival — ready to pamper us for a weekend of fox hunting or grouse shooting.
Highclere and the grounds are open to the public, generally during July and August, and intermittently at other times of the year. Tickets are sold out for the next two years. However, tickets remain for special-themed parties such as the Sept. 10 Victorian weekend with displays of classic cars, where attendees are invited to wear Victorian style dress. Check the website for ticket availability and upcoming events.
After a reception in the dining room, we walked upstairs along a passageway with a view to the main salon on the first floor. Fans will remember fictional Lady Mary Crowley and her mother, Cora, Countess of Grantham, assisted by maid Anna Bates, lugging the recently deceased young, handsome Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk along the same hallway. After a tryst with Mary, Palmuk died of a heart attack in Lady Mary’s bed. They had to move the body to preserve Mary’s image.
Guides give a full, interesting “real” history of Highclere, where construction began in 1679 on the foundation of the medieval Bishops of Winchester in the eighth century. The original site was recorded in the Doomsday Book, a land record commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085. You can book your wedding there for about $23,000, which goes to continuing the restoration.
We lunched outdoors under a white tent, attended by formally dressed staff, then adjourned to jeeps and vans for an exploration of the vast grounds, including intact follies and ruins of follies. Follies are small ornate house-like structures where the nobility went to escape the constant stream of visitors to the main house, our guide explained. Revenue from “Downton” fan visitors has enabled the Carnarvons to do major repairs to the house, costing about $17 million dollars. On our return, Lord Carnarvon himself gave us a tour of the Egyptian exhibition.
My goal for next time is to book an overnight stay in London Lodge, a Georgian property built in 1793 on either side of the Highclere gate. One night costs about $350.
“I expect the effect of the ‘Downton Abbey’ TV series will still roll out over the next 20 years,” Lady C said. Indeed. Fans hope so.