Downton Ahoy

I wonder if it is something to be proud of: that one moved a whole village out of the way to make room for one’s 1000-acre garden?

If you’re going to landscape a great seat of the nobility, why let a few peasants get in the way? Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown helped many of the noblemen of England recreate their surroundings with derring-do hitherto unattempted.

Before Brown formal gardens had been the thing: big flat geometric decorations populated by box hedges and walkways, which would stretch out impressively to lend grandeur to a nobleman’s backyard.

Brown saw things differently. He wanted to create ideal England: a beautifully arranged landscape which would please a painter’s eye. And he would stop at little to get it.

This was an earth mover of a gardener: he created undulating vistas with a perfectly placed copse here, a bush there. Poet William Cowper wrote of the man: “The omnipotent magician, Brown, appears.He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn , Woods vanish, hills subside, and valleys rise.”

He literally remodelled the landscape according to what he saw as ideal England.

Jonathan Swift’s friend, Richard Owen Cambridge made the driest of remarks, remarked that he hoped to die before Brown: so that he might see heaven before it was “improved.”

Brown did it for many country houses: not least that old seat of the Winchester Bishops, Highclere Castle.

Highclere. Ring a bell? It is the seat of the Carnarvons, those incorrigible Egyptologists, whose love of the fashionable ideal does not stop there.

For though the Bishops of Winchester had owned a mediaeval palace on the site since the eighth century; though it was recorded in the Domesday Book; and though the Carnarvons had owned the building since 1679: yet still, the great family were not content with the weight of bona fide time-worn history on the site.

The two hill forts, tumuli and ancient field systems were not enough to hold back Brown’s progress; and the mansion itself was to fall into the path of refurbishment.

For the Carnarvons opted to ditch the perfect proportions of the classical mansion in favour of a piece of earnest  pastiche designed by the man who built the new parliament: Sir Charles Barry.

Not England as it really was, exactly: rather ideal England as we would like it to be. Barry supervised a complete remodelling and rebuilding of Highclere Castle  in 1839-42, using bath stone and that strange notion, “Jacobethan” style.

To you and I: gothic. Wildly romantic. Incongruous in its Brownian surroundings.

The interior drips theatre. It is a latter-day interpretation of what an Elizabethan or Jacobean house might be. So that both house and gardens seem to me to be very like those old Western movie sets where reality is only as strong as the walls which are built to keep reality in check.

Ironic, really: because Highclere has become a movie set in every sense of the word. The world has turned its eyes to follow a fictional Yorkshire dynasty, the Earl of Grantham and his entourage, in the critically acclaimed Downton Abbey.

The cast needs no introduction: Earl Robert and his wife Cora; Lady Edith, Lady Mary, Lady Sybil; the redoubtable Countess. Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame created a well-crafted period drama with plotlines which captured the hearts-and ratings- of an international audience.

The costumes are sumptuous, the script crackles with wit and originality; the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives under the expert tutelage of their scriptwriters.

They are as perfect, and as ideal as one of Brown’s landscapes or Barry’s architectural masterpieces.

And as stylised.

But that’s entertainment. Just as Hugh Walpole’s odd little house at Strawberry Hill has become a masterpiece in the smoking-hut of time, so have the works of Barry and Brown.

Sure, they obliterated historical truths – and indeed, barged whole villages out of their way- in the name of an idealised beauty: but they sure are easy on the eye.

I have a choice: I can sit there, all uptight about nouveau choices which robbed us of whole tranches of history in the name of good taste.

Or: if I can’t get in a time machine and browbeat them, perhaps I should join them.

And so, as soon as I have finished writing this post, I shall be booking my ticket to see Highclere Castle when it opens briefly to the public in early April.

Or should I say: I shall book a ticket to Downton Abbey?

Picture source here


33 thoughts on “Downton Ahoy

  1. The rich are different. As are tv folk.

    I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before but it’s my only claim to fame: Tory Boy’s girlfriend was at school with the daughter of the current incumbent.

    I’m ready for my close up now, Mr De Mille.

  2. History from the peasants perspective would be a good book, Kate 🙂

    Capability was busy around here too. Blenheim, for example, with clusters of trees planted to represent different army troops and a river stopped to make a lake. I’ve never asked who was ousted to allow this.

  3. You can recognise immediately the hand of Barry at Highclere. Enjoy your visit Kate, it is a lovely place that you will enjoy.
    The Carnarvon’s of course now live in a small property on the estate, and Highclere is more or less a venue for weddings, TV and film programmes.
    Are the mighty fallen?

  4. I admit, I am a big Downton Abbey fan. When you visit there, please post some pic’s for us.
    And oh yes, say hi to the Granthams for me! 🙂


  5. Imagine me stamping my impatient Yankee foot and knitting my brow. “I want to go to Downton… er Highclere.”

    I did this same stamp-and-knit a while back when Tennant and Tate did Much Ado About Nothing.

    You’ll note I am still stuck on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

    And again, I’m tossed into Stoppard’s Arcadia, which features an unseen Capability Brown running amuck on the grounds of the Coverly house.

  6. I wonder if it is something to be proud of: that one moved a whole village out of the way to make room for one’s 1000-acre garden?

    Oh by all means – if one can do so, do so. Hmm… kind of like our propensity to make homeless the already destitute to build swanky hotels for the rich to spend peaceful (or partying) nights in between days of attending the Olympics, or other events like it that no poor can afford anyway. Greed by any other name smells as, er… (with apologies etc etc)

  7. We find it comforting to believe in the integrity of the past, we forget that the past was shaped and reshaped just as are lives and countryside today in very inorganic ways. We grouse about urban development and forget that not so long ago that there were fields under our very houses. I thought Highclere was always open to the public so I shall bear that carefully in mind for future reference! 🙂

  8. I’m sure I’ve been there, Kate. I mean recently; not long ago. I don’t watch Downton, so it’s not that… I feel like I’ve been to a party there, and the Highclere name’s more familiar too. I’m sure it’ll come to me. It’s probably nothing like that where I’ve been and my mind’s playing tricks on me again…

  9. Dear Kate, . . . once again, you’ve written a provocative posting that makes me ponder the fate of those who lived on the land that Capability Brown was idealizing. There’s a marvelous book of American history entitled “A People’s History of the United States.” In it, Howard Zinn relates our history from the standpoint of those who became dispossessed by the westward movement and by industrialization. He goes beyond that to produce a history from the point of view of the “common folk” rather than the leaders. It’s a fascinating study that puts most of us in touch with our roots.


  10. Out with the knaves and in with the naves, turrets, and towers . . . jolly good, old chap. What, what? 😉

    Enjoy your visit, Kate. It’s quite an impressive bit of architecture.

  11. I would love to take this tour! I am indeed one of those millions who love Downton Abbey. I hate that we have to wait so long “over here” to get the episodes, but when we do, I eat them up! Ah, maybe some day I can make my way over to inspect as many of your castles as I am physically able! I hope you’ll post again and share your experience. Debra

  12. Oh, blow the peasants! As long as the pheasants are still there. 🙂

    We have, in the last few weeks, become Downton addicts. I saw the latest episode on a drop-down screen of a cousin in Johannesburg, which filled the whole wall. Surprisingly enough, the picture quality was still excellent and the views of the castle were simply stunning. How I wish I could join in that visit! The whole place is the kind of over-the-top which totally appeals to me.

    1. Latest update, Col, is that there has been a Transatlantic run on tickets! Maddie and I are now booked in on July 29th- the earliest available date…still, at least it is this year….we will record and report back 🙂

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