The whole point about Downton Abbey -I mean, Highclere Castle – is that the present Lord and Lady Grantham – I mean, Earl and Countess Carnarvon – still live there.
Most of the houses we see are not lived in any more. They have been bequeathed to the National Trust by people too weary of trying to haul a stately home through the twentieth century.
Highclere – alias Downton – is one of those lucky castles which has learnt to make its own way in the world.
Thus, when the TV cameras are cleared away following the final filming of the 2012 Christmas special, after this weekend, and when the hoi polloi have stopped tramping over all the carpets and sitting in the armchairs: the Carnarvon family moves back in.
It shows: because despite its Jacobethan grandeur, the place is jolly comfy. And perhaps that is why scouts for the ITV series, which has become an international runaway success, chose Highclere for the Granthams to inhabit.
There are pictures of the Carnarvon family everywhere. Pictures from centuries ago, pictures from just last year. Small Carnarvon children in welly boots clowning with Daddy; an Elizabethan portrait of ancestors Lord and Lady Kingsmill,. pictures of the family’s racing wins at Ascot. All mixed, because life is all one. History is a long, straggling, absorbing line.
Highclere, then, has the same trappings as any great house, though maybe a tad more taste. Walk through that great dark door at which you have seen Lady Mary wait for Matthew Crawley, into the gothic entrance hall designed by the man who fashioned St Pancras Station; and you will be ushered into the library, a high two-part long room , walled with more than 5,000 books, some dating back to the 16th century.
Drama dogs real life families too.
Above the fireplace is a portrait of a pretty little girl, who it seems was not a pretty girl but a very important little boy. Sir Jon Acland, portrayed in a nice white frock was painted in 1749 by Thomas Hudson. But he went on to cheat death in the American Wars of independence: only to return home to be shot in a duel in the grounds of the castle.
And remember the first world war hospital which was set up at Downton? Lady Almina, illegitimate daughter of Albert De Rothschild, made the most excellent marriage to the fifth earl of Carnarvon. She was the lady who had the consummate taste to decorate the south facing drawing room. She chose the prettiest shade of eggshell blue. and it is still as pretty today.
It was Almina who made the decision to turn Highclere into a hospital and receive wounded men returning from the trenches.
Through the state rooms and up a staircase we gazed down on the saloon: the heart of the castle. A sitting room with a roof as high as the castle itself, surrounded by balconies leading to bedrooms and other nooks and crannies. It has the air of a theatre: for one could stand on a balcony and eavesdrop on a conversation down there as though it were a stage. It is the setting for so many of Downton’s most dramatic scenes.
But it has seen its own share of drama; what must the scene have been when news of the fifth earl’s death was broken, just six weeks after he had opened the tomb of Tutankhamun?
And up in those balconies one can only imagine the whispers which might have been; we passed Lady Grantham’s bedroom, a gorgeous light room full of grace; and paused to grin at the room which was used as the lodgings of the Ottoman attache, Kemal Pamuk, who dies in such very unfortunate circumstances in the television drama.
It’s a stage, this place: but also a family home, with centuries of history and snaps on every available surface.
The Carnarvon family has achieved a rare balance here at this flamboyant place where the line between fact and fiction is so very hazy, and where truth can turn out to be even stranger than the inventions of that fictional, compelling Abbey.
Pictures from Highclere Castle website,
and from http://www.covetcollectconnect.com