I was taking a group from Stonehenge to Bath a few weeks ago when I saw the sign for Highclere. “That’s the house they used for Downton Abbey,” I thought to myself in a lightbulb moment and told the group. I knew little about the super popular series, having seen only one complete episode.
As guides we are supposed to know about television programmes and films but I have never felt the need to sit through every episode or go to movies I do not fancy. Those in the know will already have done their research and are often happy to educate you on their favourite topic. The rest are content with a mere mention rather than a detailed explanation. (In other words, I can bluff.) We do not even have a television in Sussex where I am writing this and I have no time for box sets, so I am Downton ignorant.
Highclere was designed by Sir Charles Barry, better known for the Houses of Parliament, and was built in the middle of the nineteenth century when money was virtually no object for the aristocratic owners of such places. Then inheritance taxes and repair bills came along and Highclere was another stately home struggling to survive. When ITV came knocking, the opportunity was too good to miss. At the time of the story the aristocracy used marriages to wealthy American heiresses to pay the bills. Now they charge the willing British public to come in. There is a lot of competition so a Downton can make all the difference.
The man at the gate said that they usually managed to fit in those who had not booked but could not guarantee it. I asked him cheekily if it was OK for us to bring a coach there for a photo stop if we were not visiting. (A polite but emphatic ‘No!’ was the answer.) Inside were displayed, as is common these days, both portraits of ancestors and photos of contemporary family members to give it a lived-in feel. The queues were manageable, the guides knowledgeable and the food at the restaurant reasonably priced
For us, however, he highlight of the visit was the Egyptian connection. Highclere belongs to the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, his second wife who is very active in managing the estate and even writes a blog (join the club). It was the Fifth Earl who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 together with Howard Carter. While Carter lived to enjoy some of the glory, Carnarvon died soon after the discovery from a mosquito bite – or ‘the curse of the pharaohs’ who did not appreciate having their resting place disturbed. He was buried on the nearby Beacon Hill which we ascended after the visit to enjoy the view over the House. Uncovering a lost tomb of ancient Egypt – that was worth any number of television series.
PS Another television connection is the current Earl’s father, the Seventh Earl, known as ‘Porchy’ who was once considered a potential husband of the Queen and became her racing manager. Their friendship is featured in The Crown tv series – but that is another story.