A Trip To Downton Abbey

Of course, Downton Abbey is a figment of the imagination of British TV makers. But they fantasise so well.

So very well, indeed, that I found it hard to distinguish real life from fantasy on Tuesday (August 7) when I pulled up outside the great gothic castle of Highclere, there in the green rolling fields on the borders of Hampshire, England.

It is someone’s home. Really.

It belongs to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, the latest descendants in a great dynasty which stretches back centuries. When the TV cameras move out – and the hordes of tourists tramp out and go home – the family moves back in to the state rooms. Which, consequently, have a homely feel.

Lady Carnarvon”, said a small diminutive young lady with an impeccable accent, “always likes visitors to feel at home here.”

There are photographs of the family on every available surface. But they sit alongside portraits of Elizabethan ancestors.

What is more, the stories of the Carnarvon family can easily rival those of the fictional Granthams of Downton Abbey fame. Lord Carnarvon was the great Egyptologist who died just six weeks after letting the dusty microbacteria of the tomb of Tutankhamen up for some air.

Lady Almina, it was, who opened the hospital up as a place to recieve men back from the trenches in the first world war.

The place, remodelled by Sir Charles Barry (who did the Houses of Parliament) has a deeply dramatic feel. It is designed like a film set in Jacobethan splendour, and the central saloon is surrounded by balconies at which one can look down, observe, and whisper.

The grounds are splendid too: and there I was allowed to take photographs. Join me on a tour.

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