One of my dearest friends sent me a message yesterday. The message said,
‘As you know Janet I’m a big Downton Abbey fan, do you think there is any possibility that we could visit the house where they filmed Downton Abbey, when I’m visiting England next month’
As soon as I saw this heartfelt request I knew I wanted to make this happen. My mind began buzzing and spiralling and doing a few daring loop-the-loops. I already knew that Highclere Castle, the privately-owned stately home that is the setting for Downton Abbey has (to put it mildly) quirky opening times. I’d tried to visit in April – no luck, then again a month or so later with the same result. A quick scan of their web site revealed that they open for about 60 days of the year (out of 365), so that gave me a 16% chance of success. The house is also, somewhat bizarrely closed on Fridays and Saturdays. I noticed that the web site mentioned some special tours in October and November, the exact time when my American friend would be visiting. I held my breath, would a date be available that fitted in with our schedule. I scanned the dates for the ‘limited edition’ tours. Almost not daring to look. With a stroke of pure serendipity one of the dates available was late October, when Mary Lou would be visiting me. I couldn’t type the required information into the booking form quickly enough. When the Confirmation button popped up on my computer screen I was over-joyed.
I couldn’t wait to share the news with Mary Lou. No matter that it was 5 o’clock in the morning in Mackinaw City, Michigan. That didn’t deter me one jot. I messaged Mary Lou to share my brilliant news – I had pulled off the impossible, I declared. I had acquired for us, two tickets to visit Highclere Castle on 29th October, 2017. How very exciting!
The owners and residents of Highclere Castle are Lord & Lady Carnarvon. They are (in many ways) typical British aristocrats. The present Lord Carnarvon is the 8th Earl. He and Lady Carnarvon have the unenviable task of balancing tremendous inherited wealth in terms of property and land with the millstone of costs and responsibility that comes with it. Constantly worrying about how to fund the roof repairs of the west wing or the re-leading of the stable block. Then Julian Fellowes came along, wrote a brilliant story based on a fabulous country house and the fictional Grantham family that lived there. As luck would have it Highclere was perfect for the starring role. Let’s say that Lord & Lady C’s boat had come in…………
The success of Downton Abbey has changed things significantly at Highclere Castle, all of a sudden there is a demand, an almost insatiable demand for all things Downton. Not wanting to miss out on the Downton fervour, Lord & Lady Carnarvon have responded brilliantly. Lady Carnarvon has written about Highclere and its fascinating history. She is also an entertaining public speaker and tirelessly promotes ‘Downton’ in the UK and United States.
Highclere Castle has an interesting history in its own right. The present house was designed in the 1830s by Charles Barry. The same architect that designed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. The style is flamboyant, massive, inspirational. Disraeli, probably the most characterful Prime Minister of the 19th century described Highclere as ‘scenical’ such was his exuberance on visiting the house. During the First World War (1914-1918), Almina, the 5th Lady Carnarvon converted the house into a military hospital nursing soldiers wounded in the fields of Flanders and Northern France.
Then in the 1920s something very exciting happened. Lord Carnarvon was very interested in Egypt and the new ‘science’ of Egyptology. He funded an archaeologist called Howard Carter to excavate in Egypt, in the Valley of the Kings. In 1922 Howard Carter came across the entrance to a tomb that was sealed and locked. It had not been looted and ransacked, like so many others. He sent a telegram to England requesting that Lord Carnarvon travel out to Egypt to be present when Carter and his team opened up the tomb. Several months later Lord Carnarvon arrived in Egypt. He and Howard Carter entered the locked tomb together. The treasures revealed inside the tomb were spectacular. Carter had revealed the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the boy king. Buried in a sea of treasures and riches. The whole event was recorded by a photographer and became a global news sensation. Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter entered the history books as key figures in the development of Egypt’s archaeological history.
OXFORD, SEPTEMBER 2017
Meanwhile back in Oxford, having pulled off the purchase of a couple of tickets to Highclere Castle and feeling thoroughly pleased with myself, I set off into town to visit the Griffith Institute. The Griffith Institute is one of many strange and slightly secretive archives in Oxford that houses photographs, notebooks, journals and materials associated with archaeology in Egypt. There was a private tour booked for a small number of alumni (former students of the university) and I was part of that group. It is a fascinating collection of manuscripts, drawings and paintings. However the highlight of the event for me was seeing the original diary and journal of Howard Carter, from 1922, written at the time when he realised that he had discovered a very, very important tomb. Now how’s that for serendipity!
Firstly, there was Mary Lou’s request to visit Downton Abbey, known as Highclere Castle, in real life. Then there was the association between Lord Carnarvon and archaeology in Egypt. The very same day that I was thinking about Highclere and its fascinating history I find myself face to face with the original journal and diary of Howard Carter from 1922. The other major element of serendipity here is Julian Fellowes decision to write a story about a typical British country house and the aristocratic residents. A decision that the present Lord and Lady Carnarvon will be thankful for permanently. That’s serendipity!
- The web site of Highclere Castle is interesting and informative – Highclere Castle
- During the First World War, Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, transformed the Castle into a hospital, and patients began to arrive from Flanders in September 1914. She became an adept nurse and a skilled healer and hundreds of letters from patients and their families testify to her untiring work and spirit of generosity.
- The Castle returned to a private home after the First World War. Then in 1922 the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt.
- This discovery fascinated the chattering classes of Europe and the USA
- Carter’s journal and diary are held at The Griffith Institute, Oxford University.
- An article from the Telegraph about Lady Carnarvon A behind-the-scenes article about the current Countess of Carnarvon and her life at Highclere