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So I went to Downton Abbey. The people who run it seem to want to call it Highclere Castle. I didn’t see any cannon or dragons or battlements, but if they want to call it a castle, I won’t argue, because they’re rich.
Highclere Castle, which is outside of Newbury, Berkshire, about 90 minutes by train west of London, isn’t open very often. But I get the impression the ancestral owners see some financial advantage to permitting the hoi polloi to traipse through their Secret Garden and grand Gallery in small doses, so they hire out for weddings and set a few open weekends throughout the warmer months. It’s £20 to get in and £10 for a guidebook, which probably wouldn’t pay for a screw in a light plate there, let alone fix a leaky roof from the Georgian period. There are also 1,000 acres of lush rolling English countryside to tend to, which I presume the 8th Earl of Carnarvon mows on a John Deere after the tourists stop smearing their fingers on his carved banisters and go home.
Highclere’s owners, who own it because they were born in the right family, won’t allow any photographs inside, which is odd because they allow TV crews to film for months a year and eat craft services in a tent in the yard and anyone can purchase the Blu-ray of Downton Abbey to see what they’re missing.
The interior looks exactly like it does on television—and I mean exactly. They even use the same furniture and the same portrait of Charles I (before decapitation) and the Van Dyck (a copy) over the dining room table. The cast must be terrified of breaking something. Allen Leech’s coveted Irish bottom gets planted on the same sofa that has been in the library since before the Great War. A few ground-floor rooms are off-limits for TV crews but not for day visitors. Mostly, they’re the ones that lie in a row out the back door of the Library. The Music Room contains a desk once owned by Napoleon, with a letter of provenance propped up on it, as if to prove it’s not used anymore. Generally, the unseen rooms are too small, too cheerful, or too packed with fading 16th-century Malatesta Palace embroidered wall hangings to allow for hot lights and the scrutiny of donor-supported public television.
• The coaches and tourist cars are parked in rows on the lawn outside the front door—the same door where the fox hunts used to begin.
• The front door of the house is only in sunlight in the morning, so all the scenes in which someone comes or goes out of it had better be shot after the crack of dawn.
• On the side of the building to the right of the front door are the much plainer service buildings. That’s where the restrooms and gift shop are. The fancy sandstone cladding of Highclere gives way to cheap old brick on that side. You never see that side on TV, either.
• The tower is not centered as you face the front of the Castle; it’s shifted to the right to maximize the effect when you see the building from a corner, as you do in the opening sequence of the show.
• The corners of the original Georgian building were embellished with towers. Downstairs, they’re where the convention seating is stored for weddings and events. Upstairs, they were converted to ensuite bathrooms for the bedrooms, which were built before indoor plumbing was common.
Another thing you don’t see on Downton: The basement is not where the servants scrabble (that’s a soundstage at Ealing Studios, which you can reach on the Piccadilly Line in West London), but a strange Egyptian-themed museum collection in the cellar. You see, the esteemed 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who lived there at the turn of the last century, was a bit of an asshole, but he was applauded for his wealth rather than getting the kick in the rear he really deserved.
When automobiles first went on sale, he developed a thing for fast cars, and his health suffered from repeatedly running them into objects and slow-moving poor people. When at last chasing women began to prove difficult, his doctor suggested a spell somewhere warm. He chose Egypt, which Britain had colonized, and once he arrived, began digging around to disturb all the Pharaoh resting places he could locate. He paid for Howard Carter to tear up Luxor in pursuit of King Tut’s tomb, and in most of the photos taken at the time of the discovery, the Earl was often the photographer and therefore rarely in the shot. It has been noted that for several days after the discovery, Carnarvon and Carter kept the press at bay, which would have given them ample time to secret out some of the goodies for their own gain.
His descendents still exhibit some of his (documented) Egyptian booty in their basement, along with other implements of the Earl’s obliviously privileged life, such as the roster of his golf association, which is displayed to stoke a sense of admiration for his sporting good nature but, given its position amongst hundreds of items he stole from gravesites, comes across a rather more entitled.
When you watch Hugh Bonneville in the library on Downton, he’s literally standing a few feet above cases of golden pillage stolen from ancient gravesites by a rich Englishman, the same one who bought those books on the shelves behind him, the ones you thought were harmless props. With such bad karma underfoor, it’s no wonder Black Widow Mary’s boyfriends keep dying.
The 5th Earl died in Cairo in a shaving accident (true) immediately after finding the tomb—something about a Pharaoh’s curse that killed his dog Susie here at the house on the same day; you can see the fateful razor in the museum—and alas, he would not live to revel in the joys of hiding Egypt’s precious heritage in his cellar.
The Earl who succeeded him, the 6th, squandered much of the family fortune at the track. Earl the 7th by most accounts let everything go to seed, including the roof, the neglect of which in favor of breeding thoroughbred racing horses for his friend Queen Elizabeth resulted in the ruin of the top floor. So the present 8th Earl, Queen Liz’s godson, who is by all accounts a great guy who astonishes all those around him by doing such radical things as being friendly to strangers and wearing jeans, has had to make ends meet by opening his house to TV actors and kindergarten school groups and snarky travel bloggers.
Lord and Lady Carnarvon, young and dynamic and showing no signs of their blithely imperialist origins, mingle with the visitors on the open days. They also book some live music to play in the gallery; on our day, it was a women’s chorus. Almost as soon as they got me out the gates, the owners readied the premises for the shooting of Season Five.
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