By Yvonne Raptis
When I started working at Royal Oak in October 2012 I had heard all the hype about the television series “Downton Abbey” but hadn’t seen any of it. A few weeks later Julian Fellowes was honored at the annual Timeless Design gala, and I knew that the series had stirred up a lot of interest in the British country house among Americans, so I thought that I had better get up to speed and watch Downton Abbey. At the gala I kept my eyes away from the screen as images from the current series were being shown, and I hadn’t quite caught up yet. Yes, I know that it is very much life in a country house through rose colored spectacles, and I’m sure that most of the nobility were not that kind and generous to the servants, but it’s great drama, with a fabulous cast, a matchless setting, sumptuous costumes (I want lady Mary’s wardrobe!) and cliff hangers galore. My daughter is also a big fan, so we decided that we should visit Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey, where the scenes above stairs were shot. The house is situated in Hampshire about 65 miles west of London and only open to visitors for a few weeks in the summer. To get tickets you have to buy online the day that they go on sale, as they sell out very quickly. The two hour drive from home was certainly worth it.
We spent a happy hour wandering round the grounds – first stop was Jackdaws Castle, one of several follies in the vicinity. Next stop the Monks’ Garden, then the Walled Garden and the Secret Garden, all in full bloom. A stroll back uphill through the wild flower meadow gives you a fantastic view of the house and brings you to the stable yard. No photography is allowed inside the house but I can assure you that the furnishings and art work are beautiful. I particularly liked the French green silk which covers the walls of the drawing room, and the red silk hung on the walls of the Stanhope bedroom for a visit by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, and featured in Downton Abbey as Kamal Pamuk’s bedroom. Exotic silk for an exotic foreigner! Almina, wife to the 5th Earl, was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, who gave her a fortune during her years at Highclere, which she used to decorate and furnish the house, and throw lavish parties.
The fifth Earl of Canarvon and his colleague Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankahmun in 1922. The Earl died shortly afterwards from a blood infection he got when he cut a mosquito bite while shaving. At the moment of his death in Cairo the lights went out all over the city, and apparently back home at Highclere his dog died, so there was much speculation about a curse on those who opened the tomb. In the basement of the house is an interesting exhibition of original Egyptian relics from the tombs that the Earl and Carter had already discovered, and you can also see the Earl’s razor! There are also replicas of the golden artefacts from Tutankahmun’s tomb as the originals are owned by the Egyptian government.
If you are interested in the history of the house and family, the current, 8th Countess has written two books – “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” and “Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey”.