WANDERING ROUND HIGHCLERE CASTLE !!
Yes - we visited Highclere Castle for a book-launch last week - Lady Carnarvon has written the second book detailing the real goings on in the castle during the Downton Abbey era - and we got a little tour - fascinating stuff !!
These days, Adam, in his capacity as Official Buyer of Books for the RHS, receives some rather amazing invitations to rather high class book-launch events - this Summer alone, we have:-
1. Visited a birthday party for a publisher held at the Orangery in Kensington Palace (with a Palace tour included)
2. Attended two separate book launches at Kew Gardens
3. Been invited to the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s beautiful Mosaic Rooms in Kensington, for a marvellous cookery book launch concerning dates in all their forms and variations.
4. Attended a book launch, this time a crime thriller, hosted by the Finnish Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens, which runs along the back of the park and palace grounds, and houses dozens of Embassies.
5. Been invited to the stunningly beautiful function rooms at Fortnum & Mason's in Piccadilly, for a rather fantastic cake and biscuit cookery book launch.
6. Attended a party at the ICA for the launch of a 1980s fashion book, at which I could have bumped into numerous friends from the 80s New Romantic/Blitz Era at St. Martins School of Art, but sadly didn't !!
Then - last week, we went off to the amazing stately home where they have been filming 'Downton Abbey' - the Earls of Carnarvon family pile in Berkshire, Highclere Castle !!
This is where we were ushered into when we arrived - the huge library, which is used a lot in filming !! It's a beautiful spacious room lined with around 5650 antique books, the oldest I understand to be from the 1500s. We were served coffee in bone china cups and saucers, and orange juice, by a uniformed waiter, and offered breakfast pastries - cinnamon swirls and mini pain-au-chocolat !! Very nice too...
We were then ushered round the main rooms of the castle and introduced individually to the huge portraits lining the walls, many of whom were the Earl of Carnarvon's own family ancestors dating back to the early 1800s, and also the earlier holders of the Carnarvon title, dating back to the 1600s.
Here, I feel I must explain to anyone who isn't aware, that a British title comes and goes - a family may hold it for generations and then die out, or perhaps in earlier centuries, they may have fallen into disfavour with the reigning monarch and got unceremoniously stripped of said title - and in both cases, the title then goes into abeyance. It's then in the power of the monarch to award it to another person if they do something marvellous to deserve it !! Sometimes a house and/or land goes with the title. Players of the game 'Kingmaker' will be familiar with this method of giving out honours.
Here's the amazing Central Hall, just in front of the entrance hall where you come in - this space looked like an Italian villa - all carved stone arches and pillars and a first floor balcony which ran all round four sides - simply breathtaking - imagine Juliet's balcony X 10 !! The arches and pillars go up into a vaulted ceiling which is glazed to let the light in - so this space is light and airy...
Here's a higher-up photo to show the beautiful stonework:-
This is the main staircase going up off the Central Hall - a beautiful wide staircase with shallow steps, designed for huge Victorian skirts - this is definitely a staircase to make an entrance down...good for weddings !!
Here's the beautiful Drawing room - the room where the ladies withdrew to after dinner, for coffee and ladylike chats, whilst the men enjoyed liqueurs and cigars in the library !! The Drawing room was decorated in delicate pastel green, creams and gold, and is one of the main rooms used for filming too..
On to the pretty Music Room below, where no musical instruments reside now - it's too small for the rather larger concerts and recitals they hold there now - these days they are more likely to erect a huge stage in the grounds for an open-air concert instead !! They do have Napolean's desk though, and exquisite tapestries from Italy line the walls of this room..
The massive Dining-room, with all the family portraits looking down at you, dominated by a huge portrait of King Charles I by none other than Van Dyck - with a horse that has a slightly out-of proportion head - too small, but painted that way on purpose, otherwise he would obscure the face of the king !!
The dining table extends to seat about twenty people I understand.
We also saw some of the main bedrooms used for brides to get changed in, and the main characters' bedrooms in 'Downton Abbey', including the red bedroom, which was actually used for the King when he was in residence - our present Queen has also stayed at Highclere in the past.
After our tour of the main rooms upstairs, we all went down to the basement, where the servants would have worked in past times - these days the kitchens and sculleries aren't even used for filming - those are all done on stage sets in Ealing Studios - oh but no, there was a further treat down in the Basement rooms of Highclere Castle...here's a clue :-
Guess who ?!!
Yes - for those of you who haven't yet made the connection, it was the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who financed the explorations of Howard Carter, who uncovered the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th Century, in Luxor's Valley of the Kings - the tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun...and there is a small, but simply amazing, exhibition of the Egyptian artefacts they managed to save from death duties sales when Lord Carnarvon died.
They have also created an entire copy of the actual tomb, as it looked when it was uncovered - there's a dark passageway, at the end of which is a wall with various height letterboxes through which you can peep !! You get a real understanding of how it felt to discover this tomb for the very first time - you can just about glimpse huge statues with the tantalising glint of gold, and chariot wheels stacked against the wall, chairs and thrones, seats and chests all piled higgledy-piggledy against the walls and floor :-
"At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold"
They have a truly wonderful exhibition at Highclere Castle, with a complete reconstruction of the actual tomb, and all the layers of mummy-cases and a copy of the golden mask. Beautiful stuff and fascinating account of the whole discovery. Lots of artefacts too - copies of chests and chairs and statues, and wall paintings too. Real artefacts fill the display cases in room 1, with the copies in room 2.
These are real discoveries - the oldest ceramics ever discovered and a complete female mummy-case accompanied by lots of jewellery, and loads and loads of small household objects, which the 7th Lord Carnarvon amazingly managed to conceal in a small cupboard in between two doorways, when the death-duty tax men came round...
Here's the current 8th Earl and Lady Carnarvon - Lady Carnarvon hosted us and talked about her latest book 'Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey' - about her husband's Grandmother, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon's American wife, Catherine Wendell...Adam had a nice chat with her about possibly coming to RHS Wisley and doing a talk and sign some books. She was friendly and humorously self-effacing, and she came across as charming and happy to oblige...
On leaving the Castle, we asked if it was OK for us to visit the gardens before we left, and they said 'Yes, of course - please do !!' So we did...
I couldn't resist taking this photo of the front of the house with this amazing Rolls-Royce - perhaps a prop, as they hired three or four actors to dress up in 1920s dress, and sit and pose in some of the rooms as we walked round - great fun !!
Down behind the house at the end of a long gravel walk is the stunningly beautiful Secret Garden...
Through the gate and into a squar-ish area of lawn with gravel paths and long lavender beds down each side, a large circular bed with huge bushes of small and rather rambling roses in the centre, and along bed of spiky summer flowers along the top...and rather fetching hedge arches down each path !!
Through another tiny gate at the bottom and round into the actual Secret Garden, which you would miss entirely if you didn't have directions !! This garden has a wiggly lawn going down the centre with massive curvy beds of shrubs down each side - an absolute haven for wildlife, the whole garden was alive with bees and butterflies of all kinds - I've never seen quite so many happy insects in one place !!
This amazing white Hydrangea was covered in Peacock butterflies, who really didn't want to be photographed - they were flitting from flower to flower so fast, it was nigh on impossible to catch them !!
You can just see the edge of a wing about half way down the right hand side here...
This Poached Egg bush was the biggest I've ever seen and simply buzzing with hundreds of bees...
Looking back the way we had come - a beautiful garden and one which someone takes great pride in - that's obvious !!
All in all, a very happy day and very interesting indeed - and as these book-launch events go, certainly one of the best, and definitely worth taking a day off work for, one which I was owed anyway !! We stopped for a really ace pub lunch just outside the castle grounds, and arrived back home about 4pm !! Highclere Castle is definitely recommended going to see if you can possibly get there, especially if you're a 'Downton Abbey' fan, and particularly also if you're looking for a nice posh wedding venue !!
Their website is here :-
That's not all though - on September 10th, we get to go and have a wander round Highgrove - at Prince Charles invitation, obviously - what larks !!