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A day out at Downton

April 26, 2019

I’ve never been into period dramas. Maybe it was being subjected to too many Merchant Ivory movies as a child, but the hoity-toity voices and the funny wigs never really appealed. They all seemed to have the same plot; a well-spoken stranger would enter a village full of half-drunk yokels, and before the first advert break there would be an illicit pregnancy, some sort of improbable sub-plot in which a heaving-breasted wench is blackmailed by a butcher, and a bar brawl. By the time the credits rolled, the posh stranger would have wed the village sweetheart, rescuing her from a life of drudgery at the Dog and Duck, and the locals would have gone back to punching one another.

They are always on a Sunday night, and for about three hours, and if you happen to miss an episode, don’t even attempt to try and catch up – the second sister will have died, there will have been another illegitimate baby, and you’ll spend most of the episode wondering why the action now appears to be set in France.

So, no, not a fan. Until…

On a particularly dark night in October last year, when I can only assume I was feeling a bit peaky and couldn’t be bothered to argue, Ben persuaded me to watch an episode of Downton Abbey.

Ben is a Downton fan, and has been for some time. He has a ‘I heart Downton Abbey’ sticker stuck (the wrong way round) in his camper van, and is particularly fond of Mrs Patmore. We watched one episode. Then we watched another. And then we watched the entire six series – all 52 episodes – including deleted scenes and bonus features, cast interviews and documentaries on the making of. I was hooked.

Despite knowing several plot twists ahead of time (having had to comfort Ben upon Matthew’s untimely demise), I was gripped. Maybe because I KNEW Matthew was going to come to a sticky end on a bend in his sporty new motor, it made his and Mary’s all-too-short romance all the sweeter. And because I know Dame Maggie is set to appear in the film (released this September, whoop!), I didn’t have to worry that any time the Countess got a cold there might be a funeral in the offing.

As with Game of Thrones (I’m starting to think I watch too much TV), which started again last week, #DatAbbey has plenty of death, family feuds, and even a fair amount of sex, given the constraints of the period and the Dowager Countess’ steely gaze. It’s highly entertaining, and kept us occupied through a cold, dark winter. And so it was that, upon completing the series and feeling a little lost, we did a bit of Googling and discovered that it is possible to visit the Abbey where the drama is set – or rather, the castle.

Highclere Castle is in Hampshire – an ancient building that has seen much transition, becoming a castle in 1850 – set in 1,000 acres of gorgeous gardens, and home to the Carnarvon family. It’s not owned by the National Trust, and the entry price (plus afternoon tea) is very reasonable – and so with the promise of a jam-and-cream topped scone at the end of the (very!) long drive, off we went, with both mothers in tow (also fans). And it’s amazing. You drive down a very grand, long and sweeping driveway, and glimpse the castle from quite a distance away. It already looks very large and only grows in stature and magnificence as you get closer.

We’d chosen a beautiful sunny day, and the wild flowers were out in force in-between the statuesque and centuries-old cedar of Lebanon trees (the location for the village fete where Edith is cruelly dumped by Sir Anthony Strallan). The folly at the end of the garden (where Anthony Gillingham and Charles Blake both realise they are about to get cruelly dumped by Mary) is another beauty spot, as are the walled and secret gardens where nobody got dumped, presumably because it’s too cramped to walk away in a huff.

But of course the main attraction is the house. Now, I had this wonderful vision of strolling around the rooms in my Lady Mary mask, lolloping on the furniture and taking selfies in the bathrooms. Sadly this is not to be. It was packed with people, photos are not permitted, and not even the real Lady Mary lolloped on anything other than the Turkish attaché (the handy signs throughout the house pinpoint the rooms where other notable characters met their glorious and inglorious ends). I soon got over my disappointment, however, as the house is just stunning. The rooms used in the show are exactly as they were left by the Crawley family when the cameras stopped rolling, with beautiful brocaded armchairs, exquisitely polished tables and chairs, the stately dining room and the leather (leather!) wallpaper in the grand hall. The red-carpeted grand stairs lead up to the bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms of the lords and ladies, as well as the viewing gallery where that strumpet Sarah Bunting got Tom into so much trouble.

Around the back are the stairs leading to the servants’ quarters – sadly, we were not allowed access to these, probably for fear that being in such close proximity to the chambermaids might increase visitors’ blood pressures just a little too much for the village doctor to cope with all at once.

Around a third of the house is open to visitors, with some of the remainder still in use by the family, as well as a good deal closed for restoration. It has over 50 bedrooms (that’s more than Milton Keynes’ IKEA), and countless works of art to keep clean. As in the series, the house was opened to convalescing patients during the Great War, and the family still display the keepsakes from those who recovered there. In the grand cellars below the house lie not racks of wine (at least not in the cellars I found) but replicas of Tutankhamun’s tomb, as the fifth earl of Carnarvon was one of the party that discovered it, in 1922, shortly before dying of blood poisoning. How that storyline, or some variation of it, didn’t make its way into Downton I’ll never know. Maybe it’ll be in the film.

All in all, a grand day out. While we scoffed scones in the tearooms we reflected on the history of the castle and its ancestors, passing the castle from generation to generation. Well no, we didn’t actually, we titted about pretending to be Carson and Mrs Patmore, and tried not to talk in a loud Yorkshire accent. But I’m sure we wouldn’t be the first. The fact the castle was packed on a Wednesday afternoon in April is in no small way down to the fact that a very popular TV series was set in its glorious surroundings, which got me thinking about how other landmarks in need of a bit of money for a leaky roof might follow the same example. Ely cathedral has recently been the setting for The Crown, and Macbeth. Perhaps if an enterprising screenwriter (me?) wrote some sort of clergy-based soap opera, set in a market town in the Fens at the turn of the century, the diocese’s financial troubles would be over forever. Now, who would Maggie play?

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