Visit Highclere Castle – number 21

We have just returned from a lovely weekend away and properly immersed ourselves in Downton Abbey mania. We got into Downton quite late, it was not until series three was about to air that we started watching it. Fortunately, ITV3 re-ran the previous two series in the lead up so we were able to catch up quickly. Our favourite is, without a doubt, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Grantham and the great put down lines that were written for her. But we love the pace of life, tracing the differences between today and then and of course the story lines.

I’ll come back to Downton in a moment. It seems only right and proper to tell the weekend as a whole. It started on the Saturday and we headed down towards Wiltshire. We chose for some reason to go M1, M25, M4.

The Road to Hell...

The Road to Hell…

Well, the M1 was ok but the M25 was, well I suppose normal! Chris Rea was right, it really is the ‘Road to Hell’. We persevered, our only other choice was to head through Watford and that really didn’t appeal. Eventually we found the M4 and guess what? More speed restrictions and we queued to get on it. Grumpiness was building but thankfully the bottle neck was short lived and we were able to finally get out of third gear! However, the breakfast time pot of tea was starting to take its toll and a pit stop at the services was needed. We turned off and into…another queue! I have never seen such a busy services and the layout and parking was atrocious. It was a quick in and out to queue again to get back on the motorway. Relieved we trundled on hoping that would be the worst of the traffic over, and thankfully it was.

Our first excursion for our weekend was at Avebury, somewhere I have never been though I have visited it’s slightly more famous nearby cousin of Stonehenge. Although still stone circles, Avebury is very different to Stonehenge and what is most pleasing is that you can get right up to the stones and touch them.

6000 years standing - wow!

6000 years standing – wow!

There are many theories as to how and why these stones were placed where they are, but in my opinion nobody knows for sure and that I find rather satisfying. Our ancestors from thousands of years ago, and very probably over a period of 1000 years, built something amazing and that has lasted far longer than anything we build today is likely to. The why doesn’t matter to me, it is just their being that is amazing.

Having walked through the stones we then headed to our B&B, a spacious yet cosy loft area. Being intrepid explorers (erm…!?!?!?) we decided to walk to the pub for our dinner. This involved tramping over fields in the fading light with little knowledge of where we were going. Still, it was only a mile. Fortunately I had brought my umbrella and some walking shoes and the directions given to us were easy to follow. It took a little longer than expected and we arrived at the pub a little damp and very ready for our dinner. Except, they had a big party in and couldn’t fit us in, at least they couldn’t take our order for another hour or more. So we headed back out into the damp to find the next pub, another mile down the road. We arrived damper and even more ready for our dinner and thankfully they were able to accommodate us.

Suitably refreshed after our dinner and a good night’s sleep we headed to Downton….sorry Highclere! I have been looking forward to this for a long time, but really to see the inside of the house. I have never felt that Highclere is the best looking house. I am spoilt really, living so close to Woburn Abbey which is a very beautiful building and another of my favourites is Castle Howard. Both are sprawling houses, inviting your into their grand entrances and most definitely built to impress. Highclere Castle is very different Victorian Gothic (or Jacobethan) architecture, very square and on the TV not so imposing. I was in for a very pleasant surprise as we drove along the drive through the rolling countryside and the house came into view.

Highclere Downton Castle Abbey

Highclere Downton Castle Abbey

Every bit as imposing as Woburn and Castle Howard, Highclere sits magnificently in its surroundings rising up proudly to greet you. I was so very glad to be there and experience this house for real. It is in some ways more compact than other big houses but in many ways this makes it more accessible. We were able to walk all the way round it, admiring the arches and intricacies all the way round. A pleasing cup of tea in the coach house preceded our amble around the fine grounds. A word about the cup of tea (or coffee for himself), in most places like this I come away feeling robbed the price is so high, but not here, £1.50 for a pot of tea and another £1.50 for a filter coffee. It made it taste even better!

Our trip inside the house was after lunch. No photography was allowed inside which is a great shame on the one hand, but on the other made sure we concentrated on what we could see and just enjoyed the experience. Walking in was just like heading onto the set of Downton, it was grand, beautiful and familiar all at the same time. I love that this house is lived in, I love that a TV programme has enabled the family to stay, live there and carry out renovations. There are lovely family pictures all around the house (not all grand paintings!) and a real fusion of the old and the new. They make the most of the Downton connection (and why shouldn’t they?) but it is clear that this is the Carnarvon’s house. Upstairs was a bit busy as we queued in the narrow corridors to peek into the bedrooms. It must be amazing to sleep there (as they are clearly still in use) but most odd to get up in the morning, tidy everything away in the knowledge that a huge line of people will come peering in. I’m glad my bedroom isn’t quite so scrutinised.

We discovered the Downton kitchen is a set, but the visit downstairs at Highclere was no less interesting for that. Here, the Egyptian connection manifested itself in a wonderful exhibition. A 5500 year old sarcophagus with exquisite detail decorating the outside, colours that were once probably incredibly vibrant still radiated their beauty. It is very humbling to see such amazing work carried out so very long ago.

King Tutenkhamen's mask © Mohamed Soliman

King Tutenkhamen’s mask © M Soliman

The next room held memories of the unveiling of the tomb of Tutankhamen. Everything is a replica (the originals are quite rightly in Cairo) but this did not detract from their beauty. What a moment that must have been when Howard Carter looked into the tomb and relayed to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon  up above that he could see ‘many wonderful things’.

The 5th Earl was clearly quite a character with his Egyptian adventures and escapades in motor cars. Despite all the danger he put himself in it was an infected mosquito bite that killed him (unless you prefer to believe the curse of King Tut…). I’d had such a wonderful day I was inspired to buy the two books written by the current Lady Carnarvon. The first is about Lady Almina, wife of the quirky 5th Earl and inspiration for Lady Grantham in Downton. I’m looking forward to reading this (in fact I’ve started it!) but I have three other books to get through first!

This had been a wonderful day, we returned to our B&B with the rain falling again but with smiles on our faces. The first thing we did….order the box set of Downton on DVD. Well, we have to watch it again now don’t we?

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