I am one of the many who was charmed by the Downton Abbey series and the goings on both upstairs and down in a large stately home in the early 20th century. It also spanned the time of the First World War which has been uppermost in so many minds of late as we live through the centenary commemorations of so many dreadful battles. Having been beguiled by these tales and equally beguiled by the setting, in 2015 I headed off to visit Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey. Here the beautiful surroundings enchanted me and the house, standing proud in the midst of its stunning gardens, made an impressive statement. I can certainly imagine the impact on people coming up the long drive to be greeted by such an imposing sight. So what of the people who lived here, the real Downton Abbey? As luck would have it, the current Countess of Carnarvon has done a lot of research on her husband’s ancestors and one of the results of this is Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, of course I had to buy a copy.
The book did not disappoint, there is a glittering cast of characters full of the nobility and royalty. It is a big cast though and at times hard to keep up with who was who! It was helpful that some of the names were familiar to me though I wasn’t aware of the Carnarvon’s links to the Royal Family, nor their influence during World War One. In fact the part of the book during the period of the Great War was fascinating. Having watched Downton Abbey I knew that many great houses had been used as hospitals during the war and Highclere was no exception. The difference was in how the hospital was laid out, with the bedrooms at Highclere being used for individual men rather than a large ward set up in the main rooms downstairs. There was the also the question of how the nurses and doctors would be paid, to my surprise Almina funded that herself. Highclere did not remain a hospital for the duration of the war, to get the best doctors of the day Almina moved the hospital to London and continued to care for many heavily traumatised and injured men to the very end.
The other big story is the uncovering of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Another endeavour funded by the Carnarvons. There is no wonder Lord Carnarvon needed an injection of capital which his wife was able to supply through her family links to the Rothschilds. The success of the Egyptian endeavour is well known, to have the perspective of the family was fascinating.
Lady Fiona Carnarvon (the current Countess) has an easy writing style and her passion and enthusiasm in the history of her husband’s family shines through. This was history brought to life with real characters living through some gruesome times.