Dave Tooze reports on the recent OCs' trip to Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey)
OCs’ Trip to Highclere Castle – 16th August 2017
At last the long awaited visit got underway, as Turner's Coach, complete with our friendly driver John, left Colston’s at 9.30am with 12 of the regular “tourists” on board, plus newcomers Neil and Lizzie Gallant who we were very pleased to welcome. A further 14 OCs and wives, many avoiding the Bromley Heath roadworks, joined the coach at the Compass Inn, Tormarton. We had waited over seven months for this trip since, due to the massive popularity of the television series “Downton Abbey”, plus the fact that Highclere is open less than 70 days a year, there is a substantial waiting timescale for party visits.
In barely an hour, we were relaxing in the comfort of the Carnarvon Arms, O.C. Quentin Williams pub, enjoying liberal supplies of coffee, even a beer, before completing the final half mile to our destination.
Your author prefered a cool drink to coffee
Highclere Castle is an imposing spectacle, situated on elevated ground, amidst 1000 acres of rolling Berkshire parkland, a few miles south of Newbury. There is a record of the original site in the Doomsday Book, and the estate was the property of the Bishops of Winchester, before becoming the home of the Earls of Carnarvon in 1679. However, Highclere was totally remodelled and rebuilt from 1839 to 1842 in the Jacobethan (or Jacobean Revival) style. The architect, Sir Charles Barry, simultaneously had a major involvement in designing the Houses of Parliament, hence there is a marked similarity in the external features of the two buildings.
The effect of “Downton Abbey” on Highclere cannot be overstated. The TV series was created and written by the well known actor and playwright Julian Fellowes, a close friend of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Whether this association led to Highclere being chosen as the location for the series can only be surmised. The programme was initially floated as a speculative venture, but with an engaging plot, and an array of acting talent such as Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, progressed to become a huge worldwide success with an audience of 120 million viewers. The initial programme eventually extended to six series/fifty-two episodes, and a film version is not being discounted. As a result, visitor numbers to Highclere have increased more than six-fold from around 250 per day to 15/1600, in addition to a number of “Downton” themed events. This has handsomely funded an urgently needed multi-million pound major repair and refurbishment programme to the Castle exterior and some inside rooms.
Our visit focused on three specific areas – the Castle itself, the Egyptian Exhibition, and the Gardens.
The Castle featured a number of impressive rooms, notably the Library with a collection of 5,650 books, and the Drawing Room with walls decorated in French green silk by the 5th Countess, a member of the Rothschild family. The Saloon or Main Hall led to a grand staircase, spiralling up to the 1st floor bedrooms. A number of paintings and portraits adorned most rooms, pride of place being a Van Dyck portrait of Charles I dominating the Dining Room. Many rooms included photographs from Downton Abbey as filmed on location in the Castle. Also mentioned were the details of the diverse family interests and involvements, notably the transformation of the Castle into a military hospital for WW1 casualties, an involvement in early aviation through an association with Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, the 7th Earl had been H.M. the Queen’s Horse Racing Manager in the 1970/80s, and a golf course and club set up on the estate.
A galleried first floor overlooking the Saloon, contained 12 bedrooms which are viewable from the doorways (probably to keep the large number of visitors moving), but were spacious and much lighter than many older stately homes. On the second and third floors are a further 50 rooms, but these are not open to the public, as the Castle is very much a living home, inhabited by the current (8th) Earl and Countess, who vacate to a cottage on the estate during the summer visitor periods.
Adjacent to the Castle is a large stable yard (a blacksmith was shoeing horses during our visit), leading to two very pleasant tearooms and a gift shop. As the O.C.’s usual good fortune with the weather had fully returned (after the damp day at St. Fagan’s) many of the party took an al fresco snack lunch, taking advantage of a delightful sunny day.
OCs "al fresco"!
The Egyptian Exhibition, located in the Castle basement, reflects the monumental contribution the 5th Earl of Carnarvon made to the exploration and discovery of numerous Pharaohic burial sites and artefacts, during the early 1900s. Any visitor to Egypt will be aware of the respect and reverence in which “Lord” Carnarvon, and his partner “Mr” Howard Carter are held to this day. The highlight of their achievements was the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of Kings in 1922. Tutankhamun died at a very early age, thus not permitting time to build the usual extravagant pyramid, and the tomb entrance is little more than a hole in the ground. The counter benefit was that this did not attract the attention of tomb robbers, hence this discovery led to an intact treasure trove of sarcophagae, jewellery, and artefacts, which now have pride of place in the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, and have been exhibited worldwide. Sadly the Earl died in 1923, due to septicaemia following a mosquito bite, so did not live to see the full extent of the ongoing exploration and revelation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. A further misfortune was the need to sell a significant amount of his personal collection of exhibits in order to pay death duties.
Nonetheless, a good mix of original, and replica artefacts, and comprehensive details of the Earl’s work, expeditions, and achievements make up a fascinating exhibition at Highclere.
The gardens are a panorama of down and woodland, landscaped by the famous Capability Brown, whose expertise we have encountered on last summer’s trip to Blenheim Palace. A walk from the Castle takes the visitor through grass and wild flower meadows, down to the more formal settings of the Secret Garden, the Wood of Goodwill, the Monks, and Wild Gardens where an array of flowers, herbs and shrubs awaits. Prominent amongst the many trees on the estate were a number of huge Cedars, some reputedly 250 years old. Two follies, the Etruscan Temple, and the Jackdaw Castle provided a welcome location in which to sit, relax and soak up the sunshine.
Yet another Bob Jennings master-stroke was to complete the day with an evening meal at Quentin Williams pub. Quentin has enjoyed a galactic career in the brewing/licenced trade, and a visit to the Carnarvon Arms illustrates why. The former coaching inn, named after the Highclere aristocracy was purchased from celebrity chef, Marco Pierre White, in 2015, and was extensively refurbished. The result is the creation of a welcoming, spacious yet intimate atmosphere, real fire places, superb décor and comfortable quality furnishings. In front of the pub is a sun drenched patio where a number of locals were enjoying the fine weather. Add in the 19 guest rooms, close proximity to the A34, Highclere, and Newbury it is hardly surprising the Carnarvon Arms was crowned “Historic Luxury Pub of the Year” in 2016.
"Another Bob Jennings master-stroke"
We were welcomed with a complimentary glass of champagne, or a London Pride, followed by a variety of superb meals with excellent and attentive service. One OC. opined that this was probably the best pub he had ever entered, others agreed that further pubs in the group must also merit a visit. (A perusal of the website of Redcomb Pubs Ltd, shows that most of the pubs are situated in London or the home counties, although one (The Seagate) is on the seafront at Appledore, little over a mile from Royal North Devon Golf Club).
After bidding farewell to Quentin and Sarah, we were on a jovial trip home, with much reminiscing of a most excellent day.
Sarah and Quentin in front of Highclere Castle
Thanks again are due to Bob Jennings, Tracy Mace, Quentin for his top hospitality, plus Martin Tayler and Doug Lodge for their customary photographic recording of a brilliant day.
Sue and Doug (the other side of the camera for a change)
OCs and ladies on the trip were:
Peter Beasley Neil and Lizzie Gallant Ian and Gail Gunn John and Margaret Harris Alan Hale Nick and Jane Humphries Bob and Wendy Jennings Doug and Sue Lodge Richard and Tracy Mace Richard and Debbie Pring Jeff Savage Martin and Wendy Tayler Dave Tooze Mike and Maureen Wood John and Marilyn Wright Quentin Williams and Sarah Mark and Fiona Wyatt
Forthcoming O.C.s Events
Sunday, 10th September 2017 – Golf Society Meeting – Royal North Devon Saturday, 16th October 2017 – Annual Dinner – School
We are sorry to report that OC Brian Smith has passed away at the age of 81
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