Dame Maggie Smith has commented in the press that her role as the Dowager in “Downton Abbey” had a natural limitation given that otherwise she would soon be approaching her 120th fictional birthday. My son was born at the turn of the last century and medical experts suggest that the life expectancy of his generation may well exceed 100 years so perhaps Maggie Smith had less to worry about than she thought. Despite such discussions, there is no doubt that her work commitments and outstanding achievements are a beacon to us all. Another British icon Mary Berry never stops delighting us on TV and in books; Dame Helen Mirren adorns couture catwalks as well as films, whilst Dame Judy Dench has mixed Shakespeare with “James Bond” and the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” where Maggie Smith joined her before returning later in the year to film “Downton Abbey”.
Hollywood has a reputation for focusing on youth and perfection yet, to my mind, the great charm of Downton Abbey is the mix of ages, looks and characters. It was about Anna, Daisy and her young beau, William, his older father, as well as Lord Grantham, Lady Rose (Lily James), a school teacher, a butler, Dr Clarkson and a Dowager. It follows characters of all ages through a decade of their life, as they all get a little bit older.
Equally the “Real Downton” Highclere Castle and Estate is also populated by characters of all ages, from youngsters in the tearooms during the summer holidays embarking on their first job, to veteran and apprentice gardeners, housekeepers, guides in their eighties still going strong. One of our most important team members, Les, celebrated his 90th birthday last week. He is certainly one of my beacons: the only trouble with getting older is that birthdays come round with increasing speed each year.
Living at Highclere reminds me of a line by Robert Browning (1812-1889) “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” Robert Browning was, in fact, a frequent visitor to Highclere and I suspect he was thinking of his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning who was perhaps the more exceptional poet. Their courtship and marriage was a very moving story of love.
Marrying Geordie, I was the newcomer and knew from the beginning that everyone else knew far more than I did. Therefore, my first task was to listen, observe and reflect. Highclere needs to move with the times yet keep its heart and my role was to try to help my husband steer and curate his family home. The clue is in the name – it is a Stately Home in a spectacular Park which could be enhanced, re-tuned and brought more to life. I think of it as curating the heart of a home, the stories and characters; looking after those who work with us today and sharing the stories of some of those who lived or worked here in the past.
In “Downton Abbey”, cast members retired to find other roles in film or TV and a number of storylines developed from there. At the Real Downton, we rarely retire. Some opt to go part time; others join us after retiring from other jobs. It is a community of all ages, abiding together in times of trouble, turning their hands to our next event or even playing Rounders on the lawn on a spare afternoon. I remain honoured to work with Les and Pat, Mike, young Brian (who is a very young at 75), John G and his sense of humour, our interns James or Robert, the girls in the office in their twenties and those in the gift shop, some of whom are sailing happily into their 70’s and 80’s. Living here, growing older, making new friends, laughing with old friends, I know more, understand more and can share more.
A Stately Home is almost “visible” history and, amongst the centuries old cedar trees, gives one a real sense of both mortality and immortality.
Amongst these more sober reflections, it is essential to live in the moment, to enjoy parties and never act too old – just like Les. I used to know Noel Cowards lyrics “I went to a marvellous party” off by heart and these are the last few lines:
“We talked about growing old gracefully
And Elsie who’s seventy-four said: it’s a question of being sincere,
And B, if you’re supple you’ve nothing to fear.
Then she swung upside down from a glass chandelier,
I couldn’t have liked it more.”
Thus, I close with photos of laughter: