Go down to the Egyptian exhibition here at Highclere and look across the first room showing the highlights of the story of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Look past the 3,000-year-old coffin of Irtyru and you will see a solid old grey door in the far corner.
If you pull it open and peek around the corner you will find some unexpected people: the space is decorated as a wallpapered cosy ante room containing the figures of Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter around a desk. In reality, it is their replicas – modern well-dressed mummies – but nevertheless it does make quite a few people start, no doubt helped by the low-level lighting!
Recovering, you continue on and are met by a life size photograph of both men. I hope you almost feel as if you can shake hands with them. Walk on through into what was once a beer cellar and you can begin to explore some the 5th Earl’s life here at Highclere.
One display cabinet focuses on travel and sets out how he made the journey to Egypt every year. It is some 3,500 miles from Highclere to Cairo and for centuries the major part of visiting another country was simply getting there, the journey itself far more of an adventure and more social than just navigating the passport queues and shops of an airport terminal.
Lord Carnarvon’s route usually took him first by car to Southampton, thence by boat to France and thence by train to Paris, a city he loved. Given he was more or less fluent in French, he enjoyed browsing the antique bookshops and visiting his friends there. From there, it was a train down to Marseilles where he would board a ship which sailed around the Mediterranean, stopping at two or three Italian ports before setting a course towards the north coast of Egypt.
In early November 1922, Howard Carter had cabled Lord Carnarvon believing he might have found a entrance to a tomb so Lord Carnarvon had quickly booked himself and his daughter Evelyn passage to Egypt. His wife Almina was feeling entirely rotten with dreadful toothache so had decided she was quite unfit to travel.
Lord Carnarvon always welcomed the warm dry weather of Egypt and enjoyed looking over the ship rails for the first glimpse of the white houses and mosques which marked the port of Alexandria.
As the ship slowly docked, the medley of colour, noise, donkeys and shouting of local men and boys was wonderfully present once more. The huge ship creaked and clanged as it went through the. process of docking, loud rending sounds more appropriate to a huge beast slowly sighing before ropes safely halted the forward movement.
Disembarking into the colourful noise Alexandria, Lord Carnarvon and Evelyn caught the train south to Cairo where they spent a night at the Continental Hotel, which he preferred to Shepheard’s – he enjoyed the peace of the garden square.
Fernside, his valet, had then organised a railway carriage down to Luxor and only two weeks after departing Highclere, Lord Carnarvon was being greeted on the platform of Luxor railway station by his old friend the Chief of Police and Howard Carter whilst Evelyn was offered bouquets of flowers. Jumping into a taxi, a little horse drawn carriage, they repaired to the Winter Palace Hotel.
Sitting down with Howard Carter with his favourite Turkish cigarettes and thick dark local coffee, Lord Carnarvon listened intently and was up at first light the following morning to cross the Nile and meet his awaiting donkey to travel the final few miles to the Valley of the Kings.
The rest of that visit to Egypt became one of the great newspaper sensations of the modern world and a pivotal moment in Egyptian history, when an Earl found a Pharaoh.