Arrive at the front door of the Castle and walk inside into the large central room. In Downton Abbey it is called the Great Hall but in reality, at Highclere, it is called the Saloon. From films and fiction, the name would seem to imply a wild west bar but, whilst we do in fact sometimes set up a bar in it, there is no need for Stetsons or gun holsters. Instead, it is a table covered in starched white linen on which there are some promising cocktails, wines and mixers.
In fact, the word Saloon is derived from the French word “le salon”. It is a reference to the procession of rooms leading through a grand house and perhaps also alludes to the shape of the older medieval house which stood here with its procession of rooms around courts.
This arrangement of rooms and their attendant names, along with the use of French as the language of the English court, is a legacy of the influence of the French court and the English aristocracy’s perception of its sophistication. Versailles is obviously on a vastly different and spectacular scale to Highclere – not just a home but the palace of a king but linked to us, however indirectly, by “le salon”. Versailles has a whole series of salons, named for ancient Gods and heroes, along with antechambers, “chambres” and “cabinets”. The last rooms were the innermost sanctum and still give modern government functions their name. A world heritage site, Versailles is more than just a palace with processional staircases and grand halls: it was also a centre of government. The rooms were rearranged and renamed as the palace developed but very few visitors were ever allowed to enter the bed chamber or the privy chamber. Likewise, those in the UK cabinet or Privy council are closest to the seat of power.
Moving through the Saloon in the Castle you could choose to go into the Drawing Room, which of course is not a room you can draw in. It is perhaps the withdrawing room into which the family could invite a guest for some privacy. Next door is the Smoking Room but you most certainly are not allowed to smoke in there. I cannot really change the name now but in the past, it has been changed a few times. Once it was a breakfast room, later it became a billiard room and then it became the room in which the 5thEarl of Carnarvon kept his collection of Egyptian antiquities.
In the south east corner of the Castle is the Music room but it is far too small for a concert or even for a small group to practice in together. However, it is charming and decorative and a perfect dining room for when we only have six or ten guests. The Saloon is far better for concerts with really quite good acoustics and plenty of space for an audience.
When we are open to visitors, we cannot offer any food or drink in the Castle so the Dining Room can only be admired, not used and, since we are not a hotel, it not possible to sleep in the bedrooms. In fact, even the building’s name is a misnomer. Highclere Castle is most certainly not an ancient fortified stone building – the word castle was simply used as a reference to its size and decorative style.
In fact, originally, Sir Charles Barry, the architect who created this latest version of Highclere, called it a palace.
Looking further, there are more muddles when Highclere is playing its role as Downton Abbey. As a traditional English estate, shooting to us implies a gamekeeper and discussion about the number of pheasants and partridges. To the film crew, it is cameras and crew, actors and props. In addition, as they have done in the past, they may be shooting a scene about what they call hunting when in fact they are talking about shooting. And all the while they are surrounded everywhere by signs saying photography is not permitted.
It is all part of the rich tapestry of life here at Highclere and really – does it matter?
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” (Shakespeare)