I am sure you will have read in the newspapers over the last week, of the great fire that is set to blaze through “Downton Abbey” in the opening episode.
We had obviously been aware of this story line when they were filming it here, and careful with what we could achieve here and what could be achieved in Ealing Studios, as Highclere Castle has suffered enough of its own fires.
The first one was 150 years ago in the North Library, if you look closely at the gilded ceiling when you are watching the TV series you will see that it is far less ornate than the main Library.
The second fire I wrote about in the book “Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey”. It happened in the 1930’s, this time in the rooms just above the Library. When the fire broke out the servants were alerted by the night-watchman, Stratford, who would patrol the Castle with his faithful dog. Three bedrooms were gutted and luckily no-one was hurt. There were fire hoses on each floor fed by a hydrant circuit around the gravel of the Castle as well buckets of sand, all of which still remains in place today and you can spot on visits.
The fortunate outcome from the fire was that the insurance monies paid for the electrics in the Castle to be completely overhauled at a grand cost of £130.00 and Lord Carnarvon’s sister, Eve, was able to redecorated those bedrooms in that corner of the Castle.
The threat of fire has always been taken seriously at the Castle and we practise today with the local fire engines and teams. My Nanny (she first came to our family when I was 5 years old) loves to be here if there is a practice. She is straight out to admire the men in uniform!
Exploring the higher floors of the Castle, one of my favourite artefacts to show my friends are the old fire escape chutes. You fixed the metal frame inside the window, then threw the canvas chute down to the lawn where two men had to hold it taut. Then down you went through the fabric held as a tunnel by intermittent metal rings. The secret was to wear thick clothes and keep you elbows in.
Catherine and Porcheys’ niece, Patricia, still regales me with stories of how she and her cousin were made to practise the evacuation. They have all survived….