The first of the coaches arrived for this week’s tours and lectures and slowly backed into its parking place. The sign above the driver said “Downton Abbey”. They meant, of course, Highclere Castle but they also did mean Downton Abbey even though that is a fictional persona. The question often is where does fiction end and reality begin or vice versa.
Unlike many purpose built film sets, Highclere is very real. It is a building you can touch and experience and, above all, a much loved home. The elegant and historic Carlton house desk on display in the Library is part of Highclere’s heritage but it is also where Hugh Bonneville, acting as Lord Grantham, sat. In reality, it is quite possible that maybe Disraeli, Lord Salisbury or Sir George Etienne Cartier also sat there to write a letter on one of their visits to Highclere. In the same way, Henry James, another visitor, might have penned a few lines. I myself have written the odd thank you letter sitting at it.
After my father in law died, Geordie and I would often wake up in the middle of the night and I would make mugs of tea whilst we discussed and turned over what Highclere Castle was, or could be, during our “life tenancy”. With five sisters and a history of sprawling family lunches and holidays, my life has always been about people: sharing, eating, walking and sitting down together. For me, it has always been experiences and conversations which draw us together and which create the best memories.
On the back of what is now a number of years of experience, Highclere seeks to offer visitors a variety of different choices and options, both in terms of budget and experience. The joy of a house like Highclere is that it has so much real history to draw on as well as more modern uses like film and television. Of course on public opening days you see the grounds and buildings, but our smaller tours can be more entertaining or educational and we can share and build memories of the scenes of Downton or remember history’s real characters and with D-Day in mind, for example General Patton, who had lunch here.
Taxi and coach drivers often join in and add to the anticipation by playing the Downton Abbey music as they wend their way through the park towards the entrance – a moment of escapism before you see for yourself the balance and aesthetic beauty of the building.
In theatres and on large panoramic screens, the Downton Abbey film premieres in September. By contrast, I thought we could offer a different, more personal experience of Highclere via a series of guided autumn tours so that each visitor and guest feels part of the journey, interweaving the real and fictional stories of the Castle. The bedrooms, for example, played several roles over the series, from the unexpected death of the Young Turk, to that of Sybil or William, and later of babies being born and conversations around the dressing table. Equally, in reality they have housed the famous and well known faces from past and present. Highclere is not just splendid but cosy and comfortable. I hope the reality, the sense of welcome is a complement to the world of social media or screen.
Autumn leads into our Christmas experiences, afternoon tea and workshops again providing real ways of sharing. The concept of participation is also at the heart of my new book about Christmas at Highclere. The beautiful photographs are, on the one hand, almost elemental and grounded in the world of nature and on the other, are full of people and life. Scattered throughout the book are questions from the quiz games we play for fun here after supper. It is again about participation and enjoying this very special world.
In the end though, whatever success the Castle has, is above all due to the engagement and kindness of the team here from John the Castle Manager and Simon on the farm, spiraling along to all the others here who put so much thought and effort into the events here.