On Thursday 30th November 1922, “The Times” published the first article in what became the longest running news item ever. It covered the most sensational archaeological discovery made, not merely in the 20th century but possibly of all time – that of the intact tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun. Shortly afterwards, the international press began to arrive in Luxor in full force, even camping in the gardens of local hotels.
Lord Carnarvon threw a huge party at the Winter Palace Hotel to celebrate and congratulations poured in from all over the world. Pierre Lacau, the Director General of the Department of Antiquities in Egypt, wrote to Lord Carnarvon on behalf of the “Committee of Egyptologie” not only to congratulate him on the discovery but also to admire the rigorous and professional methods of conducting the excavation.
Writing my guidebooks about this extraordinary time in the life of Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon family, I often wondered how they coped and what it must have been like. Now I am finding out as, nearly one hundred years later, and for a very different reason, Highclere is again centre stage in a world media event – the launch of the Downton Abbey film.
Downton Abbey, the TV series, has been an extraordinary journey for us. It has captured the imagination of millions of people of all generations and now the film looks set to do the same. Husbands earn brownie points for booking tickets to go and see the film, friends plan to dress up and see it together and Downton Abbey tea parties, cocktail parties and dinners seem to be happening everywhere.
Last Monday we were lucky enough to go to the film premiere in London. Thanks to the kindness of the premiere sponsor, Viking Cruises, Diana (Highclere’s own Mrs Hughes), Luis (Highclere’s own Carson), Paul the Chef (Highclere’s own Mrs Patmore) and another Diana (Highclere’s head guide) came too. It was an amazing evening.
After the credits started, and the music began, the Castle came up on screen, golden, inspiring and reassuringly unchanged. Not that I am biased (of course) but it did, and does, look beautiful and, in fact, everybody cheered and clapped. It was a really wonderful moment which I shall always remember. Tonight, Geordie and I are again lucky to be going to the New York premiere.
There are two questions that I am often asked about living here, neither of which I have the perfect answer to. The first is why I think Downton is so successful. Personally, I think it strikes such a chord because it is the perfect combination of a nostalgic fantasy of the past combined with the story of a family and their household, with all the attendant dramas. It is about relationships, romance, beautiful clothes and ultimately happy endings. We can’t wait to see Maggie Smith and listen to her acerbic one-liners, the kind we all wish we had the wit, courage and presence of mind to utter in our own lives.
Highclere’s role, of course acting faultlessly as Downton Abbey, is that of a golden heritage, anchoring us to the past: a calm and ordered world apart in comparison to our more muddled times. The pace is more measured, less frenetic, giving time perhaps for a less hasty response to situations. Ninety years ago in the late 1920’s, in a world without mobile phones and emails, news, in this case the announcement of a Royal Visit, traveled by train and Royal Mail van, with a motorbike courier to the back door before it finally reached, via a footman bearing a silver salver, Lord Grantham.
The second question I am often asked is what is my favourite room in the Castle? Again I have no perfect answer. I love the magnificence of the Library, as does Geordie, and we both love the Saloon as it is the heart of the building. However, this weekend, I thought my favourite room was high up at the top of the tower, looking across the pinnacles and roofs, onto the magnificent cedars trees and past to the Temple of Diana. Out of the opposite window lies the tree clad Siddown Hill with the folly Heaven’s Gate at the top whilst, to the side, is Beacon Hill with its Iron Age fort where the 5th Earl of Carnarvon is buried. Who could ever tire of this, especially at this time of year when all the trees are turning?
I hope that as the Downton Abbey film rolls out through cinemas, it will have the success it deserves. It was a huge team effort led by writer Julian Fellowes, the production team under Gareth Neame and Liz Troubridge and all the actors and crew. It was, and is, an honour to be part of it.