Thursday 18 December 2014

No, you can't actually stay at Downton Abbey

There's a rather misleading headline on which claims that you can now stay at the stately home where Downton Abbey is filmed. That's Highclere Castle, near Newbury, and it's instantly recognisable now to millions of TV viewers all around the world.

What you can actually do, as the story goes on to explain, is stay in a renovated self-catering farm cottage on the grounds, which is hardly the same thing as dining beneath the huge Van Dyck portrait of Charles I, sitting at Napoleon's desk in the library and then climbing the stairs overlooking the saloon with its hand-painted leather wallpaper before bedding down in Lady Mary's four-poster. Even Lord and Lady Carnarvon, the current custodians, don't sleep there much, though when I was there a couple of years ago, some of the bedrooms did look quite lived-in, with books and jars of pills on the bedside tables.

Fiona, Lady Carnarvon, is the driving force behind the commercialisation of the castle, necessarily so because when they inherited it, it was sadly run down, and I understand the upper floor is even now not habitable because of damp and decay. She initiated its opening to the public, and listing it as a wedding venue (Katie Price was married there, and George Clooney considered it), but the real money started rolling in once it was used as the location for the TV series. That was the original intention of the writer, Julian Fellowes, who she told me is a family friend and a long-time and frequent visitor to Highclere.

As stately homes go, it's no Blenheim Palace, but the smaller scale makes it more accessible, and it does have its unique attractions, such as all the Tutankhamen relics in the cellar collected by the fifth Earl, who funded and accompanied Howard Carter's expedition to discover the pharaoh's tomb. And now, being so familiar, inside and out, to Downton fans, it has an extra appeal that will last for ages. So good for Fiona: she's a bit scary, but her single-minded authority and energy are just what's needed to save the castle.

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