Thursday, January 19, 2012

Downton Abbey (or, Highclere Castle in sheeps clothing)

By Karen V. Wasylowski

Unless you've lived under a log for the past year or so you will recognize this sweet little English house.  It is Highclere Castle, or as we Downton Heads like to call it - Downton Abbey.

The history of this family, as well as the house, is very well known.  It was the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon who financed the Howard Carter expedition into Egypt that resulted in the discovery of none other than King Tutankhamen's tomb.   The house itself, designed by Sir Charles Barry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament, is situated on one thousand beautiful acres, an area roughly the size of Central Park in New York and has been in the Carnarvon family since 1679. 

There are over two hundred rooms, fifty to eighty bedrooms, some cellars, a really keen gallery and, unfortunately, only one ladies room.  But isn't that always the way.

I thought I would dig up some other, lesser known, tidbits about the Abbey.  Like, why is it called an Abbey? Well, as many other of the great English Estate houses, "Highclere is on the site of a former ecclesiastical property. (When then-king Henry VIII turned against the Catholics in the 16th century, he appropriated lock, stock, and barrel.) Used by the bishops of Winchester in the 12th century, even now, it boasts a 'monks’ garden.'" Can a bingo  room be very far off?  (I'm beginning to sound like the Dowager Countess.)

Another fun fact - if there ever was a fire "the evacuation procedure from the upper floors would have resembled an emergency airline deplaning. The maids would have had to slide through tunnels of canvas spread over iron hoops, reports Tom Sykes in the Daily Beast. As such, the danger of getting caught up during escape was significant, and so in case of fire, maids were urged to don sweaters before popping into the chutes."  I would imagine the family could just walk out the doors.

The row of bells we see every week to summon the servants to various aristocratic bedrooms, or to the family parlor or the library or, well, to wherever it is servants need to go, each have individual tones, so that the servants could tell, without looking at the words over the bells, which of the family was summoning them and to where.  My husband believed this to be a brilliant idea and attempted to install a similar system within our own home. The fire is nearly out now.

This last fun fact is my favorite.  Apparently, in the Carnarvon family's never ending quest to meet the unbelievable expense of running a home of this size (can you imagine the heating bill alone?  Energy saving tip - seal off all but 199 rooms and get a space heater.) But I digress...where was I?  Oh yes, well it seems they would like to sell off a bit of the land, develop fringes of the estate.  Now you and I wouldn't think twice about unloading the extra lot next door to us, but these poor folk are forced to butt heads with their neighbor - Andrew Lloyd-Webber, or Baron Andrew Lloyd-Webber now.  Imagine the repercussions.

If my neighbor objects to a Walmart being built on land I sell, or the odd Starbucks, he would have to take me to court - I suppose.  I don't really know, not having anyone actually interested in either my house or my land.

The poor Carnarvons, however, are going mano a mano with another peer of the realm. Or should that be Peer?  Does the problem now go before Parliament?  Is Cameron to be informed?  Must Will and Kate be forced to take sides? Two hundred years ago they would settle it like gentlemen - bet the entire SHE-bang on one hand of Vingt-et-un, or better yet - a duel at dawn in Hyde Park.  Ooh, ooh, better yet again, a hundred year's before that someone would have lost their head, be drawn and quartered - or worse.  I'm nearly certain of my facts.  Well, one can dream can't one?

Today I believe the worst that may happen is this - either Andrew Lloyd-Webber's land will touch a housing development filled with upper middle class Mrs. Bucket's attempting to introduce their various and vocally challenged offspring to him.

Or...the Carnarvon's may be forced to listen to Evita.

Beheading is not sounding so darn bad now, is it?

Karen V. Wasylowski is the author of the Pride and Prejudice sequel, "Darcy and Fitzwilliam".

Featured in June 2011 by the Orange County California Register as one of six books
They selected for a "Great Summer Read"

(also may be read in Spring and during several
week-ends in Fall.  Contact a
physician for Winter reading)

Finally, please visit my blog, The League of British Artists, to catch the latest news regarding your favorite handsome British actors and - occasionally when we must so that we don't appear to be stalkers - actresses.   (You can buy Darcy and Fitzwilliam there too)  (Buy two.)


  1. That is hilarious about the land selling issue and the bells.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. The has been such an enjoyable post, thank you Karen. Of course, Downton Abbey has become one of few shows I watch on tv and I've added several books to wish list regarding Highclere Castle.

  3. Haha, Karen. You are too funny.
    Loved the history lesson here.
    One thing I always look at when watching a film is the background - meaning the shelving & furniture as well as the costuming. As a woodworker it fascinates me to see how they design a set and what type of pieces they use. And who doesn't like costumes?
    I notice in the clip with Tom & Sarah there is a Welch cupboard behind them. We had one exactly like that for sale in our shop. I didn't make it but it's fascinating all the same how some pieces are still in style. Same color & everything.

  4. Wonderful post! Enjoyed it very much, and the video as well. Thank you!

  5. Glad that you enjoyed the post. There are lots of us Downton Heads out there.


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