Monday, November 13, 2017

VISITS: Highlights of Highclere Castle

Back in May, I provided a brief overview of this year’s UK trip, which centered around London and areas close by. One of our stops was at Highclere Castle, the home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, and the house made famous by the Downton Abbey TV Series. Thankfully, the great success of the show has increased the number of visitors over the years to such an extent that many needed repairs have been made. Ongoing restoration continues, and many educational and tourist programs have been added as well.

A little rain shower did not diminish my daughter's enthusiasm for the tour.
While perhaps not my first choice, I succumbed to the desires of my wife and daughter to go see the house, which I had first read about in Mark Girouard’s book, The Victorian Country House. Designed by architect Charles Barry, and featuring a park designed by Capability Brown. The 5,000-acre estate is in Hampshire, about 5 miles south of Newbury, Berkshire. Reportedly the original site of the home was recorded in the Domesday Book, and the first house was built on the foundations of the medieval palace of the Bishops of Winchester, who owned this estate from the 8th century. Highclere has been home to the Earls of Carnarvon and their forebears since 1679.

What was originally a mansion built in the classical style was totally redesigned by Barry in 1839–1842, during his construction of the Houses of Parliament. It was re-worked in a Jacobethan style, with some Italianate touches.

We visited on a dreary day marked by on-and-off drizzle and showers; upon arriving we discovered that our scheduled tour of the gardens had been cancelled as a result, but a substitute tour of the Egyptian artifacts and displays would be provided. This was fine by me, since ancient Egypt had always been an interest of mine, and we were all aware of the 5th Earl’s co-discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the legend of its curse.

I found the service wing at the rear of the house to be interesting as well.
We entered by the rear of the home for this tour, and I must note that the service part of the house at the rear is almost as interesting as the front. Built in an ancient-looking red brick, in a simpler, Tudor-inspired style, it welcomed us out of the rain and then down a long, dark hall toward the display rooms inside. We found the Egyptian displays fascinating—many were original and authentic, while most all the better-known examples were exact copies of the originals, which are now in museums.

After the tour, we made our way through the guest tea room and out to a large hospitality tent that was set up just behind the house. Here, with approximately 100 other visitors and guests, we were treated to a very nice box lunch as it continued to rain outside. Indeed, the event scheduling caused us to have a great deal of time to fill between the Egyptian display and our tour, which was to include a presentation covering Jane Austen’s association with the Highclere and the literature and popular culture of the early 19th century. Eventually we made our way back into the house, relaxed in the tea room briefly (with a beer) and then were called back out to the front door of the house for our tour.

We were ushered through the front door and into the soaring central hall of the house, which fans of the TV show would instantly recognize. It is a grand space, to be sure, but it also seemed smaller to me that I had expected, based on photographs I had seen. This did not diminish it in any way, as I found the scale to be more human and more comfortable anyway. We sat with a group of about 60 people and enjoyed the historical presentation, which was provided by Jane Austen scholars and two vocalists dressed in early 19th century garb, who sang a selection of period songs. Not my favorite period in terms of music, but it was highly enjoyable, just the same.

This was all followed by a tour of the principal rooms on the ground floor of the house, and a few bedrooms on the first floor. Apparently, we were asked not to take photos inside the house, as I could not find any on my phone. That said, the interiors—which would be immediately recognizable to fans of Downton Abbey, were all in fine form, and very impressive. We can all be thankful to the efforts of Lord and Lady Carnarvon in maintaining and restoring this fine example of Victorian architecture.

Visit Highclere / Information Here: [Official Site]

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