Inside the real Downton Abbey
There are portraits by Joshua Reynolds, a looming Van Dyk masterpiece in the dining room, and renderings of bloodied swans and peacocks. Young earls in waiting, painted in silk suits and lace collars, survey the whole affair with tight, serious faces.
In the double-room library, pedimented bookcases house more than 5600 volumes and on display are myriad photos of the royal family on casual visits to Highclere. This vast chamber is where Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham discusses the workings of the house with his head butler. A random peek at one bookshelf reveals aristocratic sporting tomes with titles such as The Art of Wildfowling, Famous Fox Hunters and Letters to Young Shooters.
In the men’s smoking room, with its worn leather lounge suite and faded tangerine walls, the ceiling has always been plainly painted, a room attendant tells me, because of the damaging effects of nicotine as the gentlemen withdrew after dinner to puff away and waffle over whiskies. By contrast, the airy drawing room, preserve of the ladies, is lined with French spring green silk and features displays of 18th-century bird-patterned Meissen china.
It’s easy to imagine Maggie Smith, who plays Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, sitting upright in the chintzy morning room, forever on the verge of a biting comment. Certain pivotal scenes take place in the bedrooms off the first-floor gallery. Apparently many Downton Abbey fans want to see ‘‘the red one’’ (the rosecoloured Stanhope Bedroom) in which the fetching Turkish diplomat Mr Pamuk’s body is laid out after his heart attack while trysting in Lady Mary’s bed.
The Mercia Bedroom, one of four linked chambers along the south side of the house, is perhaps the prettiest (used by Cora, the Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey) but the Carnarvons prefer the frontfacing Herbert Bedroom, which is linked to the library below by a spiral staircase; shoes, make-up and bedside books are in evidence (Lady Carnarvon appears to be reading Jane Austen).
The gardens, spread across more than 400ha, are a delight, with wildflower meadows, yewarched walkways, an avenue of beeches, and plantings of figs and crabapples. A folly on the east lawn makes a lovely vantage point to survey the park, designed in 1774 by Capability Brown with his trademark uninterrupted vistas.
Clearly the Carnarvons are grateful to family friend Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton
Lord and Lady Carnarvon