Al­most Down­ton Abbey

High­clere Cas­tle’s own­ers have turned a gatehouse into a coun­try retreat

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - BEN MACIN­TYRE

“CAR­SON, my good man,” I said as I alighted from the Rolls in front of Down­ton Abbey. “Take my lug­gage to the Fel­lowes Suite, and tell Lady Mary I shall meet in her in the Blue Li­brary.”

“Of course, sir,” said Car­son the but­ler, bow­ing with the ob­se­quious­ness that only gen­er­a­tions of sub­servience and a hugely suc­cess­ful tele­vi­sion se­ries can in­stil. OK, it wasn’t quite like that. You can­not ac­tu­ally stay in Down­ton Abbey. Nor, un­less you hap­pen to be chums with the 8th Earl of Carnar­von, can you stay in High­clere Cas­tle, the vast pile where the Down­ton Abbey se­ries is filmed.

You can stay, how­ever, in the newly ren­o­vated 18th­cen­tury High­clere gate lodge, an im­pos­ing stone arch­way that stands at one of the six drive­ways into the great Berk­shire es­tate. Stay­ing at Lon­don Lodge is the clos­est most of us could ever get to ac­tu­ally be­ing in Down­ton Abbey, but it is dif­fer­ent in sev­eral im­por­tant re­spects. It is smaller, hav­ing only one bed­room, whereas High­clere Cas­tle has 61; it is also, I sus­pect, a lot warmer. You do your own cooking. And there aren’t peo­ple rush­ing up and down stairs all the time shout­ing: “Mrs Pat­more’s got drunk and fallen in the con­somme!”

On the 95km drive from Lon­don, I prac­tised be­ing Lord Gran­tham. “You see a mil­lion bricks that may crum­ble, a thou­sand gut­ters and pipes that may block and leak, and stone that will crack in the frost … I see my life’s work.”

We pulled up and parked along­side the arch, a beau­ti­ful ex­am­ple of slightly point­less Ge­or­gian self-con­grat­u­la­tion, built in Coade stone by the 1st Earl of Carnar­von to cel­e­brate be­com­ing a peer in 1793. I cel­e­brated be­ing a peer for the evening by al­low­ing my wife to carry in the suit­case.

Lon­don Lodge is re­ally two lodges (added in about 1840) on ei­ther side of the arch: on one side is the bed­room and bath­room; on the other, the sit­ting room and kitchen. A wel­com­ing fire was wait­ing in the wood-burning stove; the fridge was filled with good things to eat and a chilled bot­tle of cham­pagne; the bed was large and fluffy; the shower, power. This was luxury of the 21st-cen­tury sort: DIY down­sized Down­ton, a self-cater­ing cottage un­like any other.

The in­te­ri­ors have been fur­nished and dec­o­rated in sub­dued but el­e­gant good taste. With its cus­tom-made wooden shut­ters and sim­ple but com­fort­able fur­nish­ings, it is a world away from the heavy ta­pes­tries and gloomy damask of Down­ton. I have never been in­side a space so in­ten­sively themed, cour­tesy of the High­clere Cas­tle gift shop. There are High­clere bis­cuits, soap, mar­malade, oven gloves, tea tow­els, honey, an apron and scented can­dles. The book­shelves con­tain two books about pre­vi­ous chate­laines of High­clere, writ­ten by the present countess, promis­ing an in­sight into “the real Down­ton”.

Once oc­cu­pied by es­tate work­ers, the lodges had all but van­ished un­der ivy and moss when the Carnar­vons set about ren­o­vat­ing. The roof had fallen in and the place was sod­den with damp. Two-and-a-half years and more than £500,000 later, the re­sult is a small but im­pres­sive feat of sym­pa­thetic restora­tion.

If the Down­ton im­age is all starch and for­mal­ity, dress­ing for din­ner and us­ing the right fork, then Lon­don Lodge is the re­verse, de­lib­er­ately ca­sual and re­laxed. You can call ahead to say what you would like in the fridge for din­ner and the front door opens into the bed­room, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a door­mat in­side the room. (Mrs Hughes would have a fit.) There is high-speed WiFi and a tele­vi­sion.

The two wings of the lodge are con­nected by a stone path, which means a faintly com­i­cal mid­night dash from one side to the other when it is time for bed, and the two doors open us­ing the same key card — surely a recipe for Down­ton- style drama as guests lock them­selves out, naked, and have to sum­mon some­one from be­low stairs (namely the nearby work­ers’ cot­tages) to let them in again. All of which sug­gests to me that while hap­pily ex­ploit­ing the Down­ton theme, Lon­don Lodge is also de­lib­er­ately sub­vert­ing some of the pom­pos­ity of the genre.

High­clere is about 1.5km away, up a long drive­way through park­land dot­ted with cedars of Le­banon and pic­turesque sheep. The next morn­ing we have cof­fee at High­clere with Fiona, Countess Carnar­von, who is cheery and amus­ing and seems likely, at any mo­ment, to sug­gest a game of lacrosse. We meet in a small drawing room favoured, we are told, by Maggie Smith when the Dowager Lady Gran­tham needs to get away from the younger and nois­ier cast mem­bers.

The countess at­tacks a fried egg sand­wich, eyed by an op­ti­mistic dog, while ex­plain­ing that the theme of Lon­don Lodge was in­tended to be “com­fort and calm”.

“Nor­mally when you stay some­where you im­me­di­ately start to won­der about room ser­vice or what­ever. I wanted peo­ple to ar­rive and find things they like wait­ing for them,” she ex­plains. Down­ton Abbey has trans­formed the life and for­tunes of High­clere Cas­tle, which opens to the public for be­tween 60 and 70 days a year but could fill it­self year-round with avid Down­ton fans.

“The first time we opened af­ter the se­ries started in the US there were 2000 peo­ple at the gate want­ing to get in,” says Lady Carnar­von. Then there are the wed­dings and, of course, the film­ing of the se­ries which, like the aris­toc­racy it­self, seems to roll on, un­chang­ing, for­ever.

There is no down­stairs in High­clere; or rather, what was once the ser­vants’ area and kitchen has been turned into a mu­seum cel­e­brat­ing the arche­o­log­i­cal achieve­ments of the 5th Earl, the backer of the Tu­tankhamen ex­pe­di­tion. When char­ac­ters in the tele­vi­sion se­ries go down­stairs, they ac­tu­ally reap­pear on a set in Eal­ing.

Af­ter a quick tour we bid farewell to the countess, grab the oblig­a­tory selfie in front of High­clere, wan­der around the de­light­ful gar­dens, then tot­ter back down the drive into our snug arch for a sec­ond break­fast.

Given the choice be­tween a mil­lion bricks and a warm lodge on the edge of the es­tate, I know where I would rather spend the night.

THE TIMES

Clock­wise from above, the main gate; aerial view of Lon­don Lodge; living room and cosy bed­room

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