Almost Downton Abbey
Highclere Castle’s owners have turned a gatehouse into a country retreat
“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.
Clockwise from above, the main gate; aerial view of London Lodge; living room and cosy bedroom