AKA: That time we went to Downton Abbey.
We saw all sorts of wonderful things on our honeymoon. The Churchill War Rooms, the Tower of London, Stonehenge, the Sherlock Holmes Museum, a play with Sîan Phillips…and yet, now that we’re back, every time someone asks us what we saw, the first thing out of my mouth is always “WE SAW DOWNTON ABBEY!”
Yeah, like fake-shouting. That’s how exciting it was.
I know it’s not really Downton Abbey. It’s actually Highclere Castle, owned by the Carnarvon family, with a fascinating history in their own right. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon worked tirelessly with the archaeologist Howard Carter to unearth King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923, only to die of blood poisoning a few months later. Family and staff suffered through both world wars, and the 6th Earl of Carnarvon’s life is littered with romantic entanglements and financial drama.
The story of the real Carnarvon family (members of whom still live in the house) does mirror the story of the fictional Crawley family in some ways. Almina, 5th Countess of Carnarvon, was a gifted nurse who opened the house as a hospital for recuperating soldiers during WWI. And the family struggled with financial difficulties, which required some creative thinking to turn the estate into a working stud.
After we visited the house, I blazed through Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey, the historical account of the 6th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. It’s a fascinating read, and I’d highly recommend it if you’re interested in the estate. It showed me just how much these old families of England are intertwined with their houses and estates.
And here’s where we get back to Highclere itself: for the estate is fascinating in its own right. Yes, it was absolutely amazing to wander through the house at our own pace, stopping in the book-lined library (it looks exactly like Lord Grantham’s library on the show) or peering into the room, upholstered in red, where poor Mr. Pamuk met his fate. I could imagine characters from the show walking down the corridor or peering down the stairs. But so could I imagine the real family living there, since the rooms were a mish-mash of historic furniture and modern books and appliances. Photographs of the real family were displayed on every surface, showing their love of history and each other.
The estate is no different: we wandered the grounds without paying attention to the time, stopping under arched hedges to escape the rain and hiking the fields that surround the house. Josh let me take a million photos (literally) of the follies and temples littered throughout the landscape. We had tea and pretended we were Very Refined.
For an afternoon, past and present, fiction and reality, collided in a beautiful, rambling exploration. And that’s exactly what we wanted.