Monday, July 20, 2015

Spending A Day at Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle, Bampton & Wolvercote

Thursday, July 16, 2015:
Hightailing it Off to Highclere Castle---and Bampton ---and Wolvercote, near Oxford!

            I have wanted to visit Highclere Castle for years—at least five years—and finally the day had dawned when we would make yet another dream come true! The sprawling estate is the setting of the fictional world of Downton Abbey to which Llew and I have become attached over the past five years. Occupied over the centuries by the families of the Earls of Carnavron, it became the preferred location site for the series because writer Julian Fellows happened to be a friend of the current Earl. After having successfully produced Gosford Park, set on another English country estate, he always hoped that his next venture would be set in Highclere. The opportunity presented itself when he launched Downton. No one ever dreamed it would become the runaway global megahit it became—but it has put Highclere Castle on the map and saved the ageing building from decline. Revenue that has poured in since the current aristocrats opened the doors of their home to the public is being ploughed back into the estate and I was pleased to be a party to its redemption.

            However, getting to Highclere Castle is a nightmare if you do not own a set of wheels. I had done a lot of research to try to find a way to get there by public coach from Victoria in London; but coaches go at odd hours and stop in faraway Newbury from where the tourist is expected to take a taxi to get to the estate. Furthermore, all available online tickets for the entire summer season had been sold out. I had entered into correspondence with the estate office and been informed that if I were to arrive at the Box Office by 10.00 am, there was a chance I could purchase a few of the “limited number of day tickets” that are made available for entry into the house no earlier than 2.00 pm. However, there were no guarantees—and the visitor arriving without a ticket takes his/her chances.  

            This was where my loyal and very accommodating friend Bash comes in. Over the years. readers of this blog would have become familiar with his name—for he has gamely chauffeured me to faraway reaches all over the English countryside—from Leeds and Hever Castles in Kent to Hidcote Manor Gardens in Oxfordshire and Wisley Royal Gardens outside London. Because he is an easy conversationalist, he is also charming company. While in the past we have taken driving excursions together, this time Llew would be joining us, of course. Bash also informed me that he would be bringing a friend with him—someone with whom he had just become acquainted. She turned out to be a woman named Chandrika and having awoken early, gulped down a cup of coffee, taken the Tube from Holborn in order to meet him in North London outside Northholt Tube station, it was here that we would meet both him and Chandrika.   

Driving to and Arriving in ‘Downton’:

            The drive to Highclere Castle took us approximately one and a half hours. It is clearly signposted after Newbury on the A34 and time flew swiftly as we discussed a number of topics. By the time we arrived at the Castle grounds, it was just before 10.00 am. Bash drove the car into the wide sweep of driveway leading to the main door from where we received our first glimpses of the lovely regal building comprising Highclere Castle designed by Charles Barry in the mid-1800s. If the spires that jut out of the turrets from the four corners of the main tower seem to you to resemble the Houses of Parliament in London, it is because Barry designed them too!

            While we were parking, the parking assistant assured us that there was no need to run—“there are loads of tickets”, he said. I was aghast. Why then had we been made to believe that they were near-impossible to get? Why are they not made available online? What’s the point of putting off a whole lot of visitors who might not be willing to take their chances? I was baffled.

            Anyway, we picked up tickets for 18 pounds each—they included access to the House, Gardens and the Special Exhibition on the Search For and the Finding Of the Tomb of Tutankhamun which had been accomplished by the Fifth Earl of Carnavron in 1922 through his patronage of the archaeologist Howard Carter. Having seen the entire collection of Tutankhamun treasures at the National Museum of Cairo in Egypt, a few years ago, we thought it would be terrific to revisit the hoard.

Visiting ‘Downtown Abbey’:

            As it turned out, our tickets were marked for a 10. 40 am entry. This meant that we were basically the second batch of visitors entering the Castle for the day. We queued up with a bunch of other guests at the main door (often featured in the series as the spot where visitors come in and leave to a reception or send-off from the entire Downstairs staff). Once inside the small foyer, we were ushered to the left and informed repeatedly that photography and videotaping is strictly prohibited in the House—outside one is free to take any number of pictures. This probably has to do with the fact that the current Earl and his family still continue to live at Highclere and the upstairs bedrooms are occupied by them and their guests year-round.

            The first room you enter is the “Double Library” that any fan of DA will instantly recognize. It is the spot at which Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is often seen attending to his business affairs, meeting with Chief of Staff Carson or bending down to stroke his yellow lab Isis. There are guides in each room ready, willing and able to answer questions and we asked several. Laminated handouts, also available in each room, provide details about the most significant decorative elements in the rooms—such as paintings above fireplaces, or embroidered panels (as we saw in the smaller library). The Larger room that comprises the library is equally interesting: architecturally and from the point of view of Downton locations. As Llew and I walked through the rooms at our leisure, we commented frequently on our recognition of special corners of the house. And as if to remind us continually that this is not Downton Abbey but actually Highclere Castle where a real, non-fictional family live, there are countless family pictures of the current Lord and Lady of the Manor and their children, pets and relatives scattered all over the house. The tour wound its way to the Living Room also seen frequently in the series as the spot where the ladies assemble over tea or coffee. It has beautiful soft green furnishings and a few significant paintings.  

            The tour continued up the stairs to the bedrooms that are located around one of the most interesting architectural features I have ever seen in a country manor—the quadrangular central balcony that wraps around the house internally, provides bedrooms on all fours sides and creates corridors through which occupants and servants can access these rooms. Bending down over the balcony, one sees the main Hall called the Salon, also a frequent setting in the series. We peeped into many bedrooms including ones used by the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) in the series and saw a number of bathrooms—some old, others modernized. Most of the rooms and their furnishing are in fabulous condition considering how much it must cost for the upkeep of such a home and its contents. We were allowed to move along at our leisure and at no point did we feel stressed or hurried. Crowds were great. Most are elderly viewers; most are English; most come to the spot on conducted tours that follow a course that goes through many of the neighboring sites of the series—not just Highclere Castle.

            When we finished viewing the upstairs bedrooms, we descended the beautiful stone staircase with its wooden balustrade.  The upstairs corridors, the bedrooms and the house in general seemed much smaller to me in real life than they do in the series. They also seemed much darker. It is clear that excellent professional lighting in the TV series makes them come alive in a way that is not possible in real life.

            Back on the ground floor, we paused at the Salon to take in the marble fireplaces, the furnishings, etc. and to view still more contemporary photos of the current owners. We then trooped into the last main room—the piece de resistance of the house, its Dining Room. This is where the Granthams are seen eating three times a day: buffet breakfasts, casual lunches, formal dinners. The dining table looked very small and we were informed that it comes with 12 leaves—that can be added depending on the number of diners and that a number of shield-back chairs can also be added at that stage. None of the chairs matched—which I thought was interesting. Of course, in this room, the single most arresting feature is the equestrian painting of King Charles I by Anthony Van Dyke which dominates one wall and is seen in most dining room shots in the series. Flanking it are other portraits by Van Dyke—of the two Stuart brothers, both Royalists who fought on the Cavalier side during the Civil War and ended up killed. There are many other important paintings in this room and we spent a great deal of time here.

 Viewing the Tutankhamun Exhibition at Highclere:

            Finally, because Bash and Chandrika chose not to buy tickets to the Egyptian exhibition, Llew and I made our way “Downstairs” to the labyrinth of corridors that contained the story of the discovery of the Treasures of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt—one of history’s most significant finds ever. We learned a lot about the interest in Egypt and in antiquities of the Fifth Earl of Carnavron who had almost given up looking for the Tomb when it was eventually found, quite by chance, just beneath the camp that historians and scholars had set up to find it! We also saw a reproduction of the famous gold and lapis mask of Tutankhamun (we had seen the stunning original in Cairo) as well as the key elements of the discovery: his golden throne, for instance. There were reproductions of the four alabaster Canopic jars containing organs of the young boy-king as well as information on the brass doors that once opened leading discoverers to the inner cavities until they eventually reached the sarcophagus of “King Tut” and found his Mummy concealed within three coffins made of wood, glass and gold respectively. It was truly a fabulous experience to see this all over again—and for anyone who does not have the chance to actually get to Cairo, I could not recommend this exhibition enough. Indeed if you do get to Highclere Castle, do not miss this exhibition—it is worth every cent.

            What this Exhibition taught us was about the mythology related to the Curse of Tutankhamun and its relation to Lord Carnavron. He died within two months (I believe) or soon after learning about the haul’s discovery—hence, although he knew about it before he died, he did not set eyes on its incredible treasures.  He did arrive in Egypt, reached the site in the Valley of the Kings and had a brief glimpse through a keyhole (literally! that is brilliantly reproduced at the Exhibition) of the treasures that lay within. However, shortly afterwards, he was bitten by a mosquito on his right cheek. The bite became aggravated by his morning shaving routine causing an infection that refused to heal. He died shortly after of septisemia—setting in motion the myth of the Mummy’s Curse. What I learned at the exhibition was that the bite on his cheek occurred at the exact spot where the gold plating covering the Mask of Tutankhamun is at its thinnest!  Also interesting is that all the lights suddenly went off in the city of Cairo at precisely the moment when Lord Carnavron died and that his dog in the UK dropped dead quite mysteriously at the same time that his Master died in Egypt. It had the hairs on the back of my neck stand upright!

Lunch at Highclere Castle Tea Rooms:

            By this time, we were famished and ready to eat a horse. It is interesting that there are no period kitchens in this home. They have been modernized a long time ago as the venue is often chosen for weddings, banquets, receptions, etc. Hence, all “Downstairs” scenes in the series are shot on studio sets at Ealing Studios in West London.

            There are, however, very functional kitchens at Highclere that serve the hungry traveler today. Adjoining it is a cozy tea room for traditional cream teas or light lunches. Bash and Chandrika had already eaten by the time we arrived to join them. Llew and I chose the Beef Pasty and the Chicken Breast respectively served with roast potatoes, boiled carrots and peas. It was good hearty English fare and quite tasty for that.

 A Saunter in Highclere’s Gardens:

            Then, because it was still not quite 1.00 pm by this stage we went for a long walkabout on the lawns of the property that comprise the gardens. Set in 1,000 acres of sweeping parkland, the grounds were landscaped by the famed English landscape designer Sir Lancelot “Capability” Brown who introduced the ‘natutral’ aesthetic to English outdoor design. He is responsible for creating the concept of sheep grazing on lawns visible from upstairs windows—and there were loads of sheep dotted all over Highclere’s grounds—in order to introduce the bucolic touch to the surroundings. To prevent sheep from straying too close to the main door, he built a moat called a ‘haha’ into which they would fall and be unable to dig themselves out if they ventured into it. Hence, the soft undulating park spread all around us was his concept.

Dotting this spreading estate are “follies”—and there are 12 on this estate—small architectural curiosities often built in the style of foreign lands to represent fanciful homes from exotic realms. Hence, these are often domed and minareted as in the Islamic vein or pillared and pedimented as in Greek Neo-Classical style. There is also a lovely large screen in the Drawing Room at Highclere comprising paintings of all 12 follies on the property—many of these follies are visible from the windows of the house as one take the tour—hence, it is as important while touring the house to keep peering through the windows outside to take them in as many are perched high on the hills surrounding the house.

            At one of the most accessible follies (nearest the house) built in Greek Neo-Classical style, we joined groups of people who posed for pictures with the house in the background. This is the extent of ‘gardens’ one will find here. There are no herbaceous borders or profuse beds or rose gardens or flower gardens at all. It is merely a walking or strolling garden—the kind in which aristocratic 18th century ladies preferred to stroll so as to avoid any interaction with the hoi polloi.

 Off to Bampton in Oxfordshire:

            With so much time on our hands and the day shaping up so beautifully as one of those stunning summer ones in England often do, it was only logical that we would use it to drive to Bampton, the tiny Oxfordshire village that is the real-life location for the fictional village of Downton in the series. Supposed to be in Yorkshire somewhere between the towns of Ripon and Thirsk (which are, in turn,  the real-life world of yet another famed British TV series—All Creatures Great and Small), this village is actually much lower south in Oxfordshire and is now firmly on the tourist map—thanks to the popularity of Downton Abbey.

            It took us about an hour to get there from Highclere for without a GPS (or SatNav as it is known in the UK), it is well-nigh impossible to find anything in the countryside unless you have superb directions. We were fortunate to find two people who knew exactly what they were talking about and who led us directly to the little village on the edge of the Cotswolds.

            It is easy to see why filming takes place in this village—first of all, it seems untouched by the hands of time. It is one of those timeless places that could have been built centuries ago—although, truth be told, I noticed that most of the structures were built of the honey-toned Cotswold stone at the turn of the 20th century and dated from about 1901 to 1910. Secondly, when the light hits these stone walls, the façade seems to acquire a gilded patina which makes for quite brilliant TV backdrops.

            Chandrika chose not to do the Walking Tour with us and Bash chose to keep her company in a pub. Llew and I found our way directly to the Bampton Community Center which is housed in the village Library Building. This building serves as Downton Hospital in the TV series and many of the outdoor scenes associated with Isobel Crawley and her relationship with the tall, handsome doctor, are shot here at the entrance under a very cute stone archway. Inside the building, there is Downton memorabilia—for as their sign clearly points out, there is no Downton Abbey Memorabilia at Highclere Castle—just Highclere trinkets. Here there are keychains, magnets, mugs, postcards and photos to be purchased, but, most useful of all, you can buy a Downton Abbey map for 50p that takes you to all the locations in the village that were used in the series.

            To see all the sites, you need to give it at least two hours: After photographing the Library (Downton’s Hospital), we strolled next door to the house that is used as Matthew and Isobel Crawley’s residence in the series. It has a high wall and a gate surrounding it that prevents anyone venturing into it, but the façade is clearly familiar to fans of the series. Again, we took many pictures at this venue.

            Just next door, in a small traffic island that comprises this area, is the current St. Mary’s Church (renamed as The Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Downton). We walked into the arched stone entrance and up to the church door and then made our way for a spiritual visit to the front. It is at this church altar that Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary are married in the show. Someone was hard at work changing the flower arrangements when we got there and apart from a group of three female visitors, also taking the tour, there was no one in sight.

            Outside in the church yard, where in the series Matthew Crawley is buried, there was a group of noisy American high school kids on a school trip. Their chatter broke the age-old silence of the space but it also contributed some tourist vitality to it. Following the map down Church View Road, we saw the little houses that double up as pubs—The Grantham Arms and The Dog and Duck—in the series. We also entered into conversation with a very friendly man who lives on the same street who shared interesting snippets with us about incidents associated with the shooting. “They’ve been at it for five years now,” he said, “and we have grown accustomed to them.” He told us that The Dog and Duck Pub is a house that belongs to his friend whose exteriors and interiors feature in the film—she gets paid a few hundred pounds for each shooting session, he said. He also told us that the village garbage stand outside her home is converted into a red pillar post box when shooting is on—“they merely place a red pillar box dummy directly over the bin,” he explained, “but people had no idea and actually started posting their mail in there! They had to put a notice informing people that it was not a real post box.”

            So up and down the village we walked—we were charmed not just by its Downton connections but also by the unhurried, calm pace of life in these villages that have always held a particular fascination for me—for at least thirty years when I had first been introduced to Oxfordshire’s Cotswold villages while at Oxford. Gardens spill over with flowers—there are hollyhocks higher than my height, roses cling to aged walls, cats sit in sunny windows watching passers-by, dogs bark indoors or prance in the front. There is not a car to be seen in some of the side streets—time literally does stand still.

            When we found Bash and Chandrika they were in the local pub on the main street. We badly needed a cup of tea at this time and went in search of a tea room, but the only one to be found had shut a half hour previously. I came up with the idea of driving to Oxford--not too far away. It was about 5.00 pm by this time and Bash was afraid we’d hit traffic big time. He was pleased to make the detour to avoid the highway rush hour. Again, winding roads that went past the sweetest little Cotswold villages led us within spitting distance of Oxford.

 Dinner at The Trout Inn in Wolvercote:

            But that was when Bash and Chandrika decided to make a detour to Wolvercote to skirt the university town and avoid traffic altogether. Bash had his heart set on dining at The Trout Inn—legendary gastropub in Wolvercote, a few miles outside of Oxford, where we had once dined together and where I have dined on several occasions with different friends. Using instinct, I was able to guide Bash to The Trout and on parking his car, we entered the place at a time when it was still almost empty—it was about 6.00 pm. This gave us pick of the spots at the waterside for the pub is located on the banks of the Isis (a branch of the Thames) at the spot where a weir tumbles water into the river creating a very picturesque backdrop for diners.

We were seated at a table for four and decided to order. Both Llew and I chose the King Prawn, Crab and Chorizo Linguine and it was just so darn good that I have resolved to try to reproduce it at home soon. Chandrika, a vegetarian, chose the deep-fried halloumi while Bash had the beef burger and we all pronounced our meal superb. For dessert, I got the Sticky Toffee Pudding with Warm Custard which I only ever eat when I am in the UK while Llew had the Belgian-Chocolate Brownie with Vanilla Ice-Cream. In the distance, I could see one of the dreaming spires of Oxford—the steeple of a former church now housing the Science Center. I had the terrible feeling of being so near and yet so far. But we had lingered over our meal and our drinks (local beer for me) far too long and Chandrika realized at 7. 30 pm that she had a long way to go to reach home in South London.

We hastily made our retreat from the restaurant but not before we paused on the bridge above the weir to take in the sights of the Oxford Tow Path curving towards the city at Godstow Lock where the ruins of Godstow Nunnery still stand—they formed the setting for one of the famed Inspector Morse Mysteries that I adore.

            We got back into our car and raced homewards—alas, without passing through one of my favorite cities in the world. So near and yet so far, I thought, as I had hoped we would at least drive down The High and take in the illuminated college buildings. Still, it was only a small disappointment in a very fulfilling day and we were absolutely delighted with the unexpected twists and turns (literally!) that it had taken to bring us into some of our fondest TV locations.

            Bash was kind enough to drive us all the way into the city and it was at King’s Cross that we alighted to hop into a bus that took us right opposite our building at the corner of Gray’s Inn Road within 10 minutes. Our hosts were already asleep when we crept in at about 10. 30 pm after an amazing day.

            Until tomorrow, cheerio!  



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