You can always rely on a taxi driver to set the scene when you arrive in a new place. On route to a press day at Highclere Castle I discovered Hugh Bonneville, of Downton Abbey fame had also sat in my cab, a rescue mission by my driver, after he refused to be driven a mile further by the reckless driver who had picked him up in London. As well as Hugh, hoards of Australian, Japanese and American tourists had also sat in the back of the same cab. One woman from New York flew in and out in a day, just to see Highclere, after managing to purchase a ticket for the castle online; pre booked tickets sell out fast, but there are also limited tickets available on the door.
As we left the main road, the vast swathes of land the castle inhabits came into view and my taxi driver told me about the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb. As we rounded the bend and the castle appeared, my driver told me that one car load of young girls actually screamed at this point. I felt like a disappointing passenger, the view was incredible, but I wasn’t sure when to admit that I have never watched Downton Abbey, which was filmed here. It slipped out later, when I was chatting to the 8th Earl of Carnarvon about Egyptian relics over scones and tea.
I wonder, 300 years after his birth, what England’s best known gardener, Capability Brown would make of this modern day reverence for the castle he so beautifully landscaped and scene set for? Part of Highclere’s appeal is as a set for Downton Abbey, but I was also fascinated by the Egyptian connection, and the stunning landscape.
The castle was closed to the public on the day of my visit, so I bid goodbye to the taxi driver and walked the path to the castle door completely alone and in awe of the silence and stature of the building as it loomed from behind a cedar tree. I approached the gigantic door, crept past the dragons and wished the door wasn’t already ajar so I could pretend I was in a horror movie rapping nervously on the gothic door knockers.
Inside, the staff were bright and breezy, a far cry from the servants of Downton Abbey, and I soon spotted Lady Carnarvon milling among journalists enjoying coffee and pastries in the dining room. We were welcomed into the saloon, where Lady C entertained us with stories of living in this landscape and the trials of restoring the house and gardens, with much friendly banter between her and the team who help to run the castle.
Since Downton Abbey, the castle’s fortunes have dramatically improved and much needed restorations have been undertaken inside and out. Academic garden history experts like Professor Timothy Mowl and Dr Kate Felus have helped to unravel the layers created by Capability Brown. Managing the landscape in the same way Capability Brown intended allows visitors to see the castle at its best and is perfect for wildlife, clearing excess growth has encouraged many species to return.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, designed gardens at some of the country’s greatest stately homes including Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth and Highclere, so it is fascinating to see his plans for the garden on display.
Highclere Castle is an great place to understand his intentions. Kate pointed out the stunning views of the castle and other landmarks that Capability Brown sculpted in the landscape. We stopped along the drive way and suddenly from behind an ancient cedar tree we saw the castle. We must have looked a strange sight, a group of journalists popping out from behind a tree, playing Capability Brown ‘Peepoo’ by popping out from behind a tree to rewind and replay the dramatic entrance of the castle.
We soon learnt that Capability wasn’t his real name, it was Lancealot, but Capability grew as a nickname – although never to his face – for the man who like to announce, on seeing a new piece of land that it ‘had capabilities’.
We learnt his secrets, what looks like natural rolling countryside, a green and pleasant land, is in Tim’s words actually an ‘artificial landscape which has been designed to look natural’, and therein lies Mr Brown’s incredible technical skill. He would dig great holes in ornamental flat lawns in order to create the impression of rolling land, land that young visitors love to roll in.
Below this rolling landscape which surrounds the house, the Carnarvon’s have planted a wildflower meadow and beyond that, and out of view, a more sheltered, walled, formal garden area, so the overall effect seems very natural – stunning trees, rolling green fields and lakes. Lady C was very happy to show us round, telling stories of swimming in the lake, rolling in the grass with her son as a toddler and picnics at Heaven’s Gate folly, a listed building in itself, and pointing out trees planted in memory of George’s Aunt and her Mother.
Lady C also has her own blog and has written fiction and non fiction based on the castle. It is always lovely to meet another blogger – I loved this account of a previous press day with a slight hitch at the castle, I love the behind the scenes accounts.
The landscape was structured to bring focus to follies and structures like Jackdaw’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate and the Tower. These are places for family and guests, and now visitors to the castle, to eat and play. Taking photos I became suddenly aware that standing beside certain trees shaped my view of these wonderful follies and buildings – Capability’s work is very intentional.
Kate explains that Capability Brown described how he would ‘punctuate the landscape’ with trees – even the colour of bark was designed to create ‘aerial perspective’, with trees placed to move down the garden from dark dark to light. Lady C pointed out trees that have been planted in the ‘wrong place’, unravelling Mr Brown’s intentions hundreds of years later is a complex puzzle of joining together maps, plans, letters and expert knowledge of his intentions.
I enjoyed looking over his shoulder…
At the tower we stopped to look down, across to the castle and the lake.
Tim explained that Capability Brown insisted the bends in the lake had to have have the straightest edges, such precision was necessary to create the ‘effect’ of a natural lake. Kate explained how boats on the lake were described in letters as ‘pretty moving summerhouses’ and would have been an important focal point.
I was fascinated when Kate explained that in Capability Brown’s time, houses like Highclere would have still operated on a medieval system of hospitality. All kinds of friends and family would come to stay, treating the place rather like a hotel and enjoying lavish social gatherings organised by the Lady of the castle. The tower with its kitchen and bedroom was a private place for for the castle owners to retreat from ‘hotel’ life.
Afternoon tea was the perfect way to end the morning, a selection of finger sandwiches, a demitasse of pea soup and selection of mouthwatering cakes. During lunch the 8th Earl of Carnarvon sat down next to me, he had lots of stories to share. So, I will be back next week with more stories, a little sneak inside the castle, lots of lovely interior shots, and a Homes Q&A with Lord and Lady Carnavon for all you Downton fans and fellow house fantasists!
Images 1,2,3 © Highclere Castle, all others © Penny Alexander