Recently I was invited to Highclere Castle, with Visit England, to explore the Capability Brown gardens with Lord and Lady Carnavon, to see the Egyptian Museum and tour the house which was featured on Downton Abbey. In my last post on Highclere I had just sat down for afternoon tea to find the 8th Earl of Carnarvon sat down next to me, so over the course of the day, I even managed to sneak in some of the A Residence Home Q&A questions…
Lady Fiona Carnarvon, or Lady C as she is often referred to, describes her style as a calming palette of blues and greens, she explains ‘shades of green are so fragile, we take nature’s palette for granted’. She aims to bring out the grandeur in the house, but relax the landscape outdoors, this is very much in keeping with Capability Brown’s intentions when he drew up his plans for Highclere’s landscape in 1770. There are so many layers to unravel in the castle and garden, decisions are made slowly and carefully and informed by academics and experts.
Pat Withers has been responsible for decorating the house for 60 years, starting when she was 14 or 15. There are contemporary portraits and photographs everywhere, alongside traditional family portraits. Book clad doors, silk wallpaper given as a wedding dowry, bohemian Victorian glass chandeliers, shell frames, silk embroidered panels – every decision requires copious understanding of the castle’s history.
What is your favourite ritual at home?
Lady C loves walking the dogs down to Red Pools in the morning or taking a dip in the lake when the castle has closed to visitors. The Earl says he will never tire of taking in the views.
Lady C says they also love to picnic in the grounds, that one of the incredible aspects of living at Highclere, which she sees as a huge privilege, is being able to experiment, with settings, dining especially. Lunch might be in the music room, drinks in the tower, a picnic at Heaven’s Gate, there is always fun in trying new things. Although she confesses the family have managed lunch in the temple only once in ten years.
What does home mean to you?
Lady C stresses that while Downton captures life indoors, life for the family at Highclere is very much about being outdoors and appreciating the incredible landscape sculpted by Capability Brown. She jokes as she shows us round the gardens that when no one is looking she loved to roll with her son when he was small, on the gentle rolling slopes Capability Brown introduced all those years ago to break up the formal landscape of Britain’s stately homes and castles.
Can you tell me any interesting facts or stories about your house’s history?
The 8th Earl, or Geordie as his wife affectionately refers to him, sits down next to me over lunch and tells our table many stories of the house’s history, as we sit down for finger sandwiches and cakes. His great Grandmother turned Highclere into a war hospital with Kitchner’s permission. His great grandfather discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, the house has an Egyptian exhibitor which tells the story and includes many incredible replica objects. The Earl gives us an inpromptu tour of the exhibition – I was mind blown, imagine having such a discovery in the family. I loved the peep holes into the tomb, recreating the tomb just as Lord Carnarvon would have first seen the tomb.
What is your most treasured object and why?
The couple’s most treasured objects are varied, family portraits and photographs are clearly an important part of sharing the family legacy with visitors. Letters and archive materials have enabled the couple to build up accurate pictures of Highclere’s history which Lady C has developed into fascinating books, guides and articles, including Capability Brown’s original maps.
A schist dish, a dish used by Egyptian priests in rituals dates back to 3rd century BC and you can sense the thrill and reverence in Lady’s C’s voice as she describes holding it briefly before placing it in the museum. There are so many windows into the past at Highclere…a book her sister found in the library details trees and the landscape in the early 17th century.
What is your earliest memory of ‘home’?
When we first arrived for the day, Lord Carnarvon described cycling between his home and the castle as a boy, when Highclere belonged to his Grandfather, to visit this man who he was both in awe of and slightly intimidated by. He would often stop to admire the long views of the castle. Having heard his stories of his grandparent’s lives later in the day over afternoon tea, I had a real sense of how arriving at the castle must have felt to a small boy.
Maintaining a castle in this day and age takes tremendous ‘capabilities’, from decades during wartime where it became a hospital, to more recent years where years of post war austerity had pushed it towards ruin, to today when it is a thriving tourist attraction thanks to Downton Abbey, the Egyptian Museum, events and Capability Brown’s landscaping. It was fascinating to be given an insight into all that maintaining a castle involves by Lord and Lady Carnarvon.
I will be back next week with a photo full house tour for all you Downton fans and house fantasy lovers.
Photos copyright of Highclere Castle, with the exception of image 4 Penny Alexander.