Part Twelve: Highclere Castle, continued
Highclere Castle, continued
I asked the Earl how he feels about the Downton project. Is it, on the whole, a positive thing for Highclere? Will the tour buses filled with Downton fans be overwhelming? Will it be difficult to display this storied family home as a film set where the fictitious characters of Downton engender more interest that the lives of his ancestors? The Earl doesn’t answer my questions directly. I can sense that the answer is a complicated one.
Over an after-dinner brandy in the library, he might be willing to share his thoughts, but now is not the time.
Off to one side of the saloon is the great oak staircase, and I conjure up the scenes in Downton where the servants parade up and down, silhouetted against the luminescent gothic windows. Ginny asks if we can see the kitchen where the “downstairs” part of Downton is filmed. “Those scenes aren’t filmed here, actually. They are shot at a studio in London.”
“What I can do,” the Earl continues,” is take you downstairs and show you the Egyptian exhibit, if you’re interested.” The Earl is referring to an exhibit that tells the story of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon’s sixteen-year partnership with the archeologist Howard Carter that culminated in the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. We eagerly accept the Earl’s offer and descend to the cellar. The displays, designed by the Earl and Countess themselves, feature actual and replica artifacts from the King Tut excavation, as well as others that the 5th Earl financed. The Earl pauses before each display and speaks with real knowledge and obvious pride about each of his great-grandfather’s discoveries. Ginny asks if he has ever visited Egypt. “Yes, many times,” he says. We come to a brightly lit case displaying a replica of the gold Death Mask of King Tut. Having seen the real thing up close, I am amazed at how convincing the replica is. Sadly, the 5th Earl never got to see the mask. While he was shaving not long after the tomb’s Grand Opening in 1923, he nicked a mosquito bite, contracted septicemia and died. The Earl’s death gave rise to the “curse of the mummy” legend still in circulation. The razor used by the Earl on that fateful day is part of the exhibit.
We return to the main floor, where I expect to say our farewells. Instead, the Earl ushers us back into the library, where his staff is setting out a traditional English tea. We gather around the table and help ourselves to steaming tea and cucumber sandwiches. Suddenly the Countess appears. Like the Earl, she is causal in dress and manner. She welcomes us warmly and invites us to sit on one of the plush red sofas. She pulls up a chair and eagerly chats with us while the Earl and Seren talk separately.
Coming up next: A visit with Lady Carnarvon