I am among those eagerly watching the fourth season of “Downton Abbey” on PBS, which follows life in the family of the fictional Earl of Grantham, beginning with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. It is of special interest to me because a long time ago I had my own “Downton” experience.
The real-life location of Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle, a magnificent stately home owned by the Earl of Carnarvon. It’s in Newbury, about an hour’s train ride north of London.
In 1978, I was a young account executive in a public relations firm in Los Angeles. I had been called to a meeting to discuss the national promotion of “The Treasures of Tutankhamen,” underwritten by Exxon, one of our clients. I suggested locating the son of the fifth earl, who financed the search for King Tut’s tomb in 1921. Since I had spent many years in London and this was my idea, I was assigned the task.
That’s how I met the sixth Earl of Carnarvon. I called Highclere Castle and shortly afterwards was speaking to him. I asked if he’d be interested in helping with the promotion, which would start with a huge gala opening at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., then go to New York.
He invited me to call him by his nickname, “Porchey.” Porchey was short for Lord Porchester, which was his title before his father died and he became Lord Carnarvon.
In order to work with us, he set some conditions: that he be accompanied by his manservant, or valet, Robert Taylor, (I learned at Highclere that the character of Carson is modeled on Taylor, and that he and his wife were employed for 50 years at Highclere and given a home on the estate.); that he stay at the exclusive St. Regis Hotel in New York; and that he eat at the expensive Jockey Club, which he told me still boasted his horse-racing colors at the entrance. His taste ran to oysters and Dom Perignon.
As it turned out, Porchey could have been a character straight from the set of “Downton Abbey.” As master of Highclere Castle, he lived the life of the fictional “Lord Grantham” from 1923 to his death 64 years later in 1987.
He was born at Highclere and brought up by a French governess in that rarefied world of English nobility. His father became the stuff of legends when he died of septicemia resulting from a mosquito bite after he and Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb.
When I first met Porchey in Washington I was struck by his short stature, bulldog looks, upper-class politeness, and the presence of his personal manservant.
He led a colorful and exciting life. He was a page at King George V’s wedding . He went into the military after attending Eton but showed little interest in academics. As a soldier, he discovered his first love: horses. He rode on horseback to fight in the Mesopotamia Campaign and later served as a cavalry officer in India. He was a jockey, and for many years his son was in charge of the Queen’s racehorses. He told me he once visited Hearst Castle for a weekend, along with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable.
My visit to Highclere last fall
Fast-forward to present day. My husband, Steve, and I decided on a 30th wedding anniversary trip to England last September. We tried to book tickets to visit Highclere Castle, but they were sold out.
So I wrote to the present Lord Carnarvon, Porchey’s grandson. I did not include my phone number. To my surprise, the Carnarvon staff tracked me down, and within days I received a phone call from Highclere and a promise of tickets for any day during our visit.
On Sept. 11, 2013, we drove up the long beautiful driveway, and Highclere came into view. It was spectacular. The house stands starkly on the rise of a hill, surrounded by a blanket of green grass and dotted with trees. A pheasant strolled across the road in front of us.
We were warmly greeted by a member of the Carnarvon staff, a friendly, somewhat disheveled Scotsman, who stood with us in the foyer as the tourists filed by to pay their entrance fee.
We were treated to some behind-the-scenes-scoop on the cast: Dame Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) is driven home to London at the end of the day’s taping, Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora) stays at Essborne Manor (the quiet hotel where we stayed) and Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) sets up camp at the jovial Carnarvon Arms.
Photography was forbidden on the tour. “Downton Abbey” producers know that the real star of the show is Highclere Castle. The gift shop was packed with everything from mints to mugs to autographed copies of Lady Carnarvon’s most recent book. Anyone with big bucks can rent Highclere for a fairytale wedding. The price tag: $25,000.
The rooms most featured in “Downton Abbey” included the drawing room, dining room, library, and a couple of bedrooms that were surprisingly simple, with beautiful views of the grounds.
In the library there were leather-bound collections of dusty old books on horse racing and local flora and fauna, as well as silver-framed photos of family members; one that stood out was of Princess Diana, probably then at a christening.
As we left the grounds, I could hear Porchey’s often repeated invitation, “Darling Vicky, you ‘rah-lee’ must come and visit me at Highclere.”
I finally had.
Victoria Mulder was a guidebook editor/writer and public relations executive in London and Los Angeles before moving to Templeton 28 years ago. Her husband, Steve, is an anesthesiologist at Twin Cities Hospital.