Highclere Castle was made famous across the world as Downton Abbey – and the money that it generated saved this beautiful country home for future generations. But they're still moving onwards in a post-Downton world, as Octavia Pollock explains.
There was a moment, listening to Kit & McConnel when I feared that the phrase ‘side-splittingly funny’ might become all too real. I have seldom laughed so hard or so continuously, and never has an hour flown by so fast.
The venue for this hilarity was the Saloon of Highclere Castle, possibly the most recognisable country house in the world. Less than a decade ago this Hampshire house was one of many great houses fallen on hard times, facing £12 million of repair bills with rot and crumbling masonry a serious problem.
But the juggernaut success of Downton Abbey, when its grounds and superb Victorian interiors were transformed into the home of the Crawley family, made all such concerns disappear.
Lord and Lady Carnarvon embraced the world of television stardom with aplomb – the latter once describing it as a ‘magic carpet ride’ – and the a regular income from filming was a godsend for the upkeep of such an historic house.
While the Crawleys have long since left, the Carnarvons are continuing to build on its success. There are everything from coachloads of tourists to evening parties and events – such as the cabaret, on which more later.
But the spectre of Downton still looms large: walking through the rooms of this house there reminders of the show scattered around, including a book recently published by Lady Carnarvon called At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey.
Highclere’s secluded setting, with nothing but fields and trees to be seen beyond its parkland, still comes as a delightful surprise. The huge Lebanon cedars and nail-clipped lawns are the perfect foil for the castle’s imposing skyline, lit, on the evening of the Royal Wedding, by clear golden sunlight. We toasted the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex in the library and drawing rooms, tucking into exquisite chicken mousse and venison in mini Yorkshire puddings as anticipation grew for the coming Cabaret.
Kit Hesketh-Harvey is familiar to all readers of Country Life as an amusing and moving writer, but he is, if anything, an even better cabaret performer. With James McConnel – his partner in comedy with whom he has a regular engagement at the Pheasantry in Chelsea – he raised the skylights of Charles Barry’s spectacular room with original songs on Pilates, Picking-Up (with apologies to the Royal Family) and Nando’s.
Both performers have confirmed musical credentials, as librettists and writers of musical scores, and McConnel’s piano riff on audience member Kiki’s name was genuinely beautiful. The finale, a rendition of Nessun Dorma in ‘Punjabi’ with audience participation, was hysterical, even if Kit’s introduction did leave several of us with blazing cheeks.
The cabaret was just one of a number of events planned that now take place at this once-struggling home. This summer alone there have been and will be special tours, an event celebrating Canada, Spitfires flying overhead during a ‘Battle Proms’ concert, and tributes to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, during which Highclere – like Downton Abbey – served as a hospital.
The latter event, taking place on September 8-9 and dubbed Heroes at Highclere, sounds particularly fascinating. An operating theatre and field hospital will be re-created to give a sense of what it was like at the time, with the hospital to take up station next to a modern version erected by Médecins Sans Frontières. Overhead, the Tiger-9 flying team will roar past while down on the lawns cream teas will be served as guests learn to dance the Charleston with the Gatsby Guys and Girls.
The event will raise money for various military charities, including Combat Stress, the Royal British Legion and the RAF Benevolent Fund, and, as Highclere proclaims, will ‘show the Dowager Countess of Grantham what a weekend really is’.
For full details of events and tickets, telephone 01635 253210 or visit www.highclerecastle.co.uk
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