Highclere House - what is the story? Jo Carroll
A daughter took me to Highclere House recently - a belated birthday present. You might know it as the setting for Downton Abbey.
The family no longer live there: it is mostly used for weddings and as a place to stay for the hunting, shooting and racing fraternity (it's not far from Newbury racecourse). Open days are rare, and crowded - although that is carefully controlled in these Covid days.
The house, like most stately piles, is impressive. And visitors linger over well-known scenes - this is where Maggie Smith would sit, this is the main bedroom, these are the passages ... you get the idea. I confess I've watched it only once and so was in a minority of one when it came to admiring all the TV references.
And then, the house duly drooled over, there is a second exhibition, in the cellars. An afterthought, if you like, only for those who might be interested. About Lord Cardigan - That Lord Cardigan - the Lord Cardigan who funded Howard Carter and enabled the expeditions that led to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. He was a wild man, made money, lost money, was probably something of a black sheep at the time. But here, in the cellars, is a half-buried celebration of his life and astonishing discoveries. There are tiles, and pots, and glittery gold.
I understand that the link with a TV series might bring in the visitors. The house needs to earn its upkeep. But it has set me thinking about where the real story might lie. For me, Lord Cardigan - for all his unpredictability and eccentricity, was the story. Had he been a conventional Lord he is unlike to have funded a madcap venture into the Valley of the Kings. He would have fitted into Downton.
But why is he now stuck in the cellar? To replicate finding all these treasures underground? Or an afterthought?
I suppose we all bring our own interests and feelings when we visit any ancient monument or stately home. But should these homes not also surprise us? Teach us a thing or two? Or are they just for gawping at before we settle with a cream tea and then a look round the garden? Yes, Downton is part of the story of Highclere. But so is Lord Cardigan - and I want him to have his place in the sun alongside Maggie Smith.
Now there's a thought ... writing a script that pitches Maggie Smith meeting Lord Cardigan ... what fun that would be.