The Countess of Carnarvon, who lives at Downton Abbey also known as Highclere Castle, finds delight and humour in the people who inhabit her world.
The joy of living and working at Highclere is fuelled by the diverse collection of people, some of whom have been here for almost 60 years. Every day is marked with laughter. We are all very aware of our own sense of the ridiculous.
Luis, Highclere’s butler, has a tendency, in the temporary absence of a formal guide, to conducts Castle tours in his own inimitable style. Unsuspecting victims are shown entrances to tunnels, which he says run all the way to Newbury (6 miles away), paintings by “Van Cabbage” and a large silver platter, which I apparently won at Wimbledon.
Once, catching a train from Newbury to London with my PA Louise, I left her on the platform for a minute to look for a second-class carriage with spaces. She came running in consternation saying they were all first class – what should we do? It was not true of course: simply the fact that the train line is called “First Great Western” and those words were painted on every carriage. I laughed until I cried – as did she – it was a splendid start to the day.
Don, one of our inimitable gardeners, has been here nearly 50 years. He has so many stories. One of my favourites is about my husband’s grandfather who one day decided to pick some flowers. Since it was raining, he took his car and drove down the gravel footpaths to the walled Monks’ Garden. Aiming for the gate, he failed to realise his car was far too wide and scraped noisily through the entrance onto the lawn leaving bumpers and trim behind whilst Don watched in safety from behind a hedge.
Undeterred, Lord Carnarvon hopped out and started cutting roses before calling for Don or one of the other gardeners to drive the car back. They all, respectfully, refused, citing fear of Missen, the chauffeur, in case any further mishaps occur. So Lord Carnarvon had another go and, of course, got stuck. Missen found out and was so furious with Lord Carnarvon, shouting and calling him every name he could think of.
Like any wife I find it simpler not to tell my husband Geordie every small detail. He seemed to like brick walls painted in cream gloss paint – just as his father and grandfather had. I decided that they would be much more charming if they were stripped back to the original brick and allowed to breathe. So I experimented with some scaffolding at one tall end of the Castle courtyard.
That afternoon, a tremendous noise and stream of water mixed with red brick began. Geordie strode out of his office demanding to know what was going on and where was I. Pat the painter called my mobile “I take it you have not told His Lordship about the paint stripping?” she said. I confirmed that I had not and asked how he was taking it. “Not very well – I am hiding behind a kitchen wall” replied Pat.” Everyone has taken cover”. “Excellent plan, Pat – stay there and let’s give him half an hour and it will get better”.
Highclere Castle’s manager John has been at the helm with us for perhaps ten years and his incorrigible sense of humour is unique and much valued, particularly when disasters loom. Asking him a simple question about the bottom passage (corridor) and its condition leads to digressions and unceasing laughter within about a minute. He is very fond of donning wellington boots and you only need to mention a water leak and he is off to his fully equipped car, which seems to be ready for all possible emergencies. He has about 100 photos of puddles and leaks on his phone, which must be thrilling for his family.
The gift shop girls, whose totalled age would exceed that of the Castle (and therefore, according to the IT manager cannot really be called girls) recently attended a manual-handling course. You only have to enquire of their experiences of the day for gales of laughter from the ladies, most of whom are retired but who thoroughly enjoy their part time jobs in the summer. Part of this involves a certain degree of health and safety in the workplace. Once, Sally, their boss in the gift shop, promptly mended her reading glasses with superglue but prematurely balanced them on her nose which glued them in place. Unable to drive home as she could see not see from the fumes of the glue, one of her gift shop elves, acted as chauffeur.
Highclere matters to us and Geordie and I care enormously for our home, a building which, fundamentally, was not really designed for 21 century living. We, and the people we work with, live and love our life here together but it is often the laughter that really makes it all so fun.