England 2014 (2) – Lacock and Highclere Castle

Conveniently, Lacock and Highclere, aka Downton Abbey, were almost on the way to Steventon, Hampshire, perfect for a little detour.

Lackcock

16 miles east of Bath, Lacock is a 13th century village and quaintly, it stands as it has been for eons. Not surprisingly, many period films had been shot there, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Cranford, to name a few.

The village center is essentially a couple of blocks around Church Street, West Street, East Street and High Street. Strolling through and marveling at the historic buildings, you can’t help but wonder about the history of each of them and what kind of stories each would tell. And then I thought what if the cars weren’t allowed into that area. Wouldn’t it have been more atmospheric if they were horse drawn carriages instead? I had the same wistful thought about Bath’s town center. They both reminded me of Sarlat, which is a beautiful medieval town in France where cars are not allowed into its historic center, and it was magical, especially at night when there were not crowds of people around.

It is fascinating how religion had been a dominating part of lives in England; you’d find a church everywhere, in every village. Lacock’s St Syriac Church is on the east end of Church Street, a Church of England church founded in the 14th century by local landowners.

Less than a mile east of the village center is Lacock Abbey, and that is Lacock’s miracle. Lacock Abbey was founded in 13th century by Ela, countess of Sainsbury, as a nunnery. During the Dissolution in 16th century it was however appropriated and sold by Henry VIII to William Sharington, Abbey, estate and village. All was later passed into the Talbot family by marriage and eventually Fox Talbot, the photography pioneer, but everything is now owned by National Trust.

Surrounded by a 280 acre estate and its wood land, the abbey is a world of its own. Some alteration was made to the abbey, the abbey church was demolished and some rooms were added, but, among others, the medieval cloister and chapter house have survived unchanged and thereby its monastic root. All and all, the abbey is a beautiful building. Bearing with it architecture of the bygone days and vicissitudes of history that’s been almost 800 years in the making, it is simply magical. It is one of those places you would expect to see in movies like Harry Potter. And indeed it is; some Harry Potter films were shot at the abbey.

Lacock Abbey cloister

Lacock Abbey cloister


Lacock Abbey cloister

Lacock Abbey cloister


Lacock Abbey

Lacock Abbey


Lacock village bakery

Lacock village bakery


Lacock High Street

Lacock High Street

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle is 60 miles from Lacock and about 20 miles to Steventon. You can get tour tickets in advance from their website which tend to sell out quickly but don’t let that discourage you. According to the website, there are always walk-in available when it is open. Check website for details. Highclere Castle’s opening days for 2014 were Aug. 6th to Sep. 17th; we were there in the nick of time, Sep. 15th. I had tried to get advance tickets online but they sold out, luckily, walk-in did work.

The approach road is long and you drive by sheep and cows in paddocks, getting an inkling of the expanse of the estate ground, a cool 5,000 acres. The house itself stands on a hilltop, surrounded by an open view of gentle hills and green woods, and Temple of Diana on one side.

Downton Abbey is as grand and imposing as ever in its rich golden façade and you just can’t help but be drawn to the details on its exterior, elaborate and beautiful stone carvings. Rooms on the ground floor, drawing room, library, dining room, state room and the salon, etc. are stunning, opulent and sumptuous. They are beautiful on screen but much more so off, quite exceeding my expectation. After all, QEII often visited the castle until the 7th earl died in 2001, who was the Queen’s racing manager and one of her great friends. There are some photos in the gallery of the Queen at horse races, and in one of them, she appears greatly excited and animated, not an average photo of the Queen you’d see. Next we got to see some bedrooms upstairs, which are very fine rooms but seem a bit flat in comparison to the ground floor. The Gallery is just as splendid as it is on screen. Photo taking is not allowed inside the house.

Throughout the tour, you pick up some history of Highclere Castle; you see many photos and portraits of the current earl – 8th Earl of Carnarvon, countess, their children, including ones from the earl’s former marriage and ones from the current countess, and those of the former generations. You won’t forget it is Downton Abbey either; the bedrooms on display are marked as Lady Grantham’s room or Lady Mary’s room where Mr. Pamuk dies, etc. An interesting mix of reality and make-believe, and that is probably what we should take way with us.

The 5th earl was an enthusiastic Egyptologist and sponsored excavation of some Egyptian noble tombs in early 1900s. There was an Egyptian exhibit available when we were there, for an extra charge.

Highclere Castle will reopen to the public for several days in Dec. to host events for charities and tickets according to its website are already sold out.

Downton Abbey Season 5 started in UK on Sep 21 when we were in London. I could see it with a click of the TV remote. I debated, part of me wanted to see it and part of me did not like the idea of starting it and having to wait for a few more months to see the rest of the season. What happened was that we had a busy day and came back too late for it anyway.

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle


Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle


Temple of Diana

Temple of Diana


Front Entrance

Front Entrance


Garden

Garden

“You Live in Light”

A Downton Abbey fan, I started Daisy Goodwin’s American Heiress with a keen curiosity. Coincidentally our heroine, the American Heiress, is also named Cora and a contemporary of Lady Cora. With Lady Cora’s vision flashing up every now and then, I plunged into Miss Cora Cash’s quite adventurous journey.

An American Heiress at the end of 19th century, “the richest girl in the world”, Cora Cash is ushered to England by her Ambitious mother, Mrs. Cash, and thereby starts the hunt for a tilted husband. Serendipitously, Cora falls, literally, into the hands of Duke of Wareham, by way of a riding accident. Without any of the anticipated lengthy, bitter and sweet courtship, they are engaged within a week’s time. Despite a few setbacks, they are married as planned and their wedding in Newport, Rhode Island of America is a tremendous sensation.

The real tests, trials and tribulations come after Cora starts her life as Duchess of Wareham and Chatelaine of Lulworth estate. As Cora braves on in her new life, she finds herself very much at odds with those around her, including her husband and mother in law.

Although not the first novel capturing that intriguing phenomena of American money marrying English titles, I find the juxtaposition and contrasting of the free New World and the quaint Old World as portrayed in American Heiress fascinating.

In the older days, marrying for love was obviously not an aristocratic aspiration while social climbing and preserving family title, wealth and power at all cost were more of the accepted norms. As a result, many lived a life rife with intrigue and betrayal. Underneath the calm and elegant veneer there were often lies, secrets, repressed feelings, twisted spirits and in many cases cruelty. Although Jane Austen brought the idea of marrying for love front and center early 19th century, it was however much later that it began to resonate and take hold.

Mrs. Cash does indeed aspire to buy her way into higher society as mother-in-law of an English duke, or even of a prince, if she could have managed it. Cora Cash however actually marries for love and she thinks her husband wants her too besides her money. And little she imagines the treacherous web of foreign sense and value ahead. Lucky for Miss Cora Cash, things work out. Besides the money, it is her way. It is because, as her husband puts it, she lives in light and she alone can wipe away all the shadows for him.

It is a pleasurable read and quite an education on the fashion of the days. And it turns out American Heiress can pass perfectly as a prequel for Downton Abbey.